The defenseman had never been one to provide stellar possession statistics, but in January 2014, everything cratered. His advanced stats, already below-average, fell to horrific levels. The wave of goals against unsurprisingly followed, and leading into the Olympic break, many (including we at Broad Street Hockey) were calling for the burly defenseman to take a seat.
But after the break, Grossmann turned things around. Whether it was the Swede finding his game or simply a product of playing alongside a resurgent Mark Streit, Grossmann's play to close out the season was undeniably solid.
The hope was that the pairing would carry over its success into the 2014-15, and that hope became a necessity once news broke in August that Kimmo Timonen's career was likely over, dramatically weakening the defense as a whole.
Unfortunately, it has not become a reality.
The gap between Grossmann and the rest of the defense is staggering
The Flyers defense corps had received substantial criticism this year, and it's not unwarranted. The team lacks any clear first pairing defensemen, and the defense contains far too many 5-6 types paid like legitimate second pair d-men.
But surprisingly enough, none of the defensemen on Philadelphia's roster are delivering outright horrific possession statistics in 2014-15.
Except Nicklas Grossmann, of course.
Out of the seven defensemen that have received at least 200 even strength minutes this season for the Flyers, six of them fall between 48.5% and 50.0% in terms of Corsi For%, which measures the percentage of Flyers shot attempts that occur when a player is on the ice. It's not exactly top-tier production, but the Flyers aren't getting totally throttled in terms of possession when Luke Schenn, Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto, Braydon Coburn, Nick Schultz or Andrew MacDonald have been playing.
And then there's Grossmann.
Grossmann isn't just the worst possession defenseman on the Flyers. He's on an entirely separate plane of awful, trailing Andrew MacDonald (who owns the defense's second-worst CF%) by a whopping 4.9%.
Is this sort of disparity between a team's worst possession defenseman and the rest of the corps a normal occurrence? Unsurprisingly, no.
While there are other blueliners in the league who lag behind the rest of their defense in terms of 5v5 play driving, there is no defenseman in hockey in 2014/15 who trails his teammates quite as badly as Nicklas Grossmann (with at least 200 minutes of 5v5 ice time).
|Player||Team||Corsi For% Behind Nearest Defensive Teammate|
|Peter Harrold||New Jersey||-4.4%|
And don't cling to the "Grossmann receives tough minutes" argument as justification for his poor numbers. He ranks fourth among Flyers d-men in offensive zone start percentage, and third in terms of Time on Ice Quality of Competition, according to War-On-Ice.com. He's not getting sheltered, but he's also not taking a lion's share of the burden, either.
It's not tough minutes causing this disaster. It's simply poor play.
Mark Streit's impossible task
The Mark Streit-Nicklas Grossmann pairing helped carry the Flyers to the playoffs last year, giving the team a legitimate second pairing behind the consistent Timonen-Coburn duo. So it was an obvious decision to keep the two of them together entering the 2014/15 season, if only to see if their success would carry over.
Instead, it's resulted in the Flyers owing Mark Streit one big apology.
At 5v5, Streit has spent 451:47 alongside Grossmann, and 234:55 away from the Swede. And in looking at the numbers, it appears they were 234:55 glorious minutes.
While paired with Grossmann this year, Streit's Corsi For percentage has been an awful 44.57%, barely worthy of being considered a legitimate NHL third pairing. But away from Grossmann? Streit posts a stellar 60.41%, deserving of first pair minutes on any team.
That's not to say that if Grossmann were removed from the equation, Streit immediately becomes the top pair defenseman that the Flyers have lacked. There's a lot at play here - Streit gets more offensive zone starts away from Grossmann, the Corsi gap isn't as wide during close situations (42.23% with, 51.48% away from Grossmann), the overall samples are still a bit small - but what does seem clear is that Nicklas Grossmann is dragging Mark Streit down every time they hit the ice together.
Wouldn't it be nice to see what Streit could do away from a possession anchor?
But his plus/minus!
Nicklas Grossmann's possession numbers aren't just bad, they are abysmal. So all of these shot attempts and the time spent in the defensive zone are resulting in a deluge of goals against, right?
Amazingly, no. Somehow, Grossmann is actually a plus-five in terms of 5v5 goals on the season, second-best among Flyers defensemen.
It's obviously not due to a lack of shots from the opposition. No, it's because Philadelphia goaltenders have done a particularly stellar job of stopping the puck this season when Nicklas Grossmann is on the ice. His on-ice save percentage of 94.4% is by far a defense-best.
Some would make the case that it is Grossmann's stay-at-home, positionally-sound style of play that allows him to sustain a high on-ice save percentage. He may be allowing shots, but they aren't high quality chances, the theory goes. Therefore, statistics like Corsi do not accurately measure a player like him.
It's a tempting theory. Luckily, we do have individual on-ice scoring chance statistics as well, due to the great work of Andrew D (@Drewski89), and they paint an equally negative picture of Grossmann's play this season.
When Grossmann has been on the ice this season at 5v5, the Flyers have allowed 5.6 scoring chances per 20 minutes -- the highest rate among defensemen on the team. That's right -- higher than press box inhabitor Luke Schenn, higher than the "inconsistent" Braydon Coburn, even higher than supposed defensive liability Michael Del Zotto.
We have the numbers. Grossmann hasn't been preventing high quality chances -- in fact, he's been worse at doing so than any other defenseman on the roster. Armed with that knowledge, it seems likely that his high on-ice save percentage is a product of one thing -- dumb luck.
Great goaltending has bailed out Grossmann so far this season. But unfortunately for the Flyers, the tide is starting to turn. In the past five games, Grossmann has been on the ice for five goals against, and unless his underlying numbers improve quickly, it could be the start of a very painful stretch in terms of on-ice results.
It could get ugly fast
After a solid finishing kick to the 2013/14 season, there was tempered optimism regarding Nicklas Grossmann at the start of the year. Sadly, that optimism has been extinguished as the 29-year old defenseman has struggled this season according to almost every advanced metric.
In past years, Grossmann was able to make up for poor even strength play by providing value on the penalty kill. But this year, he's even struggled in that regard, as Pattison Avenue's Scott T. (@NHLFlyera) outlined in December.
He's never provided much offense, and considering the fact that Grossmann has already scored three goals this season, he's likely finished providing any meaningful point production the rest of the way.
What we're left with is a perennially-poor possession defenseman who has fallen to new lows this season, surviving only due to an artificially high on-ice save percentage. And if that save percentage continues to drop -- look out. This could get ugly fast.