hitchcock

Without Naming Him Directly, Hitchcock Refers to Karlsson as an ‘Offenseman’

In light of how little recognition Blues players are being given in the mainstream media as candidates for many of the league’s major awards, Ken Hitchcock was asked by Craig Custance to lobby for his players as part of an article that appeared on ESPN Insider earlier this afternoon (it’s behind a paywall, so you can only read it if you have a paid subscription)

When the topic of the Norris Trophy arose, Hitch had this to say about Alex Pietrangelo:

“The thing that’s relevant for him, if you’re describing a defenseman, you’re talking about a guy who collects points, plays against the other team’s best players and kill penalties. That’s what he does. He QBs the No. 1 unit on the power play, plays against the other teams’ best players. He kills a minute-plus of every penalty kill. What more can you ask for? He does that. He’s not protected. Nobody protects him. That’s what he does. If you’re looking for a legitimate defenseman, then to me, that’s what this guy is. He’s the word ‘defenseman.’ He’s not an ‘offenseman.’ He’s a complete player.”

Offenseman?

Oh, fuck right off!

Without naming Erik Karlsson directly, you can see through his veiled criticisms as easily as one of his grease-saturated fast food lunchbags.

The unfortunate part of this is that Hitchcock’s sentiments will inevitably be echoed by members of the PHWA who will read and agree with his rationale without doing the responsible due diligence to ascertain just how good Erik Karlsson has become.

Let us breakdown Hitchcock’s description of a defenceman:

1) A guy who collects points

With 19 goals, 57 assists and 76 points, Erik Karlsson leads all defencemen in each of those statistical categories; putting himself amongst the top ten scorers in the league. If Karlsson can finish the season in the top ten, he’ll be the first defenceman since Brian Leetch’s 1991/92 season to accomplish the feat.

He has a 27 point lead on the two defencemen, Brian Campbell and Pietrangelo, who are tied for second place in scoring. As Nicholas Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports points out, “If Karlsson ends up leading NHL defensemen in scoring by 20 points or more, he will become only the fourth player ever to do it. Bobby Orr did it six times. Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey did it once each. That’s it.”

As the CBC noted, NHL scoring is down. Here are the average total of goals scored per game:

  • 2005-06 - 6.11
  • 2006-07 - 5.82
  • 2007-08 - 5.50
  • 2008-09 - 5.68
  • 2009-10 - 5.55
  • 2010-11 - 5.52
  • 2011-12 - 5.36

Given the dearth of high-production players, his dominating production from the blue line is that much more impressive.

2) Plays against the other team’s best players…

Erik Karlsson is clearly Ottawa’s first defenceman. He plays a minute and a half more per game (25:15) than defensive partner Filip Kuba (23:44) and three minutes more than Sergei Gonchar (22:13). Trailing Kuba, he also has the second highest Relative Quality of Competition on the team. In other words, he plays the most minutes and plays against the opposition’s best players.

3) He kills a minute-plus of every penalty kill…

Ah, the biggest and most common of the gripes against Karlsson. He doesn’t log enough time on the penalty kill. In fairness to these critics, Karlsson does spend significantly less time on the penalty kill than other likely Norris Trophy nominees.

SH TOI/G PP TOI/G ES TOI/G
Erik Karlsson 0:31 3:53 20:50
Niklas Lidstrom 1:53 3:45 18:11
Zdeno Chara 2:46 2:43 19:32
Alex Pietrangelo 3:09 2:48 18:40
Shea Weber 2:14 3:46 20:28

On a per game basis, he averages a minute and a half to three minutes less of shorthanded time on-ice than any of these players. The common misconception here is that MacLean has limited Karlsson’s PK minutes because he must have some glaring defensive inefficiencies that could be exploited. Ignoring the fact that Karlsson is capable of playing on the penalty kill. Last season under Cory Clouston, he averaged 1:35 of shorthanded ice-time per game and Ottawa finished with the ninth best penalty killing rate in the NHL. By simply restricting this situational ice-time, MacLean is effectively managing his personnel and allowing Karlsson to conserve his energy and play more even strength minutes where his puck possession skills are more impactful.

Conversely, to what end do we have to consider the efficiency of the PK units before determining whether or not this is an appropriate measure of how “complete” a defenceman is? If Nik Lidstrom can average one minute more of short-handed ice-time but Detroit has a mediocre PK that operates at an 80.2% success rate, is the magnitude of this extra minute the difference between Norris consideration or not?

I seriously fucking hope not.

4) He QBs the No. 1 unit on the power play…

With 3:53 of average power play ice-time per game, Karlsson leads the Senators in this category.

6) Nobody protects him…

I suppose one of the fair criticisms that one could have is that Karlsson benefits from a high offensive start rate (57.1%) at even strength. (Note: offensive zone starts are the percentage of face-offs taken in the offensive zone while a player is on the ice. Even strength, minus empty net situations, only.)

On the Senators, that’s the second highest mark on the team behind only Kuba. Relative to other Norris candidates like Chara (lowest rate on the Bruins), Weber (second lowest on the Preds), Karlsson’s rate is higher but relatively close with comparables like Lidstrom (56.3%) or Pietrangelo (52.3%). These zone start metrics are not without debate however, if Karlsson’s an elite offensive defenceman, why wouldn’t he receive the lion’s share of the offensive zone starts so that it could create more scoring chances?

7) He’s a complete player…

I’ve already detailed the reasons why Erik has become a complete player in a February piece, however it’s worth restating that this perpetuated myth that Erik Karlsson isn’t a good defensive player is such a farce built largely off of the reputation that the player developed during his first season or two in the league.

As we’ve already seen, the anti-Karlsson crowd furthering the argument that nobody would choose Karlsson before a Weber or a Chara or a Pietrangelo for their respective team because of the cumulative work of those candidates. Thanks to the aforementioned reputation(s) that are applied to guys like Karlsson, I wish people held the Norris Trophy to the same standards that exist when voting for the Jack Adams Trophy.

Much like Hitchcock will probably win the Jack Adams as the league’s “best coach” because his St. Louis Blues are performing at a significant rate that exceeded many of the expectations for his club, nobody in their right minds would prefer to have him over some other candidates like Mike Babcock or a Dan Bylsma. Inevitably, he’ll get shitcanned because a) he cannot put his team over the top; b) his players will start tuning him out; and c) he can finally go back to carrying around an urn and managing the Undertaker. Nevertheless, he’ll probably be rewarded for having the best season. The same should apply for Karlsson. He should be recognized with the Norris for having the most outstanding season for someone at the defenceman position.

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