Looking back on Luke Schenn's first season with the Flyers

Call me 'Fat Schenn' one more time and see what happens, I dare you. - USA TODAY Sports

Luke Schenn picked up a lot of praise for his first season in a Flyers uniform. Let's talk about why that is, how good he was, and what to expect from him going forward.

There's a lot to say about the Flyers' defense, both about the guys there now and the guys who may be there in the future. But of the guys in the former group, not one of them generated as much discussion around his play this year as newcomer Luke Schenn did.

Schenn -- who went from having a rough start to the season to working well with Kimmo Timonen on the Flyers' top pairing to logging big minutes late in the season alongside Oliver Lauridsen after everyone else got injured -- has ultimately picked up a lot of praise for his first season in orange and black, which included some fairly impressive advanced metrics as well as some gaudy numbers in old-fashioned stats.

There are, in my mind, three key questions to talk about in regards to the elder Schenn's season, so let's go through them now.

1. How much success did he actually have?

Glad you asked. I'm a fan of the advanced metrics, so we'll start with those -- and like I said before, Schenn's were pretty darn good this year. (All numbers at 5-on-5.)

On-Ice Goals For/60 On-Ice Goals Against/60 Corsi On Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC Offensive Zone Start % P/60
Luke Schenn 2.71 2.5 -1.1 6.9 0.683 45.8 0.64
Team Rank (out of 8) 3 3 2 2 2 7* 5

*in this case, 7 means "seventh-lowest O-zone starts", which is also second-highest or second-easiest.

In essence, what that's saying is that Schenn faced pretty tough opponents and ended up doing a better job of controlling the play than just about any Flyers defenseman not named Kimmo Timonen. While other guys had pretty tough starts, Schenn's were comparable with guys like Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann (the Flyers, as a team, started in the defensive end a lot this year) and his results were better than theirs despite facing tougher opponents. (The only player to face tougher competition, by Corsi Rel QoC, was actually Oliver Lauridsen, who we'll talk more about in a bit.) Those metrics were, by far, the most impressive of any season of his five-year career.

Beyond his play at 5-on-5, Schenn was a key part of the team's largely successful (fifth-best in the NHL) penalty-killing unit. Among the team's top four defensemen on the PK, Schenn was the best among them at preventing goals and shot attempts while on the ice a man down.

In the more traditional stats department: he had more hits than any defenseman in the league, by a lot. That isn't something I particularly care about at all (based mostly on the theory of "time spent racking up hits = time spent without the puck"), but is fun if you're into that I guess. He was also the team leader in blocked shots, which again isn't something that excites me too much by that same theory, but we can all appreciate the willingness to throw the body in the way of the puck sometimes. Plus it definitely helps on the PK, as mentioned above.

And in a season where Flyers defensemen were falling left and right, he was durable, too. Second, just behind Coburn, on the team's per-game ice time rankings, and he only missed one game this season (due to the flu).

So whether it was the natural progression of a 22-year old defenseman, a change of scenery, or something else, there's little denying Schenn took a step forward this year. How much of a step forward is up for debate, and the biggest follow-up question there is...

2. How much of his success can we attribute to his being paired with Kimmo Timonen?

The most common knock on Schenn's performance this year is "Well, of course it looks like he played well, he was playing next to a great defenseman like Kimmo Timonen."

There may be some validity to that theory, what with Kimmo being outstanding year-in and year-out here in Philly. Not to mention, with their styles of play -- Schenn being more of a stay-at-home, kinda slower defenseman, and Kimmo being a smooth, puck-moving kind of player who excels all-around -- you could make the argument that pairing the two of them together puts a disproportionate amount of pressure on Kimmo to handle more responsibilities, meaning therefore that he should get more credit for their collective success while on the ice together.

So let's start with that. If you look solely at the Corsi rates for each guy together and then without one another, it doesn't look great for Schenn.

TOI Attempts For Attempts Against Corsi %
Timonen/Schenn together 409:16 389 340 53.4%
Schenn apart 424:55 362 415 46.6%
Timonen apart 229:35 215 218 49.7%

So the fact that Schenn's percentages dropped precipitously without Timonen isn't encouraging. But there are silver linings/excuses. Namely:

  1. Kimmo's numbers dropped off without Schenn as well. This also shouldn't be too surprising, given that Kimmo spent most of his non-Schenn ice time with Bruno Gervais. So at the very, very least, it's nice to know that Schenn has safely cleared the "borderline sixth defenseman" bar, which is where I know some had him pegged after a rough 2011-12 season.
  2. Schenn spent most of his non-Timonen ice time with Oliver Lauridsen, an NHL rookie, and did so while facing even tougher situations than he had been with Timonen.

We'll hone in on the second point. Schenn's 48-game season can essentially be cut into two parts: the first two-thirds of it, in which he spent almost all of his ice time with Timonen, and the final third of it, in which he was on a pairing with Lauridsen.

While it's hard to pull Corsi figures/results for specific timeframes, we can examine some things, such as zone start usage. Here's how frequently Schenn, Timonen, and the team as a whole were starting in the offensive end, divided up before and after their game on March 30 against the Bruins (when Schenn started playing with Lauridsen).

Offensive Zone Start % L. Schenn Timonen Flyers
1/19 - 3/29 (33 games) 49.4% 52.4% 45.7%
3/30 - 4/27 (15 games) 41.9% 47.6% 42.9%

When Schenn and Timonen were paired together, they had roughly neutral starts, with the Coburn-Grossmann pairing getting the lion's share of the defensive zone draws. But in late March, once Coburn and Grossmann got injured and Schenn was paired with Lauridsen -- who, as a reminder, was an unheralded 7th-round defensive prospect who made his NHL debut on March 30 -- he found a LOT more of his starts coming in the defensive zone. More than team-average, and notably more than he had with Timonen.

Those starts also came against fairly strong opponents. While we don't have exact numbers there, we can ballpark: we know that Lauridsen spent 88.4 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Schenn, and that Lauridsen's zone Corsi Rel QoC of 0.747 was the toughest on the team in total. If we use Oliver as something of a proxy for Schenn over the season's final month, we can pretty safely assume Schenn's minutes also came against some of the other team's best players.

The fact that Peter Laviolette -- whether out of necessity or complete confidence -- was willing to give Schenn those kinds of tough situations, while having an NHL rookie pinned to his side, makes you believe that the team definitely saw some significant progress from Schenn this year.

Now again, we should note that he got pasted in those assignments in terms of possession.

Lauridsen got outshot by 11.3 attempts per 60 in his brief NHL stint; if we again use him as a proxy for Schenn in that time frame, it doesn't paint a rosy picture. However, in his/their defense, Lauridsen actually had basically a dead-even Corsi Rel (+0.1) this season, which tells you that he and Schenn did about as well together while buried in their own end against strong opponents as the rest of the team did in considerably easier situations. Which is good.

I'm not going to rag on Schenn because his performance got that much worse when you take an All-Star veteran defenseman off of his pairing and replace him with an AHL guy making his NHL debut. Of course that's going to happen.

Kimmo absolutely helped Schenn along this year and there's no way Schenn picks up the praise he does if not for playing alongside the ageless Finn, but Laviolette trusted him more and more in tough situations as the season went on, even moreso without Timonen.

3. What needs to happen to keep that success moving forward?

Early on in the season, when Timonen and Schenn looked like they'd established some decent chemistry as a pairing, there was some talk about the fact that Schenn's only other notably decent year in the NHL (2010-11) was one that he spent mostly alongside Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle, like Timonen, is more of a puck-moving defenseman, so the question became "Does Luke Schenn play better with puck-moving types"?

Let's go back to the WOWY analysis to figure that out. Acknowledging that we're dealing with a lot of very small samples here beyond Timonen and Lauridsen...

Defensive Partner Corsi% Zone-Adjusted Corsi%
Timonen 53.40% 53.90%
Gustafsson 50.80% 50.90%
Schenn (average) 49.90% 50.40%
Lauridsen 46.60% 47.60%
Grossmann 46.20% 48.00%
Gervais 42% 41.70%
Coburn 40.70% 40.20%

The two guys who elevated Schenn's average play -- Timonen and Erik Gustafsson -- are the two best puck-moving guys that the Flyers have on their blueline, and Schenn saw his rates dip when put with any of the other guys, most of whom are the more stay-at-home, less-mobile types (Lauridsen, Grossmann, Coburn). While we've already established that Schenn was in tougher situations with the guys at the bottom of the list, the fact that the zone-adjusted Corsi rates paint a similar picture shows that there may be something to that theory mentioned above.

So what needs to happen? Well, for one, the Flyers need more mobile defensemen, though that's not exactly news to anyone. But this suggests that Schenn probably isn't someone who, at this point in his career, can carry a pair of stay-at-home guys by himself, and that his style of play works better when he's paired with someone like Kimmo or Gus who can get the rush going while Schenn does his thing in the defensive end.

The fact that Kimmo is probably retiring after next season makes that reality tougher to swallow, but if they can find a guy who's similar (if not as talented) to Timonen, stylistically, Schenn's performances will probably continue to look good.

***

To sum up, then:

  • Luke Schenn had the best season of his career in 2013, by a good margin. He put up solid results at even strength and on the penalty kill, all while being placed in tough situations.
  • Schenn owes at least some of that success to playing alongside a player like Kimmo Timonen, who is not only excellent but plays a style that suits him well.
  • Peter Laviolette trusted Schenn enough late in the season to throw him on the ice in the defensive end, against the other team's best players, all with a seventh-round rookie on his pairing. The results weren't particularly good, but the trust was there.
  • Schenn is best-suited, moving forward, to be paired with a puck-moving type of defenseman.
  • How good he actually is remains to be seen, but we can pretty safely think higher of him than we did at this time last year, when he was the sixth defenseman on a bad Maple Leafs team.

Luke Schenn's almost certainly not ever going to turn into the guy that Toronto thought they were getting at the 2008 draft, and he's still got his shortcomings. But in his first season in Philly it sure looks like he did a pretty respectable job out there. He's only 23 next season, he's still learning, and he's shown he can be successful in the right situations.

We have some reason to worry, based on the Flyers' struggles in developing defensemen of late. But if the final month of this season was any indication, we can expect to see him get some of the team's tough minutes again next year, and how he'll handle those is anyone's guess at this point.

I'm cautiously optimistic, though, partly because given the state of this team's defense I kind of have to be, and partly because his performance definitely cleared expectations this year.

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