Should the game's greatest defensive forwards receive more Hall of Fame attention?

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jerelehtinenplaysd.jpgIn many sports – particularly baseball – it seems like just about any action and tactic can be chronicled with a hard number statistic. Sure, you cannot put a number on chemistry, desire, heart and – let’s face it – the greed that can sometimes be the driving force behind sporting success, but it seems like numbers can explain a huge portion of what happens in games.

Hockey stats lag behind and for good reason: there are some things that are simply difficult to measure without just using your eyes and a fair share of subjectivity. Sure, you can look at a faceoff won or a goal averted as a “success” for a defensive forward, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. Neither does a plus/minus or Corsi number.

This lack of data/benchmarks for great work by defensive forwards is obvious in everything from Selke Trophy voting and Hall of Fame inductions. The fantastic number-crunching blog Behind the Net took a look at the serious lack of shutdown forwards in the Hockey Hall of Fame beyond Bob Gainey and Bob Pulford and provides two compelling examples of worthy inductees.

Since the 1980s, I’d argue that there’s a reluctance to recognize the defensive forward, an important player lost in the astronomical offensive numbers we saw three decades ago, rarely to be recognized even when the defensive game re-emerged in the mid-90s. Sure, if there comes a player that joins point-per-game offense with relatively good defense, he enters the conversation, and when Selanne’s opportunity comes around his average defense will be sufficient. But what about those defensive forwards?

Case in point is a player that entered the league in Gainey’s waning years, and survived the 1980s and early 90s with his elite defensive reputation intact. Guy Carbonneau toiled over 19 NHL seasons, winning 3 Selkes and 3 Stanley Cups, all the while carrying the label of the league’s best defensive forward. Beyond that, he did something incredibly well that Bob Gainey rarely ever did: win faceoffs. In the process, Carbonneau played 1,318 games, scoring 260 goals, 403 assists, and 663 points along with a career +/- of +186.

Another more-recent example is a player currently without a job, Jere Lehtinen. Also the recipient of 3 Selkes and a Stanley Cup, Lehtinen has had a more prolific scoring career than Gainey or Carbonneau, but this was certainly not to the detriment of his defensive game. For sure, if you were to ask 100 hockey experts on the best defensive players of the period 1995-2010, Lehtinen would enter the conversation for almost every one. With 875 games played, 243 goals, 271 goals, 514 points, and a career +176, who could argue? He only had one season where he finished with a minus (Gainey had two, and Carbonneau four) despite playing on a number of suspect Dallas teams. He and Modano were constants on teams that boasted some of the most incredible goaltending statistics in NHL history, including Ed Belfour’s 1997-98 and 1998-99 and Marty Turco’s 2002-03 and 2003-04. Yet it is unlikely that Lehtinen will get his due, much like Carbonneau sees each year come and go without a chance to join his Montreal brethren in the hallowed Hall.

In a time when statistical analysts are bringing us ever closer to defensive player value, it’s time to remember that those Red Wings, those Devils, those Penguins, didn’t get there without Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Jordan Staal, etc. The defensive forward is still important, still integral to regular season success, playoff hockey, and the Silver of all Silvers. I’m not saying enshrine Michael Peca on principle, but I do believe that each generation boasts at least one defensive forward that deserves enshrinement along with the multitudes of point-per-gamers nominated from year-to-year by our hockey writers and dignitaries.

Both Carbonneau and Lehtinen seem like perfectly reasonable selections for the Hall of Fame, at least when you compare their impact on the game in relation to good-but-not-quite-elite inductees such as this year’s selection Dino Ciccarelli.

I think it comes down to a lack of education and data, though. Simply put, it’s difficult to know which forwards make a big impact beyond looking at team-based statistics such as plus/minus. If there were easier (or at least more prevalent) ways to measure how useful a forward is defensively, it would be easier for everyone to judge these players.

This is why the movement for deeper statistical analysis among bloggers (and the occasional mainstream writer) is such a great thing. Some of the number crunching can make you a little dizzy, but with time I think that the blogosphere and writers in general will develop stats that are both simple and sophisticated.

Then maybe we can finally give the New Age Gaineys their deserved recognition.

Curtis Lazar out indefinitely after being hit by Pens’ Dumoulin

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 02:  Curtis Lazar #27 of the Ottawa Senators takes the puck in the first period against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on April 2, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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It hasn’t been the easiest year for Senators forward Curtis Lazar.

After sticking in the NHL for his first two pro seasons, Lazar began the 2016-17 campaign in the minors. That’s a pretty big step back for the former 17th overall pick in 2013.

The 21-year-old managed to earn a call up back in November, but there’s now some more adversity for him to face.

Lazar suffered a an upper-body injury in last night’s 8-5 loss to the Penguins and although we don’t know how long he’ll be out, we do know he’ll miss some time, as he’s out indefinitely.

He appeared to be injured after being on the receiving end of a hit by Pens defenseman Brian Dumoulin. It was a  hit that Sens play-by-play announcer described as being “from behind”.

With Craig Anderson also leaving the team to head back to Ottawa, the Sens were forced to recall forward Phil Varone and goalie Andrew Hammond from the minors.

Ottawa has three games remaining on their four-game road trip. They’ll take on the Sharks on Wednesday, the Kings on Saturday and the Ducks on Sunday.

PHT Morning Skate: Get to know Blackhawks goalie Lars Johansson

Lars Johansson
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With Corey Crawford now on the shelf, the ‘Hawks will turn to Scott Darling as their starter. But new backup goalie Lars Johansson is a bit of an unknown. This is the 29-year-old’s first year in North America and he could get his first taste of NHL action. “If something were to happen (to Darling), absolutely I would be nervous, as excited for any new thing in my career,” Johansson said. (Chicago Tribune)

–Paul Maurice had some interesting comments about his former goalies Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft. Maurice said that those goalies didn’t give him a very good shot to win in the shootout. (Sportsnet)

–How has the goalie position changed over the years? The Hockey News sat down with current and former NHL goalies, as well as some goalie coaches. “If I still played the way I did back in the day, I wouldn’t be in the NHL anymore. You have to evolve with the time and the position and the new techniques that come out every year,” said Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo. (The Hockey News)

–The New York Post looks back at former Rangers captain Vic Hadfield’s famous smile at the Spectrum in 1974. Hadfield explained that he wasn’t actually happy at the time because his team was on the verge of being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers. (NY Post)

–Tyler Murovich of the Atlanta Gladiators (ECHL) was suspended 12 games for this reckless hit on Anthony Calabrese of the Norfolk Admirals. (Yahoo)

–This youth hockey player had an emotional celebration after he scored during the intermission of the Caps game on Monday:

 

Beleskey expected to miss six weeks with right knee injury

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 20:  Matt Beleskey #39 of the Boston Bruins takes a shot against New Jersey Devils  during the third period at TD Garden on October 20, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeat the Devils 2-1.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Boston Bruins are expected to be without forward Matt Beleskey for the next six weeks because of a right knee injury.

That update came from the Bruins on Monday. Boston was victorious over the Florida Panthers in overtime, but Beleskey wasn’t in the lineup.

The Bruins have now won three in a row and four of their last five games.

Beleskey suffered the injury in a collision in the neutral zone with Taylor Fedun during Saturday’s game. He left the game and didn’t return, after his knee drove into the hip of Fedun as the Sabres defenseman pivoted.

In 24 games with the Bruins this season, Beleskey has two goals and five points.

The Penguins are playing a brand of hockey from another era — and it’s a treat for hockey fans

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 08:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Edmonton Oilers at PPG PAINTS Arena on November 8, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing their part this season to single-handedly address the NHL’s ongoing goal scoring shortage.

At both ends of the ice.

After their 8-5 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night — an insane game that featured both teams making a goaltending change, a hat trick, a penalty shot, a fluke goal bouncing off the glass, three replay reviews, and a random appearance by actors Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston in the stands — the Penguins find themselves at the top, and bottom, of pretty much every major offensive and defensive category.

Just consider:

  • Their 3.31 goals per game average is the second best in the NHL behind only the New York Rangers.
  • Their 3.04 goals against average is the fourth worst ahead of only Dallas, Arizona, Toronto and Philadelphia.
  • They are averaging 34.7 shots on goal per game, tops in the league and more than a full shot per game better than the No. 2 team (Chicago).
  • They are giving up 32.6 shots on goal per game, the second worst mark in the league ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes.

When it comes to the latter two points they outshot Ottawa by a 46-34 margin on Monday night, making it the fourth time in the NHL this season a team recorded at least 45 shots on goal and surrendered at least 34 in a single game.

The Penguins have played in three of those games (the other was that 60-shot effort by Columbus over the weekend, and that game went to overtime. The Penguins did all of three of theirs in regulation).

An important thing to keep in mind about that stat: There were only seven such games like that all of last season. For the entire NHL. By all 30 teams. Combined. Only one team (Philadelphia) played in more than one, and nobody played in more than two. The Penguins have played in three in their first 26 games.

Monday’s game was already the 13th time this season (in only 26 games) where they have faced a two-goal deficit at some point in the game when they trailed 4-2 midway through the second period. They have now won six of those games, and are 5-6-1 when they have trailed after two periods. In one of those regulation losses they actually overcome a three-goal deficit, tied the game, and then gave up the winner in the closing minute.

A lot of this is the result of having a team that rolls out four lines of forwards every night that possess the ability to score (including three of the most talented forwards in the league in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel), combined with a blue line that is made up almost entirely of puck-movers and offensive-minded defensemen.

On one hand, it is an absolutely thrilling and captivating brand of hockey to watch. It is a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s when wide open 8-5 games were fairly common. It is showcasing skill during a time when defense, structure and goaltending have dominated the league.

Because of that, is also not a style of play that has resulted in a lot of success in this era.

Over the past 10 years only one team has won the Stanley Cup finishing worse than seventh in the league in goals against (the lowest ranking over that stretch: The 2008-09 Penguins were 17th. Six of the Cup winners were in the top-two, including three that were the best in the league).

Only one other Cup-winning team during that stretch finished worse than 10th on the penalty kill (the 2010-11 Bruins, who were 16th). The Penguins are currently 29th.

These are areas they clearly need to address and correct (and they know it), because you are not always going to be able to rely on erasing a two-goal deficit in the playoffs no matter how great your offense is, and you are not always going to be able to put a five-or six-spot on the scoreboard.

The funny thing about this is the Penguins are returning pretty much the exact same roster from their 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning team. They are still a team built on speed and playing fast, a recipe that drove them to that championship just a few months ago. But that team excelled in a lot of the important defensive areas. They held opponents to less than 30 shots per game. They were sixth in the NHL in goals against and fifth in the league on the penalty kill.

After Monday’s game, coach Mike Sullivan talked about the importance of playing a “speed” game without necessarily turning it into a track meet.

“We certainly want to play a speed game because that is when we are at our best,” Sullivan said. “We try to distinguish between a speed game and a track meet. For me, we want to play a speed game and use our speed to advantage, but also not feed their transition game and allowing a track meet where you are trading chance for chance. Sometimes I think when we get away from our game a little we have a tendency to get into that track meet a little bit.”

He continued:

“For me it starts with out decisions with the puck. When you look at the makeup of our team we are a team that wants to play with the puck, so we want to make plays instinctively, but when we recognize the danger zones and when the plays aren’t there to be made, that is when we force teams to play 200 feet and that is when we become a more difficult team to play against. That is playing a speed game. So we try to distinguish between those two things.”

All of this is what makes this current team and the way it is playing so fascinating.

Almost every game quickly devolves into madness, and their record so far is great. But they are clearly not playing the way they want.

In the meantime, it is an absolute treat for hockey fans that are starving for more speed, skill and goals to take over the league.