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Identifying Brandon Manning's biggest weakness

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Thus far this season, Brandon Manning has been one of the Flyers' worst statistical defensemen. What are opponents attacking in his play?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After four seasons in the AHL, defenseman Brandon Manning finally earned a spot in the Philadelphia Flyers' opening night lineup this year. In danger of becoming an afterthought in the organization, Manning apparently impressed in an extended stint with the big club late in the 2014-15 season and throughout training camp.

As result, new coach Dave Hakstol chose to keep the 25-year old blueliner over veteran Andrew MacDonald. Unfortunately, Manning's early season performance has been rocky. He has posted negative on-ice goal and shot attempt statistics, has not yet scored a point, and was designated a healthy scratch three times by Hakstol in 13 games.

The hope was that Manning could provide value as a cheap, steady third-pair defenseman -- a welcome shift in thinking for an organization that has paid players like MacDonald and Andrej Meszaros top dollar to fill that role. But so far, the statistics are not kind to Manning in his attempt to carve out a role as a regular starter for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Can Brandon Manning turn things around? In order to answer that question, let's take a look at the defenseman's strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate whether they can be fixed.

Puck possession struggles

After a solid start to the season, the Philadelphia Flyers as a team have begun to sag in terms of even strength shot attempt differential. On the blue line, Brandon Manning has been one of the chief offenders.

Rank Defenseman Corsi For Percentage Corsi Relative to Teammates
1 Luke Schenn 53.14% 5.25%
2 Michael Del Zotto 51.45% 5.14%
3 Evgeny Medvedev 51.24% 3.20%
4 Radko Gudas 51.08% 6.23%
5 Mark Streit 46.37% -3.11%
6 Brandon Manning 44.22% -5.32%
7 Nick Schultz 40.27% -11.17%

All statistics accurate as of 11/4/15.

Only Nick Schultz has produced on-ice shot attempt differentials worse than Manning. And Manning has been placed in more favorable situations than Schultz -- 37.3% of his shifts that start with a faceoff begin in the offensive zone versus 22.5% for Schultz.

While the newest work in hockey statistical analysis has found that the impact of zone starts is not large, it does have some effect on puck possession metrics. After removing the first ten seconds of each offensive and defensive zone start to account for the favorable (and unfavorable) matchups, Manning's Corsi For drops to 42.4%, just a hair above Schultz's poor statistics.

According to the shot attempt metrics, Brandon Manning has been one of the team's most ineffective defensemen. But raw Corsi isn't everything. In order to gain a full understanding of a defenseman, it helps to look deeper - particularly at his play in the neutral and defensive zones.

A strong blueliner either is adept at preventing quality scoring chances and getting the puck out of his own end, or is so good in the neutral zone that teams never set up to attack in the first place. Where do Manning's issues originate?

Neutral zone play not the problem

Play in the neutral zone is not easy to measure for defensemen. The best methods of doing so must be tracked manually, and usually center around two questions:

  • Does the player's team generate more offensive zone entries than the other team while he is on the ice?
  • Is the player able to prevent the other team from entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck at a high rate?

So far this season, Manning has been passable in terms of zone entry percentage, and above-average in preventing controlled zone entries.

First, let's look at each member of the defense and his impact on the team's Zone Entry For percentage.

Rank Defenseman Zone Entry For Percentage
1 Evgeny Medvedev 55.28%
2 Luke Schenn 54.45%
3 Radko Gudas 53.93%
4 Michael Del Zotto 51.24%
5 Brandon Manning 49.55%
6 Mark Streit 48.15%
7 Nick Schultz 47.30%

All tracking statistics accurate as of 11/4/15.

The numbers aren't fantastic for Manning, but he looks far better here than he did in raw Corsi. The Flyers are entering the offensive zone about as much as they are allowing opponents to enter the Philadelphia zone while Brandon Manning is on the ice -- not bad for a third-pair defenseman.

His play defending the blue line is even better. When opposing forwards directly attack Brandon Manning on the rush, he has done a great job this season at either breaking up the play or forcing the player to dump the puck into the zone.

Defenseman Controlled Entry Against Percentage Dump-Ins Against Percentage Break-Up Percentage
Michael Del Zotto 46.88% 38.54% 14.58%
Brandon Manning 47.22% 31.95% 20.83%
Luke Schenn 48.94% 31.56% 19.15%
Evgeny Medvedev 53.95% 21.05% 25.00%
Radko Gudas 56.14% 29.86% 14.00%
Mark Streit 56.88% 28.44% 14.68%
Nick Schultz 60.27% 27.40% 12.33%

Manning ranks second among Flyers defensemen in both Controlled Entry Against percentage and Break-Up percentage. And this makes sense when looking at his skillset. Manning is a solid skater, and has shown a tendency towards aggressive play in his time in the AHL and with the big club. Both traits bode well for a player possessing a natural willingness to attack forwards at the blue line.

Admittingly, nine games is a bit of a small sample to make meaningful judgments on Brandon Manning's skillset. Luckily, we can also look at the data that Jess Schmidt from Pattison Avenue collected last season to see if he showcased similar neutral zone success in his 11-game stint.

And according to Jess' tracking, Manning produced positive results in terms of defensive zone entry in 2014-15 as well. He ranked third on the defense in limiting entries with possession, and fourth in break-up percentage.

This data helps to answer why coach Dave Hakstol chose Manning over Andrew MacDonald at the start of the season. Hakstol has advocated for aggressive neutral zone play from the start of his tenure, so it makes sense that he would choose a defenseman adept at that style over a notoriously-passive blueliner like MacDonald.

According to the numbers, Manning appears to have legitimate skill in the neutral zone. So why are his possession statistics so poor?

A defensive zone exit disaster

At first glance, Brandon Manning's skillset appears to be that of a balanced defenseman. He can skate. His aggressiveness has paid dividends in the neutral zone. He put up solid point totals in the AHL.

Unfortunately, it's missing one key element of his game. So far in the NHL, Brandon Manning has struggled mightily with the puck on his stick.

Manning's fatal flaw is most apparent in the defensive zone, when he tries to help the Flyers exit their own end. So far this year, no Philadelphia defenseman has been worse at defensive zone exits than Brandon Manning.

Let's look at a chart that measures the percentage of defensive zone touches by each blueliner that become zone exits, controlled zone exits, and turnovers/failed exits.

Defenseman Successful Exit Percentage Controlled Exit Percentage Turnover Percentage
Mark Streit 36.84% 23.68% 14.91%
Michael Del Zotto 36.41% 23.08% 14.36%
Evgeny Medvedev 36.36% 29.37% 13.29%
Luke Schenn 33.33% 24.11% 13.48%
Nick Schultz 32.16% 18.13% 12.87%
Radko Gudas 30.92% 16.45% 13.82%
Brandon Manning 30.40% 16.80% 16.80%

Manning is at the bottom in every category. He struggles to exit the defensive zone, he struggles to exit the defensive zone with possession, and most concerning, he struggles to avoid turnovers. So far this season, a strong case can be made that the 25-year old has been the team's worst blueliner in the Flyers' end.

Nine poor games in the defensive zone would be concerning, but not enough to make any conclusive judgments regarding Manning. However, after taking into account Jess' tracking data yet again, we can double the sample. It then becomes clear that this is not a recent issue.

Jess' tracking methods and mine are a bit different, so it's best to judge the individual players' performance relative to their teammates rather than use a year-over-year statistical comparison.  And yet again, Manning brings up the rear. He ranked last among defensemen in successful exit percentage, and seventh in controlled exits.

What is particularly frightening is Manning's closest comparable last season - Nicklas Grossmann. The now-Arizona defenseman was actually better than Brandon Manning in successfully pushing the puck out of the defensive zone last season, though Manning did top him by eight percentage points in controlled entry percentage.

Still, a stay-at-home defenseman notorious for poor puck skills is not the company that Brandon Manning should be happy to keep. The comparison just serves to illustrate the depth of Manning's NHL struggles thus far with the puck in his own zone.

Conclusion

Brandon Manning's struggles this season are apparent via the eye test or a simple glance at the puck possession charts. But there are legitimate positives in his game, as the 25-year old defenseman has flashed potential in his neutral zone play. It's this skillset that likely caught the eye of new coach Dave Hakstol.

Unfortunately, his strength in the neutral zone has been outweighed by his poor play in the defensive end. Manning has been the worst Flyers defenseman this season in terms of defensive zone exits, and the trend dates back to last season. In fact, his performance comes dangerously close to former Philadelphia defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, who was long criticized for below-average puck skills.

If the Flyers want to extract as much value as possible from Manning at the NHL level, they would be best served pairing him with a strong puck-moving defenseman. The idea would be to replicate the success of the Mark Streit - Nicklas Grossmann pairing, which did function well for an extended stretch in 2013-14. Evgeny Medvedev, Michael Del Zotto or Streit himself would be the best candidates.

Manning is not totally lacking for NHL skills. But the Flyers must understand his strengths and weaknesses if they wish to put him in the best positions to succeed.

All statistics from War-On-Ice.com, Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, or manually tracked by Jess Schmidt of PattisonAve.com and Charlie O'Connor.