Carolina’s defensive problems

The news of Bobby Sanguinetti being called up has a lot of people talking about the future of Carolina’s defense corps and how bright it is. With young players like Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy, Brian Dumoulin, Mark Alt, Danny Biega and Sanguinetti in the system, there is a reason to be excited and we’ve seen Faulk step in and contribute immediately. However, it will be awhile before some of the other prospects start making an impact and if Carolina wants to become a competitive team again, their defensive play is going to need a ton of help. They are last in the NHL in shots allowed at even strength and are a bottom-10 team on the penalty kill.

In my latest weekly report, I made a note saying that this team was giving up too many chances on a nightly basis and they reached a new low last week by surrendering 77 scoring chances over four games. You can’t give up over 20 scoring chances per night and expect to be a winning team, so defense has to be somewhat of a priority for the Hurricanes over the next couple of years. Adding a scoring winger would be nice, but I feel that Carolina’s defense really needs to be addressed with this rebuild. I’ve discussed goaltender Cam Ward and how his inconsistency has been a reason why Carolina is in the spot they are right now. The team’s poor defensive play is a reason why Ward is depended on so much and why the Canes have lived and died by his performance this year. Addressing this need can go a long way.

When I say “defensively play,” I do not mean that the defense corps needs to overhauled because I do not think the play from our blue-liners has been horrendous this year. More times than not, the defensemen are put into bad situations due to the forwards refusing to back-check or commit to playing in the defensive zone. It has led to some odd-man rushes and catastrophic breakdowns that turned into goals for the opposing team. Both goals Tampa Bay scored on Saturday night are examples of what I am trying to explain.

Going by what I see, I believe that the forwards are more of a problem with the Hurricanes poor defensive play than the blue-liners themselves, but part of the fun of being a statistician is testing hypotheses like the one I just came up with. Is the Hurricanes poor defensive play mostly due to the forwards not playing a strong two-way game or is it the fault of the blue-liners? It would be nice to know this now so we know what holes to fill over the off-season and whether or not bringing in another defenseman is a need. We’ll start examining this after the jump. 

We are going to look at the team’s defensive play going by a few different metrics. First, we’ll use some basic shot stats from Behind The Net and scoring chance data that I have been tracking all season. Whenever I present chance data, I usually go by a positive/negative rating or show what percent of the scoring chance are going in Carolina’s favor when a certain player is on the ice. Since we’re looking at defensive play here, I will only show how many shots & chances the Hurricanes are surrendering when this player is on the ice. The lower the number, the better.

Defensemen:

Player SA/60 SCA/60 Corsi Rel. OZ%
Joslin 31.3 15.274 -5 58.3
McBain 30.4 16.282 4.8 50.3
Harrison 30.3 18.178 -2.4 50.4
Pitkanen 30 18.37 1.3 43.1
Spacek 29.2 15.528 5.7 58.7
Gleason 28.7 16.417 -3.1 40.4
Faulk 28.7 19.368 -3.2 51.7
Allen 27.7 14.255 -0.4 41.7

SA/60 = shots allowed per 60 mins., SCA/60 = Scoring chances allowed per 60 mins., Corsi Rel. = Relative corsi rating, OZ% = offensive zone start percentage. ALL EVEN STRENGTH DATA

After taking a quick look at the shot metrics for defensemen, we can say that there are some players who are getting hit hard in their own end. The biggest offers are Jay Harrison, Joni Pitkanen and, to an extent, Justin Faulk. The reason why I throw Faulk in this class is because he is giving up a boatload of scoring chances, which is a little odd when you see that his shots allowed rate is a much lower than other defensemen. Faulk might be doing a fine job at preventing opposing team’s shots but the ones he is on ice for are of high quality, apparently. He is only 19 and is playing 20+ minutes a night so this shouldn’t be too much of a shock.

In the grand scheme of things, the defense corps that Carolina has this year isn’t terribly impressive when it comes to preventing shots and chances. Allen and Gleason have been great when taking their situation into context and Spacek has been a nice addition (although he’s getting extremely easy minutes) but the rest of the defense have some major shortcomings in their own zone. Joslin’s been bad in limited action, Carolina surrenders over 30 shots on goal when Harrison & McBain are on the ice (although McBain is doing a better job at preventing chances), Pitkanen has been out for most of the year and I discussed Faulk earlier. A lot of these players make up for their defensive short-comings through their offensive contributions (namely Harrison, McBain, Faulk & Pitkanen) which makes them valuable but having four players (five if you count Spacek) in your defense corps that are primarily contributing on offense seems like a bit much. It also puts a ton of weight on Gleason & Allen’s shoulders. It’s a bit unfair to put Faulk & Harrison in that class since they have been given a ton of responsibility this year but the amount of chances both have been giving up is pretty high.

Another thing to note is that every defenseman is giving up more shots per 60 minutes than the league average (roughly 27 SA/60), but I don’t put much thought into this because I don’t like comparing different types of defensemen. Not all ice time is created equal and a guy who is starting 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone against first liners is going to give up more shots than a guy playing mostly offensive minutes against other team’s third & fourth lines. I never liked to compare those across the board.

Now let’s look at the forwards

Forwards SA/60 SCA/60 Corsi Rel. OZ%
Samson 32.5 18.711 12.4 54.3
Ruutu 31 17.042 -0.6 54
Brent 30.7 14.942 -15.4 46.7
Tlusty 30.5 16.005 -7.7 48.6
Staal 29.8 17.389 6 50.6
Stewart 29.7 15.729 -7.3 55.7
LaRose 29.6 18.849 6 44.2
Skinner 28.6 17.183 7.5 55.1
Sutter 28.4 16.712 -5.4 36.1
Nodl 28.4 16.074 -5.6 43.6
Jokinen 28 17.819 7.3 53.6
Dwyer 27.8 13.766 -3.6 37.9
Bowman 25.6 15.208 13.8 59.4

You can definitely see that there are some problems with the forwards defensive play, as well and it’s mainly the guys who are getting more offensive zone starts. Ruutu has not been great in his own end this year and neither have Skinner, Tlusty, Staal, LaRose or, to an extent, Jokinen. Like defensemen, it’s tough to compare a lot of these players across the board because they play in different situations. Sutter starts nearly 70% of his shifts in the defensive zone and is surrendering about the same amount of shots as chances as guys playing more offensive minuets like Jeff Skinner, so you definitely need to take some context into consideration when looking at these numbers.

With that in mind, I do think Staal, Ruutu, Skinner and LaRose are giving up way too many chances in their own end. Staal has always been known as a good two-way player but the numbers show that his defensive play is a little off this season. The reason why his corsi rating is so good is because he gets enough shots and chances on goal to cancel out his defensive shortcomings, which is perfectly fine. This is the case with Skinner, Ruutu & LaRose, too. Tlusty is an interesting case because his possession ratings are awful, but his scoring chance numbers are not. He’s also starting in the defensive zone a little more than others.

The Hurricanes at least have a defensive stud in Patrick Dwyer in their forward corps. I know Sutter is usually regarded as the team’s best defensive forward but Dwyer is giving up fewer shots and chances in the same situation. Sutter is a better all-around player but the way Dwyer plays in his own end is much more solid. If Dwyer had a better skillset then he would be a fantastic player but it appears that he’s nothing more than a defensive forward, and a very good one at that.

Tim Brent and Anthony Stewart are also giving up fewer chances despite being bombarded with shots in their own end, but their corsi ratings are rubbish. What’s the reason for this? You could say it’s because they’ve been restricted to fourth line duty but the truth is that neither are good offensively when it comes to playing at even strength. I know Brent has 10 goals but there’s a reason why he leads the team in shooting percentage. He’s effective on the powerplay but for whatever reason, he does nothing at even strength and gets hammered in his own end when it comes to shots. Stewart is basically the same only he is being used in more offensive situations, which does not reflect well on his numbers.

So, we’ve got a few very solid defensive forwards but I could see the need for a more defensive-minded player in the top-six to help Staal’s line and balance out some of more one-dimensional guys. I always thought that Jokinen’s defensive play was underrated, but he’s not exactly what I would call a two-way player and he appears to give up his fair share of scoring chances. Like I said, there are a lot of times when the defensive play of the forwards put the blue-liners into tough situations and that’s happened to Carolina a lot this year. Staal’s line normally takes on some defensive responsibility and Jim Rutherford should keep that in mind when he looks to sign a winger this off-seaso

Also, I think that adding some more defensive-minded guys to the fourth line would not be a bad idea, either. I know that you are supposed to have one “shutdown line” and we have that with Nodl, Sutter & Dwyer but it’s not unreasonble to have two lines take on that kind of workload. If you haven’t noticed, these three have been taking on a TON of defensive zone starts while most of the other forwards are above 50%. Brent can play in defensive situations but Stewart, Samson, etc. have gotten nothing but soft minutes and I think we can easily upgrade there by adding a defensive forward or two.

One idea I had was moving Dwyer & Nodl to the fourth line with Brent and adding some more two-way minded guys to Sutter’s line. That would give us two lines we could send out against other team’s top competition and help add some more offense to the third line. I know this probably won’t happen but I think it could help since I think Sutter has a great skill-set and can be more than a third liner some day.

Another thing we need to look at with defensive play is penalty killing. As I mentioned earlier, Carolina has a bottom-ten penalty killing unit when it comes to giving up shots and the problem seems to be related to both the forwards and the defense.

Player PK TOI PK SA/60 PK SCA/15
Gleason 167.17 56.7 8.88
McBain 38.1 53.5 8.26
Allen 161.25 50.6 8.09
Average 42.9
Harrison 94.65 36.8 7.6
Faulk 79.57 34.7 7.16

I don’t know if Allen & Gleason are giving up more shots and chances because they play a lot on the PK or if they are struggling comapred to others. The league average for the amount of shots allowed on the PK for defensemen in 42.9 and both of them are giving up more than that. Faulk and Harrison, on the other hand, are giving up less while playing on the second unit. I have noticed Gleason get torched on the PK more than a few times in the past, so I guess the numbers aren’t too far off. Also, I think it is safe to say that penalty killing isn’t McBain’s specialty. Needless to say, we have three penalty killing defensemen signed for next year if Allen walks and it could be an area to address in the off-season depending on what Pitkanen does.

Forwards

Forwards PK TOI PK SA/60 PK SCA/15
Tlusty 58.28 60.7 7.72
Brent 41.12 59.8 8.02
Staal 84.93 54.4 7.59
LaRose 46.2 48.1 10.71
Sutter 145.52 44.5 7.21
Average 43.4
Dwyer 120.27 41.9 7.23
Jokinen 78.7 34.4 7.24

Only two forwards are allowing fewer shots than the league average, that isn’t good. Although, Sutter is right around that mark, too. LaRose and Tlusty have been getting torched on the PK and both have seen a decent amount of time on the second unit. Brent has not played on the penalty kill in months and you can see why here. Staal is also giving up a ton of shots when playing a man down but his numbers don’t appear to be that bad going by scoring chances. Generally, you want to have four good penalty killers at the minimum and we have that in Sutter, Dwyer, Jokinen & Staal (for now). There’s also an under-utlized source on the team in Andreas Nodl, who is a defense-first player but has barely been used on the PK. I’m not sure why the coaching staff isn’t using him there, but the Canes could use some more penalty killers and using Nodl there over LaRose & Tlusty can’t hurt.

As for bringing in new penalty killing forwards via free agency, I would not be against it. I’ve always felt that Staal’s penalty killing has been vastly overrated and would rather have him focus more on scoring but with Brent flopping on the PK and four centers already on the team, there aren’t much options. We could use Jokinen at center on the penalty kill and have Nodl on the wing. It seems doubtful that the coaching staff will replace Staal at any position but removing him from the PK isn’t an outlandish suggestion by any means because this is one area that he struggles at.

Revisiting the hypothesis, I do not think it is fair to blame the forwards for the team’s defensive issues as the blue-liners clearly have a lot of problems, too. However, I do think the forwards play at even strength is part of the problem because all of them are giving up more than the league average of shots and a lot of the players who are getting hammered play at least 15 even strength minutes a night.

Either way, this team has defensive problems all across the board and I think this area needs to be addressed in the off-season. In a later post, I will go over what the defense looks like heading into next year and discuss what can be done to help prevent Carolina from being last in the league in shots allowed again.

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