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Where is it most important to be elite? Part II: Defense

They aren’t who we thought they were! They are still on the hook.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the second in a series that takes a look at the league’s offensive, defensive, and goaltending team units to determine:

- Which play drives success? Offense, Defense, or Goaltending?

- Do elite players drive the elite play?

Today, we’re going to check out the defenses.

Let’s rehash the ground rules:

First, all statistics and metrics used are based on 5v5 play. Obviously, power play and penalty kill units are important, but they are called ‘special teams’ for a reason and I wanted to focus on full strength play.

Second, all statistics and metrics are from Natural Stat Trick. Different sites have different formulas, so I stuck to NST for consistency’s sake. I am not placing any numerical weight on one metric over another. So there is a bit of subjectivity to this. However, nothing outrageous. I value High Danger chances more than Medium Danger, for example. Here’s a Glossary of the metrics I used.

Third! We are focusing on regular season play only. Success, therefore, is measured by how a team does in the regular season standings.

Cuatro, I have set the bar at “elite” to mean being in the Top 5 in a given metric or statistic. I don’t remember what color ribbon we received for 6th place during field day in grade school, but I have none to give out. I think they were green.

Fifth and last. Teams are assigned a reverse order numeric value. 1st place in CF is 8 points, 2nd is 7 pts, etc.

If you’d like to start comparing and contrasting with the elite offenses, you can check out the ‘Offense’ article.

Ready? Vamos.

Which teams have Elite Defenses?

Now we’re moving towards more familiar ground. Whereas the offenses split between generating shots or scoring goals, I expect that there will not be such a split with the defensive play. This time, I asked Pale Dragon and Swift which teams they thought were the defensive elites. The list included: New York Islanders, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, and Dallas Stars. That list seemed pretty complete to me and I don’t figure to get a lot of surprises.

For defensive play, there are far fewer metrics to look at than offensive play. Since defenses are primarily tasked with limiting scoring chances and shots on goal, my list of 10 metrics are split into:

- General shot metrics – CA, FA, SA, xGA

- High Danger Situation metrics – HDCA, HDCA/60, HDSA

- Medium Danger Situation metrics – MDCA, MDCA/60, MDSA

General Shot Metrics

The first group of four metrics are heavily influenced by the number, location, and type of shots that a team takes. For offenses, we looked to see who could generate more. For defenses, we want to see who allows the fewest.

General Shot Suppressors

GS
GS
Calgary Flames
Boston Bruins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Minnesota Wild

The first list of five teams yields a couple of expected names and some that may not have been viewed as highly. Boston and San Jose have some of the premier names in the NHL – no surprise that a team with Karlsson and Burns would help control the opposition’s scoring chances. Boston has been a good defensive team for a long time. This also shows that maybe it wasn’t the St. Louis defense that needed Binnington to bail them out this season.

One surprise? Toronto was a Worst 5 defense in this space. I knew that they didn’t have stellar defensive stats, but I didn’t think they’d be scraping the bottom of the league. Perhaps a Toronto fan wouldn’t be surprised, though.

Over the last three seasons, the list includes the same 4 of the 5 teams with Tampa Bay’s defense sliding into Minnesota’s spot. Boston has had the best defense during this span. The worst? Toronto! What the heck do they need Marner for? Jarmo will send you Harrington and a 1st to bolster that sieve of a unit!

The other surprise here? Our Blue Jackets. The CBJ ended barely in the top half of the league. This wasn’t helped by an xGA that ranked 19th. That’s the good news, such as it is. The bad news is that this past season was the best defensive performance of the last three years. Over the last three seasons, Columbus has been in the bottom half of the league. It’s the top of the bottom half…but still, the bottom half. This isn’t helped by an xGA that ranked 24th(!!) in the league.

High Danger Situation Metrics

The expectation is that any defense worth it’s salt will be able to reduce and/or control an opponent’s high danger chances. A goalie has to stop the puck, but it is the defensive play that limits the need for a goalie to have to do so.

High Danger Defense

HD
HD
Minnesota Wild
Boston Bruins
St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knighs
New Jersey Devils

The Minnesota Wild’s defensive play was particularly impressive here. That defensive unit was best in the league in all three high danger metrics. Boston and St. Louis are the other regulars. I was surprised to not see the Islanders here as I figured that their defensive play went a long way towards helping their goalie tandem to new heights last season.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks were in the Worst 5. This is interesting for the Caps since they show up on our elite offense list. It’s interesting for the Ducks because it’s just a reminder of how little help John Gibson received last season.

Over the past three seasons, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Boston ruled the roost.

Then we look at the Blue Jackets and I start to wonder if there isn’t something strange about the Emperor’s clothes. Again, the best season of the past three with a Top 10 finish in HDCA/60 but the team also came in at 20th for HDSA. That’s not a good look. The CBJ goalies had plenty of opportunity to practice saving close range shots. Over the last three seasons…painful. Columbus was a Bottom 10 team in high danger situations—20th in HDCA, 20th in HDCA/60, and 25th in HDSA. Have we glossed over this as fans? Were we so used to seeing the CBJ goalies make numerous saves on the doorstep and figured that’s how it was for all teams? Savvy’s flop defense may not actually work? I’m verklempt!

Medium Danger Situation Metrics

As with the offense, medium danger situations are less numerous and lead to fewer goals in general, but one certainly doesn’t want to see a team give up too many shots from the slot.

Medium Danger Defense

MD
MD
Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks
Carolina Hurricanes
Boston Bruins
Florida Panthers

What’s a visual echo? Rey in that cave looking at herself in infinity? The list of defenses is like that. Minnesota and Boston – again. The Wild made it 6 for 6 in leading the league in situational metrics. San Jose reappears and Carolina decides to show up for giggles.

So does Toronto! As the worst team in the league. Anaheim’s defense also returns to remind us that Gibson needs to be playing on a new team.

The last three seasons numbers are the same – Boston, Minnesota, Carolina lead the way.

Columbus lands at about the same area for medium danger situations as they did for high danger. Above average for chances but subpar (18th) in MDSA. The team just gave up a lot of shots. On the bright side, over the last three seasons, the CBJ land in the Top 15 for all medium danger metrics.

Conclusions

It was pretty clear to me who the top 4 defenses were last season – Boston Bruins, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, and St. Louis Blues. Since I defined ‘elite’ as Top 5, I promoted the Vegas Golden Knights. Of these teams, only Minnesota did not make it to the playoffs. I haven’t gotten into the goaltending yet, but I’m leaning towards this being the case of an elite defense not being able to drag a poor offense into the postseason. The teams with elite defensive play also seem to have more staying power as the same 5 or 6 teams kept making it to the top of the lists. Elite players also have a say here as each team has players universally considered elite...except perhaps Vegas, but they were a tweener.

That’s all well and good.

However, I’m very surprised at the Jackets’ defensive play. Again, this is for the entire team’s defensive play so it isn’t about diving into the defensive pairs, necessarily. I think in most of our minds, we view the team as being very good on their third of the ice. The stats did not support that view at all. It’s an average defensive team that has been worse over the past three seasons.

We know the offense was good, but not elite. The defense was not even good, just average. So has the CBJ playoff streak been about the goaltending? We all saw this past season play out and that seems unlikely. Perhaps we’re learning if a team can succeed without elite play.

As for regular season success, elite offenses and elite defenses have accounted for only 10 of the 16 playoff participants. Boston, Vegas, and Carolina show up with both elite offenses and defenses so far. That still leaves the Jackets, Islanders, Avalanche, Stars, Jets, and Predators.

Next time, we check out the goaltending!