In the 2015 offseason, general manager Ron Hextall faced a serious challenge. His Philadelphia Flyers team had one of the weakest defenses in the NHL, but lacked much in the way of cap flexibility that could be used to acquire an obvious improvement via free agency or trade.
Hextall's solution? Sign Evgeny Medvedev, a longtime KHL first-pairing defenseman to a one-year contract with a manageable salary cap hit ($3.0 million), and hope that his skillset would translate to the North American game. At 33 years of age, Medvedev would be one of the oldest "rookies" in NHL history, lacking any recent comparables. Despite universal glowing scouting reports on Medvedev, the unprecedented nature of the signing made it an undeniable risk.
Through seven games, the acquisition has looked like a coup for Hextall. While Medvedev has only one point thus far, his strong play cannot be accurately measured by the boxscore. To understand the Russian defenseman's positive impact on the Flyers, it helps to look a little deeper.
Medvedev driving possession
Last season, only three regular defensemen on the Flyers posted a shot attempt ratio (Corsi) over 50 percent, meaning that Philadelphia took more attempts at the net than their opponent did while they were on the ice. Unfortunately, two of those blueliners (Carlo Colaiacovo and Braydon Coburn) were lost due to trades and free agency, turning a position of weakness into a potential fatal flaw for the Flyers.
Luckily for the Flyers, Evgeny Medvedev has been key to stabilizing the even strength puck possession statistics of the defense in Coburn and Colaiacovo's absence.
|Rank||Defenseman||Corsi For Percentage|
|4||Michael Del Zotto||52.17%|
So far, Medvedev ranks third among Philadelphia defensemen with a 53.05% Corsi For percentage. He trails only Luke Schenn and Radko Gudas, both of whom have spent extended time paired alongside Medvedev. Considering the fact that both have established track records as third pair NHL defensemen, it seems that their strong starts can at least be partially attributed to the play of Medvedev.
And a deeper look into both the numbers and tape study backs up that theory. Medvedev has driven both shot generation and shot suppression in the early season.
Medvedev owns the neutral zone
Through extensive video tracking, we have been able to gather the even strength Zone Entry For Percentages of each of the Flyers' defensemen. First publicly presented at the Sloan Sports Conference via a project spearheaded by Eric Tulsky, formerly of Broad Street Hockey and now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes front office, a player's Zone Entry For percentage is a measure of on-ice offensive zone entries generated vs. on-ice defensive zone entries allowed.
If a player is on the ice when the Flyers successfully enter the opponent's zone, he receives credit for an on-ice entry, and if he is playing when the puck successfully makes its way into the defensive zone, he is charged with an on-ice entry against. The statistic is then presented as a ratio, measuring the percentage of total offensive zone entries for a player against the defensive zone entries allowed.
In its simplest terms, Zone Entry For Percentage shows which direction the play tends to move when a specific player is on the ice. A higher percentage means that the puck is being driven into the offensive zone more than the defensive zone, primarily due to sound neutral zone play. A lower percentage implies that the player is often retreating into his own zone and not helping to move the play forward.
Along with regular partners Schenn and Gudas, Medvedev has been dominant in this category.
|Rank||Player||Zone Entry For Percentage|
|4||Michael Del Zotto||52.92%|
(all statistics accurate through 10/21)
When Evgeny Medvedev has been on the ice, close to 60 percent of all zone entries are of the offensive variety. More often than not, the Flyers are setting up shop in the offensive zone during Medvedev's shifts, giving the forwards an opportunity to create chances and also limiting opportunities for opponents to get in on the forecheck and start a cycle.
These statistics have been tracked in the past. Corey Sznjader's All Three Zones project evaluated every single entry during the 2013-14 NHL season, collecting Zone Entry For percentage among numerous other statistics. According to Japers' Rink, Jonathan Ericsson finished with the league's best on-ice rate at 56.34 percent. While that hints that Medvedev's sky-high early season percentages could be due for natural regression, it also showcases just how good the defenseman has been in a small sample.
Medvedev's Corsi and Zone Entry For percentages are both far above average. But what are the tactics that Medvedev is using in order to generate these results? That's where tape study becomes essential.
Aggressiveness driving Medvedev's success
The hockey analytics community has long championed aggressive tactics in the neutral zone. The main critique of defenseman Andrew MacDonald, for example, is his passive play when defending his own blue line, a topic evaluated by Garik16 (currently of Hockey-Graphs and Lighthouse Hockey) and our own Kevin Christmann here at Broad Street Hockey.
Thus far in the 2015-16 season, Evgeny Medvedev is proving to be the anti-MacDonald - a responsible yet assertive neutral zone player who excels in disrupting plays before they begin and quickly transitioning the puck into immediate offense for the Flyers.
First, let's analyze a play from the third period of Philadelphia's 1-0 win over the Florida Panthers on October 12th. The play begins with Brian Campbell attempting to find Aaron Ekblad with an outlet pass in order to exit the Florida zone.
Ekblad fumbles the pass a bit, but it still appears on its way to Vincent Trocheck, who could then flip the puck into the Flyers zone. Instead, Medvedev reacts to the loose puck and jumps in front of Trocheck just in front of the blue line, preventing any possible zone entry.
But Medvedev doesn't simply disrupt the play. He immediately redirects the puck to Ryan White, leading him through the neutral zone with speed and right back into the Panthers zone. By anticipating the play and executing a quick outlet pass, Medvedev both prevented a Florida zone entry and created a Flyers zone entry with one split-second decision.
But defending the blue line is just part of what makes Evgeny Medvedev a stellar neutral zone defenseman. Many of his best plays occur long before the other team has a chance to attack the Flyers' zone.
When defending breakouts, Medvedev (and his partner) like to push up in the neutral zone, positioning themselves as far up as the center ice red line. What this allows Medvedev to do is to attack possible breakouts before they even begin, essentially cutting the ice surface in half at the red line. But it requires incredible anticipation, because a poor read would result in the defenseman getting trapped in the center of the ice while the other team roars into the zone on an odd-man rush.
Here is an example of a strong read by Medvedev that halts a Dallas breakout and sends the puck right back to the Stars' blueline.
Here, Dallas defenseman John Klingberg tries to flip a pass into the neutral zone over the heads of the Philadelphia forecheckers, to a place where the Stars have a numbers advantage. Just prior to the puck landing, Medvedev is actually on the Dallas side of the redline, close enough to the Stars zone to jump back into the play if the Flyers forecheck regains control of the puck.
While the puck is still in the air, Medvedev reacts so that when it lands, he has inside position on forward Antoine Roussel. He then gathers it and fights off Radek Faksa, using one hand to force the puck right back to the Stars' blueline. A quick neutral zone read and the strength to fight through a check was all it took for Medvedev to snuff out an attempt at a rush and get the puck moving towards the Dallas zone.
These plays have been commonplace for Medvedev so far this season. In addition, his aggressive neutral zone play is having a positive effect on his defensive partners, as they are learning to match Medvedev's high line in the middle of the ice and are using the tactic to cut off the neutral zone entirely.
This play, also from the Dallas game, begins as Alex Goligoski attempts a long outlet pass to Roussel. Medvedev is already up high on the opposite side of the ice, again anticipating the possibility of a successful forecheck. Gudas pinches in to challenge Roussel just the puck reaches him, breaking up the play and matching Medvedev's aggressive line.
The Stars regroup, and this time attempt to move the puck to Medvedev's side. But the Russian defenseman anticipates the decision, and he cuts off the pass, beating Faksa to the puck at the red line. Now at speed, Medvedev feeds Claude Giroux, who blasts into the Dallas zone with possession, putting the Flyers back on the attack.
Despite little in the way of point production, Evgeny Medvedev has been one of the Philadelphia Flyers' best players in the early season. His puck possession statistics at even strength have been stellar, and his play has elevated the games of Luke Schenn and Radko Gudas.
Medvedev is particularly stout in the neutral zone. His natural aggressiveness combined with uncanny instincts has resulted in the neutral zone becoming a quagmire for opposing teams. Just as importantly, Medvedev has the passing skill to spring Flyers forwards for controlled zone entries after disrupting rushes.
Is his stellar Zone Entry For percentage sustainable? He probably won't remain around the 60 percent mark, as past tracking research done by Corey Sznajder and compiled by Japers' Rink places even the best neutral zone defensemen in the league at around 55 percent over a full season. Still, the tape backs up the statistics in evaluating Medvedev as a standout neutral zone defenseman.
It may be early in the season, but Evgeny Medvedev is showing the skillset of an above-average NHL blueliner. Whether he can keep up this pace will be a major factor in determining if the Flyers can build off their strong start and take a serious run at the playoffs.
All statistics from War-On-Ice.com or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.