It's old news, but it got obscured in the deadline day trade frenzy. Chicago locked up the other half of their dynamic defensive duo to a five-year, $29 million contract extension. It may seem rude to call Brent Seabrook "the other half" as if he's some sort of sidekick to Duncan Keith
but hey, that's the conventional wisdom around the NHL and the fans who watch the game.
The problem is, it's not completely clear. Keith and Seabrook provide the same kind of dilemma that Daniel and Henrik Sedin do. In the past four seasons, including this one, Seabrook has played 68%, 83%, 83% and 63% of his even-strength shifts with Duncan Keith. So when we're evaluating the two of them, it can be hard to single out which player is "driving the bus" and which one benefits from the other. By just looking at their individual stats, we're evaluating the effectiveness of a defensive pairing we could refer to as Brentcan Keithbrook. And that defensive pairing is pretty damn good.
Brent Seabrook has faced the hardest competition (using Corsi Rel QoC) of all Blackhawks defensemen for the past three seasons and has seen his ice time increase from 15.12 ES minutes per game in 2007-08 to 18.44 ES minutes this year. He consistently faces the top opposition lines and has some of the hardest zone starts on the Blackhawks blueline. Another indication of the trust his coaches have in him is penalty kill time. He has been on the ice for more than 50% of his teams PK minutes for the last four seasons. By the way, Duncan Keith's situational stats are eerily similar.
Seabrook is signed to a cap hit of $5.8 million per year until 2016, while Keith's $5.5 million cap hit runs until 2023. Just looking at the contracts, it appears that the Blackhawks value Seabrook more but feel Keith is the more durable and sustainable of the two.
Luckily, we can use tools like Vic Ferrari's fantastic scripts at TimeOnIce.com to separate the performance of players. The method is simple to explain, and is generally referred to as With-Or-Without-You (WOWY). We look at the performance of Keith and Seabrook when they're on the ice together and compare that to their performance when apart. The biggest hindrance in this case are the sample sizes. We definitely have a lot more data when they're together than when they're apart.
There are two seasons of data that we can use, 2008-09 and 2009-10. All info is for even strength with the score close to limit score effects.
For those that need a quick refresher, Shot % is the proportion of total shots directed at the opponents net while the player is on the ice. So if Seabrook was on the ice for 12 shots for and 8 shots against, his Shot % would be = (12 / (12+8)) = 60%. Fenwick includes shots that missed the net, and Corsi also includes blocked shots. All are great measures of possession.
2008-09 Shot% Fenwick% Corsi% On-ice EV SV%
Both together 0.544 0.543 0.548 0.939
Keith (alone) 0.578 0.551 0.552 0.930
Seabrook (alone) 0.516 0.541 0.528 0.917
2009-10 Shot% Fenwick% Corsi% On-ice EV SV%
Both together 0.547 0.555 0.548 0.898
Keith (alone) 0.642 0.633 0.633 0.887
Seabrook (alone) 0.538 0.525 0.525 0.902
Looking at the comparison, it seems obvious that Duncan Keith is the player driving possession. His own numbers are better without Seabrook, and Seabrook suffers when he's not with Keith. We still have to be leery however since the sample size when they're without each other is so small. In both our WOWY seasons above, the two players had 83% of their shifts together. So the real question is, if Keith is Batman and Seabrook is Robin, did the Blackhawks make a mistake with the contracts?
Absolutely not. They may have the salaries slightly inverted, but in the scale of league-wide pay, they're in the right ballpark. If anything, they just got Duncan Keith at an incredible discount. Seabrook's new contract is in the same ballpark as Andrei Markov, Bryan McCabe, Lubomir Visnovsky, Roman Hamrlik, Sergei Gonchar and Mike Green. I'm sure that most teams would take Seabrook before a lot of his comparables. It's not easy to find blueliners that consistently play the tough minutes and come out ahead.
The only real gamble in the whole situation is the 'Hawks management of their cap space. With Seabrook now signed, there is $47.1 million in cap space allocated to nine key players and only one of those contracts expires before the end of the 2013-14 season. While all are very good players, the team is gambling that this group with the right role players around them is good enough to keep challenging for the Cup.
Forwards Cap hit Through year
Kane $6.3 million 2015
Toews $6.3 million 2015
Hossa $5.3 million 2021
Sharp $3.9 million 2012
Bolland $3.4 million 2014
Defensemen Cap hit Through year
Campbell $7.1 million 2016
Seabrook $5.8 million 2016
Keith $5.5 million 2023
Hjalmarsson $3.5 million 2014
The only real mistake in the group is Brian Campbell's bloated contract. Unfortunately, they're probably stuck with it since no team is willing to jump that grenade without some massive talent coming back as compensation.
For the next several years, the Blackhawks will be forced to fill out the rest of their roster with players averaging no more than $1.25 million per year. So while it's great to have all this talent, GM Stan Bowman had better keep looking for players like Michael Frolik who can be had while their stock is low.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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