Evaluating defensive ability

A short while ago I aksed the question of who the best defensive defensemen in the NHL are to my twitter followers and it became clear to me that I am not certain people really know how to evaluate players defensive ability. I’ll explore that further in a bit but first here are some of the answers I received.

  • Vlasic
  • Seabrook
  • Chara
  • Muzzin
  • Fayne
  • Giordano
  • Stralman
  • Andy Greene
  • Rozsival
  • Paul Martin
  • Shea Weber
  • Hjalmarsson
  • Phillips
  • and probably a few more I missed

It also spawned a lot of talk about corsi%, CorsiRel and players CF% with and without certain players. This really dumbfounds me because I find CF% an odd way of evaluating players defensive ability because CF% mixes both corsi for and corsi against stats. It’s kind of like using +/- as a defensive stat when at least half of what goes into +/- is offensive ability.

So, how might I go about evaluating players defensively? Well, one thing I might do is look at a players CA60 RelTM for the past few seasons in 5v5close situations. For defensemen with 1000 5v5close minutes over the last three seasons the leaders in CA60RelTM are Muzzin, Brodie, Stralman, Timonen, and Orlov. The  worst are Doug Murray, Klesla, J. Schultz, Butler and Phaneuf.

Here is the thing though. I believe that defenders (at least some of them) are able to impact their goalies save percentage so I personally think that CA60RelTM is probably not a completely evaluating defensive ability. If we looked at GA60RelTM instead the top defensemen are Doug Hamilton, Bryce Salvador, Matt Niskanen, Sheldon Brookbank, and TJ Brodie while the worst are Schultz, Klesla, Brenden Dillon, Giordano and Tyson Barrie.

Of course I would also want to consider players who play against top offensive opponents and there I would look at guys who play against the best GF60 players on average. The players with the toughest GF60 opponents the past 3 seasons are Phaneuf, Weber, Girardi, McDonagh and Ekman-Larsson while the defensemen with the weakest GF60 opponents the past 3 seasons are Kindl, Meszaros, Sbisa, Engelland and Rozsival.

This is not very scientific because I just did this in about 15 minutes but I filtered all defensemen who had an opponent GF60 higher than 2.25 to get the defensemen with the toughest QoC. I then took all defensemen with a CA60RelTM below -3.0 and also GA60RelTM below -0.2. This gave me 10 defensemen who might worthy of consideration for being among the top defensemen defensively.

  • Brodie
  • Hjalmarsson
  • Brodin
  • Tanev
  • Vlasek
  • Michalek
  • Enstrom
  • Campbell
  • Ekman-Larsson
  • Oduya

Agree? Disagree?

If I take out the GA60RelTM restriction Muzzin, Timonen, Subban, Braun, Doughty, Fayne, Goligoski, Giordano, Andy Greene, and Chara get added into the mix.

If we apply all the restrictions to forwards we get the following 19 players:

  • D. Sedin
  • H. Sedin
  • P. Bergeron
  • C. Perry
  • B. Marchand
  • M. Koivu
  • A. Ponikarovsky
  • A. Kopitar
  • A. Burrows
  • T. Zajac
  • B. Dubinsky
  • D. Backes
  • M. Backlund
  • D. Moss
  • A. Steen
  • A. Hemsky
  • G. Landenskog
  • C. MacArthur
  • M. Hossa

Agree? Disagree? Clearly some players are there as a line effect (Sedin/Sedin/Burrows, Steen/Backes, etc.) but generally speaking I’d consider most of those guys quality 2-way players.

This is in no way meant to be a definitive guide to evaluating players defensive ability but was meant more as a preliminary exercise to see what people think.