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Phantoms Player Focus: Mark Friedman thrives while being heavily relied on defensively

Checking in on the second-year pro’s game.

Casey Liberatore - SB Nation ©

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms played a home-and-home series with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last Friday and Saturday night, picking up three out of a possible four standings points. In the two games, Phantoms defenseman Mark Friedman had an assist, took four minor penalties in total — two of which were offsetting minors — and had a plus-two rating. A mostly positive stat line by itself, but as the subject of today’s Player Focus we’ll be taking a deeper look at his true impact on last weekend’s contests.

All data used is manually tracked and is from a 5-on-5 game state unless specified otherwise.

Friday, March 22nd:
Phantoms 3, Penguins 2

In a game that saw each team receive five power play opportunities, Friedman was responsible for just under half of them. The penalty trouble for the two teams began at the 3:37 mark of the first period when Friedman went to retrieve a puck behind the net following a missed shot by Penguins defenseman Jeff Taylor and, after winning a battle along the boards, gets tripped from behind by Joseph Blandisi. It’s no secret that one of Friedman’s biggest strengths over the last two seasons in Lehigh Valley has been his ability to draw penalties, and his unique skill was put on display not once, but twice in this meeting.

The second would occur at the 17:49 mark of the second period when Friedman was on the receiving end of a blindside hit. Following an attempted cross-ice pass to Steven Swavely, Friedman was hit from behind by Joseph Cramarossa. Cramarossa was given a two minute minor for interference on the play, and both he and Carsen Twarynski were given roughing minors after Twarynski came to Friedman’s defense. The hit, while certainly borderline, was determined not to be worthy of supplemental disciple by the AHL.

Similarly to Nolan Patrick in Philadelphia, it sometimes feels like Friedman is skating around with a giant target on his back. He’s known to be one of the bigger pests on the team, if not the biggest, and some of that surely leads to the aggression that gets sent his way, but it’s almost unbelievable the amount of times that you’ll see a Phantom get drilled from behind only to see his number 37 on the ice.

Still, it’s not as if Friedman shies away from dealing out punishment himself, with his first penalty of the night resulting from an elbow to the head of Jake Lucchini. After Lucchini received a pass in the neutral zone, Friedman readied himself to deny him entry into the Phantoms’ defensive zone and, as he goes to deliver a check at the blue line, extends his right arm into the forward’s face. It wasn’t a dirty hit per se, but rather a reckless motion in the midst what would have been an otherwise clean hit.

His second non-coincidental minor was much less egregious, and based on what hadn’t been called earlier in the game, it was surprising that his slash on Ryan Haggerty was deemed worthy. While there wasn’t much force behind the slash, it did happen away from the puck, and maybe that’s ultimately why he was penalized on the play.

Friedman’s best play of the night happened early in the game when he successfully defended a royal road passing play that had a high chance of becoming a goal. With close to nine minutes remaining in the first period, Haggerty was able to hit the blue line with speed, blazing past Phantoms defenseman Zach Palmquist, and looked to make a cross-ice pass to Sam Lafferty. Recognizing Lafferty’s presence the entire way, Friedman was able to get himself into a prime position to defend the pass and force the incompletion.

While that was potentially a game-saver — who knows how the game would have gone had the Penguins taken a 2-0 lead midway through the first period — relying on him to have strong defensive reads throughout a game is nothing new for the Phantoms’ coaching staff.

Previously with David Schlemko prior to the Phantoms losing him to an injury during practice, Friedman and his “new” partner, Philip Samuelsson, were clearly viewed as the team’s most reliable pair defensively this weekend. With just four offensive zone starts in game, the majority of his shifts began in either the neutral zone (eight) or the defensive zone (seven). And if that’s not enough evidence by itself, a shift sequence at the beginning of the third period shines an even brighter light on the intended usage for the pair.

Following the opening faceoff, the Penguins ice the puck just 10 seconds into the period. Friedman and Samuelsson, who were on the ice for the draw, were replaced by T.J. Brennan and James de Haas for the offensive zone faceoff. Just 18 seconds later Nicolas Aube-Kubel would score his second of the game, which would later prove to be the game winning goal. Following the goal it was once again Friedman and Samuelsson right back out there for the neutral zone draw, their second shift of the period in a matter of 28 seconds.

Now, you can look at this a few different ways, the first being that their main goal was to shelter Brennan and de Haas by placing them in offensive situations. Another being that, as the team’s leading scorer from the back end, they’re simply playing to Brennan’s strengths. And both of these things are probably at least partially true. But the more interesting thing to me is that a guy that they didn’t exactly show a ton of trust in last season, as far as defensive situations go, is now serving as one half of the team’s top shutdown pair.

As one would expect, all of this time spent in and around the defensive zone led to Friedman having a big role in the Phantoms’ transition game both nights. On Friday, his efforts to break the puck out of the zone were mostly successful. His three fails came on two back-to-back shifts in the middle of the second period, and outside of that, his five controlled exits helped the Phantoms push play in a positive direction. He also had two uncontrolled exits, one being a clear from behind the net by using the boards, and the other being a chip-out near the blue line. Finally, there were four passes that he made that I like to refer to as exit set-ups.

While it’s true that passes in the defensive zone are a type of zone exit themselves — in fact, all five of his exits in the game were passes — these passes didn’t qualify as such. What these passes did do, however, was lead to an eventual exit attempt by a teammate. The biggest plus to tracking all of his defensive zone passes rather than just his exits is that it allows us to more accurately count any turnovers that are made. In this case, he had just three in total, all of which being his failed exits that we touched on briefly earlier. Two were the typical off the glass and out tries where an opposing defenseman stops the clear at the blue line, and the other happened to be a lost board battle around the back of the net. Overall he made positive, impactful plays in the Phantoms’ zone that helped them start to attack at the other end of the ice.

However, there were other areas of the transition game where he didn’t grade out as strong. He only tried to enter the offensive zone with the puck once, successfully doing so, and his attempts to deny oncoming forwards from entering his own zone left more to be desired. The Penguins targeted Friedman’s side of the ice nine times while trying to gain entry into the Phantoms’ defensive zone and Friedman was only able to stop one attempt, with the help of both Samuelsson and the backchecking forward at the time. Not exactly ideal, but the good news is that the very next day he showed that maybe he just had an off night in the entry defense department.

Saturday, March 23rd:
Penguins 5, Phantoms 4 (OT)

Despite outshooting the Penguins 34-26, and controlling play for the majority of the night, the Phantoms dropped the second game of the home-and-home series in overtime. In it, Friedman picked up his 18th assist of the season on Samuelsson’s first period goal.

As the play develops, Aube-Kubel sends a cross-ice pass into open space that Friedman skates into. Once he arrives at the puck, Friedman fakes a slap shot and instead heads towards the red line. On his way there, he draws yet another penalty as Kevin Czuczman’s stick winds up in front of Friedman’s feet as he falls to the ice. On the ensuing 6-on-5 man advantage, it takes mere seconds for the Phantoms to cash in for their first goal of the game, as Samuelsson is able to jump on the rebound created by Friedman’s shot from the circle.

It might not have been the prettiest assist, but they all count the same. Additionally, this was nowhere near his best offensive play of the night. In-fact, there were a few highlight worthy plays from the 23 year old, the first of which coming just two minutes later ... on the penalty kill.

On the team’s first penalty kill of the night Byron Froese retrieved the puck along the boards, and both Friedman and Mike Vecchione began to look up the ice for a chance at shorthanded bid. Froese then hit Vecchione with a pass in stride, and the two were off to the races. Working against a forward in Lafferty, Friedman was able to get in behind him and accept Vecchione’s pass on his backhand. However, with little space remaining between himself and goaltender Tristan Jarry, Friedman was unable to take a shot at the net. It didn’t translate into tangible offense, but it’s impressive to see a defenseman with the confidence to activate while his team is not only at a disadvantage, but also in the midst of a tie game.

A defenseman with a tendency to activate offensively can get into trouble at times, but Friedman tends do a good job at picking the right spots to do so. This was evident again later in the game, this time with the Phantoms on the power play, when he showed off his speed and puckhandling skills in a coast to coast rush that was Sanheim-esque.

On the whole, Friedman was much more involved in the team’s zone entries than he had been the night before, with three controlled entries at 5-on-5 and two on the power play. One entry in particular during a 5-on-3 power play was a stretch pass from his own zone that led to a breakaway opportunity for Twarynski at the other end of the ice. But, as we alluded to earlier, the real standout was his performance at his own blue line; his biggest improvement from the previous game.

While Friedman actually allowed one more controlled entry in Saturday’s game than he did on Friday, his gap control was improved, leading to three denied entry attempts and a fourth that he received partial credit for. Two of them saw Friedman move up towards the red line late in the third while the Phantoms were holding onto a one goal lead. On top of that, he also didn’t have a single defensive zone turnover, as his only failed zone exit was an icing.

Below are his final combined numbers from both games.

Friedman 5v5 stats

Controlled entries Controlled entry % Failed entries Controlled exits Controlled exit % Failed exits Controlled entries allowed Controlled entries against % Entries denied Primary shot contributions O-zone start %
Controlled entries Controlled entry % Failed entries Controlled exits Controlled exit % Failed exits Controlled entries allowed Controlled entries against % Entries denied Primary shot contributions O-zone start %
3 100% 0 8 61.54% 4 9 50% 4 10 22.73%

There’s not much to fuss about here based on NHL transition data that is manually tracked by Corey Sznajder. While the two leagues can’t be compared directly, it’s all that we have to gauge what a “good” percent is, and each data point is well above average for NHL defensemen.

As always, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re working with a small sample size here, and that two games should never be used to make any grand, overarching conclusions. But still, it’s always nice to see a player who’s seemingly been knocking at the door of the NHL all season long continuing to have solid performances as the regular season comes to a close.