Jamie McBain and “the sophomore slump”

One of the more frustrating players on the team has been young defenseman Jamie McBain. He originally didn’t make the opening night roster and has been scratched a few times this year but his usual role on the team is a top-four defenseman who sees a lot of time on the first powerplay unit. He was very efficient in that role last season with a seven-goal, thirty-point campaign and wasn’t a complete liability in his own zone. Therefore, my expectation for him this year was to improve his defensive play so he could turn into more of an all-around/Joni Pitkanen type player. That hasn’t quite happened and McBain has looked just plain ugly and confused in his own end at times, which has led people to throw around the “sophomore slump” narrative for him.

Here’s the thing, I hate the term “sophomore slump” in hockey because it usually means that a player had an insane rookie season that is hard to replicate or undergoes a string of bad luck during his second year and has worse counting stats. McBain’s rookie year wasn’t anything monstrous and he is on pace to have around the same point total so this doesn’t look like a “sophomore slump” at all. What about his inconsistent play in the defensive zone? Well, in my post where I logged every defensive error last season, I wrote this about McBain:

“Jamie McBain had a good rookie season and looks like he can be a solid puck-mover but he definitely had a lot of ugly gaffes in his own zone and at the blue line. He mishandled a lot of pucks which led to breakaway chances for the opposing team and a good few of his errors were from failed clears, which might be why he did not get a lot of time on the penalty kill.”

That sounds a lot like this year, doesn’t it? Further research into his underlying numbers show that McBain’s play is about the same as it was last season and he only seems worse this year because he is playing in a slightly tougher role. Follow me after the jump to find out what I’m talking about.

When we look at McBain’s raw numbers, we don’t see much of a change from last year.

GP G A Pts Pt/60 Sh% PPP SOG TOI
2010-11 76 7 23 30 1 7.37% 8 95 19.1
2011-12 41 3 14 17 0.92 4.76% 6 63 20.5

McBain is playing a little more minutes than he did last year but is scoring at roughly the same rate. Although, his low shooting percentage suggests that he is getting slightly unlucky, especially when you see that he’s shooting the puck more than he did last year. He is also on pace to top his powerplay production from last season. So, his offensive game hasn’t seen a huge drop-off at all, but there is a lot more we can look at to see why McBain appears to be struggling.

Here are some underlying numbers from Behind The Net hockey along with some other stats which let us dive deeper into McBain’s season.

CorsiTied Rel. Corsi Corsi Rel. QoC Zstart% Zfinish% On-ice Sh% On-ice Sv% PDO SC%
2010 0.484 -1 -0.01 49.3 49 9.03 0.911 1001 0.499
2011 0.486 0.7 0.261 46.2 50.3 9.87 0.901 999 0.483

What we have here is more of the same in terms of performance. The corsi events (shots on goal + missed & blocked shots) are going in the Canes favor at about the same rate when the score is tied. Scoring chances are slightly worse but not anything drastic and his overall corsi rate is actually slightly better compared to the rest of the team. His PDO is roughly the the same as last year too so he isn’t getting that many good or bad bounces either. So what’s the problem? Why does McBain look so much worse than last year?

Take a look at the corsi rel. QoC and ZStart% stats. This shows the quality of competition he is facing and the percentage of shifts he starts in the offensive zone. McBain has seen his quality of competition and the percentage of his draws in the defensive zone increase this season which is weird because he isn’t your typical shutdown defenseman and really shouldn’t be used in that role. He is a puck-moving defenseman with a pretty good shot, so he is best utilized in offensive situations, but the injury to Joni Pitkanen along with the emergence of Justin Faulk & Jay Harrison as offensive standouts have forced him into a tougher role. Pitkanen was his most frequent partner and these two were given relatively easier zone starts compared to other blue-liners. Him being out has forced to Kirk Muller (and Paul Maurice) to find a suitable partner for McBain and that guy was Tim Gleason for awhile and he used those two as a shutdown pair for about a month. Why would he do that? Because Harrison/Faulk have established themselves as a solid tandem and McBain seemed like he was too good to play bottom-pairing minutes. Thus, he found himself paired with Tim Gleason and the tough assignments that come with it.

That has been broken up since the Flyers game last week and McBain is now playing on the third pairing with slightly protected minutes, which is how it should be. At least until Pitkanen gets healthy because he seems to work with him better than anyone else. McBain’s “sophomore slump” appears to be overblown and it really just him being forced into a tougher role that he isn’t quite ready for yet. Most players will look worse than they actually are when forced into that situation. Am I disappointed that his defensive play still needs a lot of work? A little, but it is tough to say that he’s had a significant drop off from last year after looking at all the evidence.