I read an article today discussing whether “role player” still have a role in the NHL today. A significant part of the discussion revolved around Erik Karlsson, whether he is a good defensive player, and essentially whether it mattered. Former offensive NHL defenseman Brian Leetch discussed Karlsson’s play and that overall he contributes everything a team could ask of him.
“It’s a game of mistakes. Something’s going to go wrong out there and that goes for every player,” he continued. “But the amount of things [Karlsson] does right and the amount of things he does to impact his team in a positive way is ideal. That is just such an easy thing to say about someone that’s putting up offensive numbers, but when you watch him play on a regular basis, everything he does is what any team wants a defenseman to do.”
The article continues on with how the league is moving away from defensive role players to players that can play an all round puck possession game. It is an an interesting discussion but it offered no numbers to support the discussion. Being a numbers guy so I decided to investigate Karlsson’s impact and whether (and how much) his offensive ability offset his defensive liability. Here are the Ottawa Senators 5v5 GA/60 statistics over the past 3 seasons (so far this season and previous two).
- With Karlsson on the ice: 2.60
- Without Karlsson on the ice: 2.17
Wow. When Karlsson is on the ice Senators opponents have scored at a rate nearly 20% higher than when Karlsson is on the bench. He has a net impact on GA/60 of -0.43 (0.43 goals/60 worse with Karlsson on the ice).
Of course Karlsson generates a lot of offense too. Does his offense make up for his defense?
- With Karlsson on the ice: 2.67
- Without Karlsson on the ice: 2.07
Ok, not so bad. The Senators score at a rate 29% higher with Karlsson than without. His net goals for impact is +0.6 (0.6 goals/60 better) which gives him a net goal differential impact is +0.17 goals/60. He is a net positive overall but not a huge amount.
How does this compare to some other top defensemen? Let’s have a look.
Subban has the highest net positive GF60 impact but also the worst negative impact on GA60. Karlsson is next best in GF60 impact but also next worst in GA60 impact. Of all these players Doughty is the only one with a positive impact on goals against, albeit only slightly positive, while Phaneuf was even and Weber only marginally negative.
Ranked by overall impact we have Subban, Keith, Phaneuf, Doughty, Karlsson and Weber.
Now this is a pretty high level analysis and doesn’t fully take into account quality of team mates each play with (only quality of team) but I think offers a good first look at the players impact on their teams performance. There is no doubt about it. Karlsson is an elite offensive talent but it also seems clear that there is a cost defensively. Same for P.K. Subban. Would the Senators and Canadiens be better off if Karlsson and Subban let up a little bit on their offense and focused a little more on defense? We can’t know for sure but I think it is a fair question to ask.