Kris Russell

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Celebrate Labor Day by pondering the ‘hardest working’ NHL defensemen

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It’s Labor Day (or Labour Day), so hopefully you’re getting those last summer nights/hot dog grillings out of your system.

(Not just talking to you, Phil Kessel.)

With the holiday in mind, it seems sensible to get into the theme of things and ponder the “hardest working” players in hockey. For the record, these lists are based on stats, so feel free to project your own opinions about hustle/grit/other things that would show up on a John Cena t-shirt.

If nothing else, it’s refreshing to discuss some stats that don’t get as much attention.

Defensemen tend to be some of the biggest workhorses in the sport, so this first post will be devoted to them.

For forwards and goalies, check out this post.

Sheer volume

In maybe the least surprising development imaginable, Ryan Suter continues to stand out as a guy who just logs an inane amount of ice time.

Suter headlines a list of five players who’ve logged at least 8,000 minutes of regular-season ice time from 2013-14 through 2016-17.

1. Suter: 9,201:55
2. Drew Doughty: 8,906:33
3. Erik Karlsson: 8,897:18
4. Shea Weber: 8,116:20
5. Alex Pietrangelo: 8,055:50

(Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Roman Josi are very close behind them.)

Killing penalties is one of the toughest jobs, and it can be a very specialized one. Using the 2013-14 to 2016-17 standard, only one defenseman logged 1,000 penalty minutes. Meanwhile, six players logged at least 900.

1. Andy Greene: 1,115:48
2. Alex Pietrangelo: 996:28
3. Zdeno Chara: 986:38
4. Karl Alzner: 935:08
5. Jay Bouwmeester: 945:03
6. Francois Beauchemin: 900:15

(Big-minute guys Doughty and Weber also ranked up high in penalty killing.)

For a significant defenseman, Pietrangelo carries a considerable workload. Consider how much tougher his role has become over the last few seasons.

2013-14: 52.3 percent offensive zonne starts vs. 47.7 defensive
2014-15: 48.4 offense, 51.6 defense
2015-16: 46.9, 53.1
2016-17: 43.1, 56.9

Pietrangelo still manages to produce offensively, so the 27-year-old is quite the all-around gem.

Gritty leaders

However you feel about certain “grit” stats and how helpful they actually are for a team, it’s easy to admire players who put their bodies on the line.

Using the framework of 2013-14 to 2016-17, Kris Russell easily leads the NHL in blocked shots with 907, even doing so in 277 games while Dan Girardi comes in second place with 719 in 300 contests. Russell blocks a hearty 3.3 shots per game.

It’s easier to understand Girardi slowing down when you consider the bumps and bruises he likely endures. Girardi blocked 719 shots during that span, and he also delivered 690 hits. (Shea Weber is a similar bruiser: 637 blocked shots, 644 hits in 313 games.)

Karl Alzner piles up those grit stats while spending a lot of time on the PK, which is predictable but also commendable.

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These stats don’t guarantee that the listed defensemen work “harder” than others. Still, it’s easy to get lost in possession stats and other considerations, and lose sight of how much effort goes into the dirty work in hockey.

If you’re bored and hockey-starved on this holiday, consider clicking around the above links to notice certain names that show up consistently. It might give you a greater appreciation for players you otherwise might have dismissed.

Capitals prospect Djoos trying to bulk up before season

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After losing Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt this offseason the Washington Capitals are going to have some big openings on their blue line, a development that presents a great opportunity for skilled prospect Christian Djoos to get his first look in the NHL.

Djoos, a seventh-round pick by the Capitals in 2012, is coming off of a monster season for the Capitals’ AHL team in Hershey that saw him record 58 points (13 goals, 45 assists) in only 66 games.

That production made him the third-leading scorer on the team and by far the team’s most productive defenseman.

He signed a two-year contract with the Capitals over the summer, with the first year of that contract being a two-way deal. But given the fact he would have to clear waivers before going back to the AHL it seems to be a solid bet that he is going to be on the Capitals’ roster to open the season, especially after the production he put on the board in the AHL this past season.

Before he gets to the NHL though the Capitals have had him spending his summer trying to add more weight to his frame.

Via CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Tarik El-Bashir:

“For sure, I need to get bigger,” he said. “We’re working on it every day here in the gym and back home over the summer. It feels good, getting bigger and stronger.”

The Capitals have him on a high calorie diet that requires him to eat much more than other players.

“You just got to eat everything almost,” he said. “Not the bad stuff but you gotta eat all the time. Just trying to do that every day.”

He then cracked: “I just got to keep eating, keep eating, work out, then maybe one day just explode and gain some pounds.”

Djoos spent last being listed at just 161 pounds, which would have made him the lightest defenseman in the entire NHL. According to the NHL’s database the only defensemen that were listed under 174 pounds were Kris Russell (170 pounds), David Warsofsky (170 pounds) and Jared Spurgeon (164 pounds).

In previous eras that lack of size would be a major hurdle for a player Djoos to navigate when it comes to getting a spot on an NHL roster, and for some teams it probably still would be, especially for a defenseman. Slowly but surely, however, though teams are starting to open up to “undersized” players and are more willing to overlook that if there is enough skill behind it. Given what Djoos has shown since coming to North America two years ago he clearly has the skill to make an impact.

The Capitals lost quite a bit off of their defense this summer, and with Brooks Orpik being another year older they are going to need players like Djoos and Dmitry Orlov, who is just starting a six-year, $30.5 million contract extension, to really take on big roles as puck-moving, offensive defenesmen.

Under Pressure: Leon Draisaitl

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This post is part of Oilers Day on PHT…

In a fairer world, most of the pressure in Edmonton would be on Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli.

After all, Chiarelli could have conceivably locked up Leon Draisaitl to a far cheaper contract extension if he was a little more proactive about it. The Oilers barely wasted a second in signing Connor McDavid to an extension when they got the chance – and justifiably so – but you wonder if they dropped the ball in allowing Draisaitl to pump up his value with a breakthrough contract year.

And, beyond discussions of Draisaitl + McDavid at $21 million compared to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane at that price (not to mention the cheaper duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), Chiarelli is the one who’s been handing out questionable contracts to the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

Anyway, when you leaf through reactions to the $8.5 million per year price, the debates don’t seem to revolve around whether or not the Oilers overpaid Draisaitl; instead, much of the bickering centers on how excessive the contract is.

That’s not great for a 21-year-old who still boasts a pretty small resume, especially if his bloated contract eventually forces other, talented players out of Edmonton.

The big concern is that the Oilers paid big for Draisaitl in large part based on his production alongside McDavid, while cap realities would likely prompt Edmonton to ask each player to center their own line.

In 2016-17, Draisaitl’s most common linemates were Patrick Maroon and then McDavid, and by a large margin.

Just like with virtually any talented forward, Draisaitl saw a significant boost with McDavid vs. without him, as Jonathan Willis illustrated in detail for Oilers Nation. That’s not the big German forward’s fault, really, but it makes it scarier to hand him a massive extension without a large body of evidence that he can be a difference-maker on his own.

The Oilers gave Draisaitl a bigger deal than a scorer with a larger body of work (and thus more proof that he’s a true top center) in Ryan Johansen and generally made him one of the highest-paid centers in the NHL.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. After all, part of the reason for the big raise was how well he played in the playoffs, sometimes without McDavid goosing his numbers.

Even so, that’s a small sample size, and now many people will expect Draisaitl to be the Malkin to McDavid’s Crosby.

That’s a dangerous proposition, and the Oilers might not have a ton to fall back on if Draisaitl has trouble dealing with the stresses that come with getting a huge contract. No doubt about it, he’s under a lot of pressure.

Oilers cap situation is scary, and not just because of Draisaitl, McDavid

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The Edmonton Oilers pulled the trigger – and likely made teams with big RFA headaches like the Boston Bruins grimace – in signing Leon Draisaitl to a massive eight-year, $68 million contract on Wednesday.

You have to do a little stretching to call it a good deal, although credit Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshysnki with some reasonably stated optimism.

Either way, the per-year cap bill for Connor McDavid and Draisaitl is $21 million once McDavid’s extension kicks in starting in 2018-19; that’s the same combined cost that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane receive … and those two got those paydays after they won three Stanley Cups for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Now, if the Oilers struggle in the near future, plenty of people will heap blame on McDavid and/or Draisaitl. Really, though, the true scapegoats should be a management team with more strikeouts than homers.

(As usual, Cap Friendly was a key resource in studying Edmonton’s salary structure.)

Bloated supporting cast

There are some frightening contracts on the books in Edmonton, especially if a few situations work out unfavorably.

At 29, there’s severe risk of regression with Milan Lucic, even if he enjoys a more stable second season with Edmonton. He carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23, so he’ll be on the books for all but two years of Draisaitl’s new deal.

Kris Russell costs $4.167M during a four-year stretch, and even now, he has plenty of critics. Those complaints may only get louder if, at 30, he also starts to slip from his already debatable spot.

Andrej Sekera‘s been a useful blueliner, yet there’s some concern that time won’t treat him kindly. He’s dealing with injuries heading into 2017-18, and at 31, there’s always the risk that his best days are behind him. Not great for a guy carrying a $5.5M cap hit through 2020-21.

One can’t help but wonder if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be an odd man out once the shackles of the salary cap really tighten. Just consider how much Edmonton is spending on a limited number of players, and you wonder if the 24-year-old will be deemed too pricey at his $6M clip.

Yeah, not ideal.

It’s not all bad

Now, let’s be fair.

RNH could easily grow into being well worth that $6M. Draisaitl may also justify his hefty price tag. McDavid honestly cut the Oilers a relative deal by taking $12.5M instead of the maximum.

The Oilers also have two quality, 24-year-old defensemen locked up to team-friendly deals: Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M through 2022-23) and Adam Larsson ($4.167M through 2020-21). They need every bargain they can get, and those two figure to fit the bill.

Crucial future negotiations

GM Peter Chiarelli’s had a questionable history of getting good deals. He’ll need to get together soon, or the Oilers will really struggle to surround their core with helpful support.

Cam Talbot is a brilliant bargain at the strangely familiar cap hit of $4.167M, but that value only lasts through 2018-19. After that, he’s eligible to become a UFA, and could be massively expensive if he produces two more strong seasons.

The bright side is that the Oilers aren’t locked into an expensive goalie, so they can look for deals. That isn’t as sunny a situation if you don’t trust management to have much success in the bargain bin.

Talbot isn’t the only upcoming expiring contract. The Oilers have serious questions to answer with Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome. Also, will they need to let Lucic-like winger Patrick Maroon go? Even with mild relief in Mark Fayne‘s money coming off the books, the Oilers might regret this buffet when the bills start piling up next summer.

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Look, the truth is that management is likely to be propped up by the top-end in Edmonton, particularly in the case of McDavid’s otherworldly skills. As much as that Draisaitl deal looks like an overpay – possibly a massive one – there’s a chance that he lives up to that $8.5M, too.

It’s not just about those stars, though.

The Pittsburgh Penguins gained new life by complimenting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the likes of Phil Kessel. The Blackhawks have struggled once they couldn’t afford as much help for Kane and Toews.

You have to mix your premium items with bargains, and one wonders if the Oilers will be able to spot sufficient value beyond the no-brainer top guys. Their recent history in that area certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

Georges Laraque had some thoughts on the impact of the Oilers’ newfound toughness

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The Edmonton Oilers are coming off of their most successful season in more than a decade and there are a lot of theories for why the turnaround took place.

One of the more popular talking points was the addition of players like Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, and Kris Russell that helped bring some toughness and grit to the lineup and cut down on the number of liberties that were taken against star players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

To be fair, players like Maroon — and even Zack Kassian who was in his second year with the team — did have really good seasons and were helpful in a lot of areas.

And while Lucic’s contract looks like it could one day be an albatross on the team’s salary cap, he is still a pretty good player for the time being.

The other theory — the one I buy into — is that fully healthy seasons from Connor McDavid and defenseman Oscar Klefbom, as well as a true breakout year from Draisaitl and rock solid play (and incredible durability) from goaltender Cam Talbot, helped carry the team. A couple of superstars, a top-pairing defender and a good starting goalie that can play 70-plus games will do a lot to improve a team.

One person that seems to be putting more stock into the first theory is ex-Oilers enforcer Georges Laraque.

Laraque was on Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer this past week and talked about the intimidation factor and how the additions of players like Lucic and Maroon led to healthier seasons from McDavid and the rest of his skilled teammates.

An excerpt, via the Edmonton Journal:

You said some of the people in the media they don’t like tough guys, and they say stuff, ‘They don’t like it, we don’t believe in this and that.’ This is the trend between people that know the game and people that don’t know the game. There’s many people in the media that cover the game that talk about hockey and stuff but they don’t know anything. And you read them and they want to make it look like they do, but they don’t. The stats you just said right there (on the health of the 2016-17 Oilers) gives you an indication right there of what’s been going on with that team. Why do you think McDavid got 100 points this year? Do you see how much room he’s getting? Yes, there’s a little bit of stuff there and there sometimes, but most of the time he was healthy because of that presence.

And More…

Yeah, they had a young team that played all the game and, yeah, they had enough toughness that prevent guys to take liberties with those guys. Look at before, the Oilers when they had Zack (Stortini) and other guys that were up and down, people were taking liberties with that team and they were always hurt. Now those days are done. People, when they go to Edmonton, with Darnell Nurse, Lucic, Maroon, all those guys there, people don’t want to take liberties with those kids because there’s a lot of guys can answer the bell… And we’re not even talking about fighting here. We’re talking about a presence that prevents guys from taking cheap shots because they know there would be retribution if they did so.”

This all goes back to the old “deterrence” argument that gets thrown around a lot, and it is no surprise that a former player like Laraque who was paid to be that sort of deterrent (or paid to try to be that) would buy into that. But arguing that Connor McDavid has space and scored 100 points this season because Patrick Maroon or Milan Lucic was on the team is quite a leap. He had 100 points this season because he is probably already (at worst) the second best player in the league and is as dominant as any player to enter the league in decades.

As we talked about when Pittsburgh acquired Ryan Reaves from the St. Louis Blues in an effort to cut down on the physical abuse they took, arguments like this one here by Laraque aren’t really isn’t based in any sort of reality. It is true that McDavid was fully healthy this season and managed to get through without the type of significant injury that cut his rookie season in half, and it is also true that happened in the same season that Lucic and Maroon arrived in Edmonton.

But that does not mean the two results are related. After all, when Lucic played in Boston alongside Shawn Thornton the Bruins were routinely on the receiving end of cheap shots that sidelined players. Just ask Marc Savard, Nathan Horton and Loui Eriksson, for example. The “Big Bad Bruins” mentality didn’t keep Matt Cooke, or Aaron Rome or John Scott from taking them out with cheap shots.

These discussions always create a bunch of misleading arguments about toughness and physical play. There is nothing wrong with adding physical players or players that can play with a bit of an edge. But you can’t expect them to keep your star players healthy because the guys that set out to do that damage are going to do it no matter what. Plus, hockey is a collision sport that is going to result in players being injured. It doesn’t always have to be a cheap shot.

But adding toughness just for the sake of adding toughness when there is no skill to go with it is not going to make your team any better.

The Oilers weren’t better this past season because a player Patrick Maroon showed up, played physical and tried to prevent teams from taking liberties.

The Oilers were better because a player like Patrick Maroon showed up, played physical and scored 27 goals for them.