In Defense of “Stay-At-Home” Defenders (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bahl)

In Defense of “Stay-At-Home” Defenders (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bahl)

To get to my point I have to spend some time on the backstory.  The New Jersey Devils traded Taylor Hall.  I’ve made no secret that I am a Devils fan.  So, this trade hits very close to home for me.  While pundits and fans alike battled over what the return should be, I dug my heals in that the Devils needed to acquire, as a part of the deal, a really strong “shut down” defender.  When they acquired prospect Kevin Bahl, I was quite happy.  I got an alert about the trade while out at the mall, Christmas shopping with my fiance.  My initial reaction was, “They did it.  They got Bahl.  YES, perfect.”  By the time I got home, I had friends messaging me asking my input and they were shocked at my thrill.  A scan of twitter and the hockey “blogosphere” told me why.  A cascade of buzzwords flooded hockey twitter.  Phrases like “NHLe” and “no-offensive upside” dominated the conversation.  My moment of thrill and joy was shattered.  So if I sound like I took this trade a little personally for whatever reason, this is why.

The definition of a stay-at-home defender really depends who you’re talking to.  To many folks, the concept is outdated, and denotes a defender who isn’t top 4 potential.  That’s only partially true.  The truth of the matter is that there’s a gap in the talent caused by a few factors.  The NHL has changed the way it calls hooking, slashing, and interference in ways that favor the offensive player.  It’s all part of the NHL’s long quest to increase scoring.  These defenders who learned to defend under the old rule sets are having their tools taken away from them, and thus their effectiveness wanes.  Working in tandem with the rule changes is the fact that the speed of the game has increased.  With the game being faster, the big, slow defender has been left in the dust.  We see this around the league.  Scoring is up, but we also see numerous fan bases (The Devils included) clamoring for improved defense.  There just doesn’t seem to be enough talented, defensively capable, stay-at-home defenders available to go around.  The rule changes have hindered the effectiveness of some members of the current generation of NHL defenders as well as the prospects who came up playing their junior hockey under the older rules.  They learned and developed to play a style of game that no longer exists.  This is where your Samuel Morins and your Jamie Oleksiaks (and to some degree Erik Gudbranson) come into play.  They are big (6’6 and 6’7 respectively) defenders designed for the NHL of 2013, not 2020.  Therefore, in many eyes, the concept of the stay-at-home defender is also a concept not made for the NHL of 2020.  I don’t agree.  Instead, the talent level, skating ability and hockey IQ of the next generation of stay-at-home NHL defenders has to elevate to be able to accommodate today’s game.  Kevin Bahl is part of that next generation.

The “stay-at-home” or “shut down” defender also is a victim of modern analytics.  I engaged in a twitter exchange recently with Byron Bader, the creator of the NHLe Player Comparison tool.  Bader is someone whose opinion and work I have an immense amount of respect for and he’s a very good twitter follow.
bader exchange cleaned up
I talked to him about this tweet and he was gracious enough to respond.  In our discussion I asked if the lack of offensive upside would cause a big hit to NHLe rating.  He informed me that it definitely does.  With this information in hand, I decided to use his
NHLe Comparison tool to do some research of my own.  I went for comparisons of Bahl to players whom I would consider “successful shut-down defenders”

defensive defender comparions
You’ll notice under the players’ names the words “average producer” and “replacement producer.”  This brings me to my problem with the NHLe model for rating this kind of player.  According to the NHLe model,  Nikita Zadorov is a replacement level defenseman.  Chara and Johnson are “average.”  Chara is mostly here just for the sake of the outlier comparison although I don’t expect Kevin Bahl to be the next Chara.  However it does not seem unreasonable, given his size and skillset, to expect that he might be able to be the next Zadorov or Johnson.  In fact, in watching film he plays a lot like Nikita Zadorov.  That said, based on the NHLe model, Zadorov is “replacement level.”  If you watch the Colorado Avalanche at all, and you get the opportunity to watch how effective Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov are, you will understand where I’m going with this.  Colorado is an incredibly successful team right now and they’re very difficult to play against.  Zadorov and Johnson are a big part of that.  Their contributions to their team are beyond what I would consider “average” or “replacement level.”  There aren’t many like them in the league right now.  They’re big, strong, physical defenders who are also able to skate with forwards and take away offensive chances.   I challenge any hockey fan to watch these compilation videos of Zadorov and try to claim that is not a player they would want on their team.

The issue at hand is that the analytics crowd would tell you that Zadorov is a 3rd pairing defender.  However, his usage and minute consumption is clearly that of a top 4 defender.  Among Avalanche defenders, Zadorov averages the 3rd most minutes at 5 on 5 and the 4th most on the penalty kill.  Erik Johnson is 2nd in 5 on 5 and 1st on the penalty kill.  The actual usage, and contributions of these players, far exceeds their projections based on the NHLe analytic model.  This is because the model is based very heavily on the offensive production and contributions of a player.  I haven’t focused in on Johnson as much as Zadorov here, and that’s because Johnson is the pinnacle of what a stay-at-home/shut-down defender can be in the modern NHL.  Through 12 NHL seasons he has averaged over 22 minutes per game and often playing against the toughest competition the NHL has to offer.  All this while offering, give or take,  30 points per season.

My film review of Kevin Bahl tells me that he’s a player that is closer to a Nikita Zadorov than a Samuel Morin.  This type of player is becoming an endangered species in the NHL.  But they are still players that coaches, teammates and fans want to see, and CONVERSELY, opponents DO NOT want to see.  I’m not attempting to conclusively say that Kevin Bahl is the next Nikita Zadorov.  I am saying that my expectations for Bahl are based around the fact that this is the type of player he could become.  Because they are an endangered species, this type of player is incredibly difficult to find.  Trying to draft one, or project one, is always going to be a gamble.  However, the potential payoff, particularly for the New Jersey Devils, of having a big, strong, hard hitting defender to sure up their defensive zone play in the future, is a gamble that was worth taking.

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