Yesterday we focused on the Flyers’ forwards and took a look at the predictability and repeatability of a few different statistics. Today we’ll be looking at the team’s defenders, revisiting those same statistics from a day ago, and will be introducing a third and final category in zone entry defense. Let’s start with what was found to be the most predictive stat for Flyers’ skaters, shot contributions.
If someone asked you to list the Flyers’ defenders in order by shot contributions per 60 minutes without looking at the data you’d probably do pretty good; the data matches the eye test quite well. The top two, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, are both among the top-50 defensemen in the league in contributions, with the former ranking 36th overall with a rate of 22.46 sC/60. The overwhelming majority of both their individual shots and the shots they set up are one-timers, and a lot of the time it’s to each other. The second strongest link on the defensive corps was the pair of Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning, who also happen to be no. 3 and no. 4 in shot contributions per 60.
Gudas, who shot the puck at one of the highest rates in the league among defensemen last season, missed the net more than any other Flyer not named Andrew MacDonald per total shots taken. He missed the net on 57.14% of his 5-on-5 shots, and while that may seem high, it’s not as bad as it seems. On average, Flyers defensemen missed the net on 56.11% of their shots but had one player in particular stand out as especially inefficient here in MacDonald, who failed to hit the net on 67.66% of his attempts. The Flyers would likely be better off if these two shot the puck a bit less and instead attempted to find a more accurate shooter to pass to, but we all know how the saying goes: “throw the puck at the net and good things happen.”
Like his most common defensive partner, the majority of Manning’s shot contributions came from his own shots. He was a bit more accurate, albeit not by much, and since he’s no longer on the Flyers let’s just leave it at that and move on to number five, Travis Sanheim.
Despite being fifth in overall contributions per 60, Sanheim’s primary shot assist rate was bested by only Gostisbehere and Provorov. So Sanheim is directly setting up shots, great, but are they quality passes? He did only have 10 points and 8 assists in his 49 games last season after all. Short answer: yes, yes they were. Sanheim made five passes into the home plate area of the ice, tying Provorov, who more than doubled Sanheim’s total ice last season. Among Flyers’ defensemen it was only Gostisbehere who made more of these high danger passes (DZSA) than Sanheim did, and thanks to Ryan Stimson’s passing project, and subsequent visualizations, we can quickly see that Gostisbehere is one of the league’s best in, well, a lot of things over the course of his career.
That’s a lot of acronyms, so let’s go talk our way through what the ones pertaining to shots taken stand for before we continue on. Under the “impact” category we have two things, the first being the percentage of shots a player contributes to while they’re on the ice, and the second being expected primary points per 60 minutes. Think of this as an expected goals model that takes the quality of passes made prior to the shot into account. Continuing down the line in order we have one-timer shot assists, secondary and tertiary shot assists, royal road and behind the net shot assists (known as danger zone shot assists), expected assists, and transition passes all per 60 minutes. Next up we have primary shot contributions (shots and primary shot assists), shot assists, and shots, again all per 60 minutes. Finally, the last three are one-timers taken by the player, danger zone shots taken by the player, and the individuals expected goals per 60 minutes.
Finishing up this category are nos. six and seven, MacDonald and Robert Hagg. They contributed the least to the Flyers’ shots last season and that likely comes as no surprise. These two don’t do much on the offensive side of things and when they’re on the ice, especially together, they usually have a hard time exiting the defensive zone and end up stuck there for an extended amount of time. Speaking of exiting the defensive zone...
Four defensemen crack the top-15 in both zone entries and zone exits per 60 minutes. Their names are Erik Karlsson, Nick Leddy, Darnell Nurse, and Shayne Gostisbehere. Yesterday we discussed how important Travis Konecny is to the Flyers’ transition game, and Gostisbehere may be the lone player on the team with a bigger impact in this area of the game. It’s no hyperbole to say that Gostisbehere is on another level entirely compared to his peers. Only Karlsson and Leddy have better possession entry and exit percents than he does, and just a select few grade out better than him in one or the other.
On a team level, Gostisbehere is clearly the Flyers’ best at zone entries. His 54% carry-in percent and 29.9% entry pass percent are the best among team defensemen and he failed to enter the zone just fifteen times on over 200 entry attempts. His 81.5% exit percent ranks first among Flyers’ defensemen, and he did that with possession 49.3% of the time, again a team-best. Gostisbehere is like a brand new smartphone. When he’s on the ice everything runs smoothly and there’s no input lag. However when he’s off the ice, it’s as if the Flyers were downgraded to an older, slower model - with this literally being the case at times - and things begin to crash.
And crash they did when Hagg or Manning attempted to exit the zone. They both failed to exit the zone on over 22.5% of their attempts, and even when they had succeeded it was mostly without possession, allowing the opposition to come right back at them. In the middle of the pack we have MacDonald, Sanheim, and Gudas. They’re not as bad as the previous two we touched on, but nowhere near Gostisbehere or the Flyers’ other saving grace in Provorov.
Provorov is at or above the 85th percentile among defensemen in both exit and entry percentages. and actually failed to enter the zone less than Gostisbehere did per attempt, just barely. Provorov might not be at the same level of effectiveness as he is, few are, but he’s still in close-to-elite company and is only getting better.
Zone Entry Defense
- Possession entry % against: the percent of zone entries allowed by the defender where the opposition retained control of the puck
- Breakup %: the percent of attempted zone entries where the defender denies access to the their own defensive zone
Defending the blue line, also known as MacDonald’s kryptonite, is yet another skill that Gostisbehere is the best on the Flyers at doing. In fact, the Flyers top pair may be the best pair in the entire league at denying entries. Important note: not best teammates, best linemates. Gostisbehere (12th) and Provorov (13th) allow possession entries against at a lower rate than the majority of their peers. Manning was third on the team in possession entries against and was especially good at forcing the puck carrier to dump the puck into the zone.
Take a moment and guess who had the best breakup percentage on the Flyers. If the name Gostisbehere came to mind you’d be correct. Are you getting tired of reading that name yet? Gostisbehere was targeted 442 times last season and was able to successful break up the entry attempt 12.7% of the time, or 56 breakups overall. It’s no surprise that Provorov was targeted the most last season, that’s to be expected for your team’s ice time leader, and the good news is that he had the third-best breakup percent at 9.8.
But wait, if Provorov was third in breakup %, who was second? That would be none other than the Flyers’ rookie (at the time) defenseman Travis Sanheim. He broke up the entry attempt 11% of the times that he was targeted, and allowed the third least carry-ins. His ability to stop entries was impressive for a rookie who didn’t get much leeway to make mistakes. Had that not gone so well for him, he likely would’ve lost his spot in the lineup even sooner than he did. Sanheim’s weak spot was allowing entry passes, yet he still outperformed Hagg and MacDonald there.
It’s an ongoing trend to see these two names at the bottom of these skills, Hagg especially, and it’s no different when it comes to stopping opponents from entering the zone. Teams took notice of this and went out of their way to target Hagg (on the flip side, teams would try avoid Gostisbehere) and he wound up with a carry-in percent against of 71%, which was “better” than only MacDonald’s almost unbelievable carry-in percent against of 76.3%. While teams can choose to target them specifically when they’re on different pairs, the Flyers are just asking for trouble when they’re on the ice together. It’s as if they’re giving the opposing team a nice comfy welcome mat at the front door, or in this case at the blue line, telling them that they have no real challenge ahead of them no matter which side they choose to attack from.
When you look at his offensive production, on-ice results, and predictors of future results, Gostisbehere is up there with the best of the best. I personally feel that a defender needs to have a consistent place on their team’s penalty kill before they can truly be called one of the best defensemen in hockey, but that does lead me to believe that Shayne Gostisbehere is a role on the penalty kill away from being a top-10 defenseman in the league. Now, it’s entirely possible that he never gets the opportunity to prove himself in man-down situations, but that level of play has already been shown at even strength and on the power play over multiple seasons. Your team’s most skilled players tend to be the best penalty killers, and I find it hard to believe that he’d be an exception to that.