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December 2, 2009
Howe and Why
Stay-at-Home Defensemen

by Robert Vollman

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Harry Howell played 1411 NHL games and scored only 94 goals, Tom Johnson scored only 51 goals in 979 NHL games, and it took Rod Langway 994 NHL games to tally that same number. What do they all have in common? They were all recognized with the Norris Trophy as the league's best defensemen during their careers.

From the first time I saw Craig Ludwig block a shot with his self-made goalie-sized shin pads, I've had a fascination with defensive-minded defensemen. Ludwig scored only 38 goals in his NHL career and never topped the 25 points he earned as a rookie, and yet his coaches eagerly placed the valuable blueliner in their NHL lineups 1,256 times. New Jersey enjoyed the services of Ken Daneyko, who played in 1,283 NHL games until finally retiring at the age of 40, scoring only 36 goals and peaking at 21 points a season. Between the two of them they appeared in the Stanley Cup finals 9 times, winning 5 Stanley Cups, teaching me that shut-down defensemen are a critical ingredient in a championship team.

To find today's stay-at-home defensemen, I subtracted each player's offensive GVT from their defensive GVT. This isn't a list of the greatest defensive defensemen, but rather the defensemen whose defensive abilities are greatest relative to their offensive contributions. Greg Zanon tops this list of some of the toughest and most respected shut-down defensemen in the league.

Legend:

DEF: Defensive GVT minus Offensive GVT

Player           Team        DEF
Greg Zanon       Nashville   8.5 (now Minnesota)
Sean O'Donnell   Los Angeles 8.4
Robyn Regehr     Calgary     8.1
Stephane Robidas Dallas      8.1
Jay McKee        St. Louis   7.9 (now Pittsburgh)
Jan Hejda        Columbus    7.7
Mike Mottau      New Jersey  7.4
Matt Greene      Los Angeles 7.2
Jason Smith      Ottawa      7.1 (now retired)
Willie Mitchell  Vancouver   6.6
Rob Scuderi      Pittsburgh  6.4 (now Los Angeles)
Ruslan Salei     Colorado    6.3
Brett Clark      Colorado    6.1
Marc Staal       NY Rangers  6.0
Nick Schultz     Minnesota   5.5
Kim Johnsson     Minnesota   5.4
Paul Mara        NY Rangers  5.2 (now Montreal)
Scott Hannan     Colorado    5.0
Ken Klee         Phoenix     4.9 (now retired)
Jeff Woywitka    St. Louis   4.8 (now Dallas)

Stay-at-home defensemen are particularly important in today's salary cap era because you simply don't have the cap space to load your team with highly-paid superstars. Despite the fact that preventing goals is at least as valuable as scoring them, those players who specialize in doing so are usually available at very reasonable prices. With the exception of Regehr, who is fairly compensated with $3.5 million, consider the affordability of the top 6: Zanon $1.7 million, O'Donnell $1.25 million, Robidas $1.5 million, McKee $0.8 million, Hejda $2.0 million and Mottau $0.78. You can get the 6 top defensemen on this list all for about $8 million ... which is the cost of 1 Wade Redden.

If we define a stay-at-home defenseman as any defensemen whose defensive contributions outweigh his offensive contributions by at least 1 goal, we can see that three teams feature at least 6 stay-at-home defensemen: Los Angeles, Dallas and St. Louis, while two teams are struggling without any: Detroit and Edmonton.

Team         # DEF
Los Angeles  6 27.9
Dallas       6 22.2
Minnesota    4 20.5
New Jersey   5 19.6
Colorado     4 19.6
Calgary      4 17.5
Columbus     4 16.7
St. Louis    6 16.0
NY Rangers   4 15.9
San Jose     4 15.8
Carolina     5 15.7
Pittsburgh   4 14.7
Buffalo      5 13.2
Montreal     3 13.0
Washington   5 11.0
Vancouver    2 10.4
Chicago      3  7.8
Ottawa       4  7.0
Tampa Bay    3  7.0
Phoenix      2  6.3
Toronto      3  6.0
Anaheim      3  4.5
Atlanta      2  4.5
Nashville    1  3.9
Florida      2  3.7
Boston       1  2.5
Philadelphia 1  1.5
NY Islanders 1  1.1
Detroit      0  0.0
Edmonton     0  0.0

There appears to be a relationship between this year's surprise teams and disappointments, and the number of defensive-minded defensemen in their lineups. In a recent Roundtable, the Puck Prospectus writers identified Colorado, Los Angeles, the New York Rangers and Buffalo as four of the surprise Cinderella teams of the young 2009-10 season. Too bad we didn't count up their total number of shut-down defensemen, because 2 of these teams are in the league's top 5, and the four teams combine for 15 such players.

From the same Roundtable, the season's biggest disappointments were identified as Minnesota, Nashville, Boston and Florida. 3 of these 4 teams are right at the bottom of this list, and all four combine for only 8 defensive defensemen. Looking at all the other teams, like the 2nd worst defensive team in the league (Edmonton Oilers), we can see that the bottom of this list is like a magnet for the season's struggling teams.

What's the story with the Minnesota Wild? They appear 3rd in the list, but are really struggling in the standings. The Wild have been let down somewhat by their goaltending, Niklas Backstrom is stopping 91.0% percent of shots, down slightly from his career-worst total of 92.0%, and back-up Josh Harding barely stopped 86% of the shots in his 4 starts. The real reason Minnesota is off to a slow start is because they've scored only 63 goals so far this season, 4th lowest in the league. They obviously need a lot more scoring, and that's not Greg Zanon's job, it's Martin Havlat's, and he has only 2 goals thus far.

Wrap Up

History has taught us repeatedly that shut-down defensemen like Ken Daneyko and Craig Ludwig are a key ingredient to a championship season, and as such the Norris Trophy is occasionally awarded to defensive specialists like Harry Howell, Tom Johnson and Rod Langway. In today's salary cap era, the cost-effective one-dimensional defenders are more useful than ever, a fact that several of this season's overachieving teams have caught onto. It could be a long season for struggling NHL GMs who don't clue in to this new era and find ways to add some quality stay-at-home defenders to the mix.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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