So, the Bruins didn’t get a sure-fire top-four defenseman at the trade deadline. We all know they could’ve used one. But did they need one? Is their top four a weakness?
Of course, we won’t really be able to answer those questions until the playoffs, until this group either succeeds or fails on the biggest stage. Until then, if you’re a pessimist, you can look at any regular-season success and say, “Well, it’s only the regular season.” And if you’re an optimist, you can look at any regular-season struggles (like the ones last week) and say, “Well, it’s a long season. They’re bound to struggle at some point.”
But what we can do now is compare the Bruins’ top four to the top fours of other contenders, as well as the Bruins’ top four from a season ago.
Defense is still the hardest position in the NHL to judge, but we do have stats that can give us a pretty good idea of how a defenseman compares to his teammates as well as other defensemen around the NHL.
For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll use these four stats: time on ice, zone starts, Corsi and quality of competition. Time on ice tells us how much a guy is playing. Zone starts (measured as the percentage of offensive zone starts compared to defensive zone starts -- neutral zone starts are taken out of the equation) tell us how he is being used as far as offensive situations vs. defensive situations.
Corsi (measured as shot attempt differential per 60 minutes) gives us a proxy for how well the team possesses the puck when that player is on the ice. And quality of competition (measured as the average relative Corsi of opposing players when that player is on the ice) tells us if that player is being used against the opponent’s best players or not.
You might be wondering about goals and points. Considering that the debate around these parts has been whether or not the Bruins are good enough defensively, and not whether or not they’re getting enough offense from the blue line, I decided not to include them.
Here is what those statistics look like for the Bruins’ top four this season (with Dennis Seidenberg’s numbers pre-injury included as well):
- Zdeno Chara: 24:54 TOI, 48.5% OZ starts, +10.67 Corsi, 1.636 QOC
- Johnny Boychuk: 21:05 TOI, 49.1% OZ starts, +11.12 Corsi, 0.537 QOC
- Matt Bartkowski: 19:26 TOI, 53.9% OZ starts, +6.33 Corsi, -0.286 QOC
- Dougie Hamilton: 18:51 TOI, 54.1% OZ starts, +10.14 Corsi, 0.765 QOC
(- Dennis Seidenberg: 21:50 TOI, 49.6% OZ starts, +1.12 Corsi, 0.023 QOC)
We’ll start with comparing that to last year’s top four. Here’s what those numbers looked like:
- Zdeno Chara: 24:56 TOI, 45.8% OZ starts, +14.21 Corsi, 1.207 QOC
- Dennis Seidenberg: 23:47 TOI, 45.5% OZ starts, +8.31 Corsi, 0.478 QOC
- Johnny Boychuk: 20:24 TOI, 48.8% OZ starts, +8.53 Corsi, 1.077 QOC
- Andrew Ference: 19:29 TOI, 50.3% OZ starts, +5.36 Corsi, -0.032 QOC
The first thing to point out -- other than “Chara is an animal” -- is that this year’s Seidenberg wasn’t quite last year’s Seidenberg. He was playing almost two minutes fewer per game and was facing easier competition, and yet his Corsi was actually worse than the current members of the Bruins’ top two pairings. That’s not to say Seidenberg couldn’t have picked it up in the playoffs, but the way some people talk, you would’ve thought Seidenberg was a near-clone of Chara. He wasn’t, and it’s OK to admit that.
You certainly can argue that last year’s top four was better, especially if you factor in the veteran experience of Seidenberg and Ference vs. Bartkowski and Hamilton, but these numbers should make it clear that last year’s foursome wasn’t dramatically better. Chara and Boychuk have basically been the same players as last year, Bartkowski’s numbers aren’t too far off from Ference’s, and Hamilton has been very good against pretty formidable competition.
Now let’s take a look at the other top teams in the Eastern Conference:
- Andrei Markov: 25:08 TOI, 40.4% OZ starts, -0.28 Corsi, 0.475 QOC
- P.K. Subban: 24:55 TOI, 45.6% OZ starts, +0.11 Corsi, 0.720 QOC
- Josh Gorges: 21:13 TOI, 42.0% OZ starts, -11.73 Corsi, 1.111 QOC
- Alexei Emelin: 18:26 TOI, 37.8% OZ starts, -13.01 Corsi, 0.902 QOC
The Habs are a bad possession team, but Markov and Subban have been stellar compared to the rest of the team. Gorges and Emelin have been used in shutdown roles, but as you can tell from that Corsi, they haven’t been shutdown defenders. We’ll see if recent acquisition Mike Weaver can challenge those guys for a top-four spot.
- Victor Hedman: 22:22 TOI, 56.8% OZ starts, +11.89 Corsi, 0.652 QOC
- Matt Carle: 22:04 TOI, 48.7% OZ starts, -2.56 Corsi, 1.140 QOC
- Radko Gudas: 19:33 TOI, 50.3% OZ starts, -3.14 Corsi, 1.022 QOC
- Sami Salo: 18:29 TOI, 56.5% OZ starts, +7.59 Corsi, 1.238 QOC
Hedman and Salo have been good in more offensive roles, but as is the case with Montreal, Tampa’s shutdown guys (Carle and Gudas) have struggled to actually shut down opponents.
-Dion Phaneuf: 24:17 TOI, 39.7% OZ starts, -16.73 Corsi, 2.041 QOC
-Cody Franson: 21:01 TOI, 40.1% OZ starts, -13.74 Corsi, 0.266 QOC
-Jake Gardiner: 20:55 TOI, 43.2% OZ starts, -8.42 Corsi, -0.452 QOC
-Carl Gunnarsson: 19:47 TOI, 40.5% OZ starts, -18.71 Corsi, 1.918 QOC
For the second year in a row, the Leafs are the worst possession team in the NHL, so it should come as no surprise that the numbers for their top four defensemen are ugly. The fact that Toronto is on the verge of a second straight playoff appearance is nothing short of a miracle.
- Paul Martin: 24:23 TOI, 45.1% OZ starts, -2.03 Corsi, 0.808 QOC
- Brooks Orpik: 21:12 TOI, 46.0% OZ starts, -3.74 Corsi, 0.957 QOC
- Matt Niskanen: 20:51 TOI, 49.4% OZ starts, +7.60 Corsi, 0.411 QOC
- Rob Scuderi: 18:48 TOI, 52.4% OZ starts, -13.76 Corsi, 0.722 QOC
The Pens are another team whose shutdown guys (Martin and Orpik) haven’t been doing a whole lot of shutting down. Niskanen has been a bright spot, as has rookie Olli Maatta in a third-pairing role, but this is a defense with holes.
- Ryan McDonagh: 24:38 TOI, 46.4% OZ starts, +0.47 Corsi, 1.493 QOC
- Dan Girardi: 22:45 TOI, 45.2% OZ starts, -2.80 Corsi, 1.512 QOC
- Marc Staal: 20:11 TOI, 47.9% OZ starts, +9.56 Corsi, 0.494 QOC
- Anton Stralman: 19:35 TOI, 50.5% OZ starts, +13.03 Corsi, 0.338 QOC
This is the only top four in the East that you could argue is close to the Bruins. McDonagh and Girardi have been better than most Eastern teams’ shutdown guys, and Staal and Stralman have been really solid second-pairing defenders.
We’re already on our way to a pretty long post, so let’s go right to the top teams in the West.
- Erik Johnson: 22:53 TOI, 45.2% OZ starts, -4.10 Corsi, 1.622 QOC
- Jan Hejda: 22:31 TOI, 43.8% OZ starts, -10.56 Corsi, 1.790 QOC
- Andre Benoit: 20:14 TOI, 48.8% OZ starts, -5.48 Corsi, -0.345 QOC
- Tyson Barrie: 18:25 TOI, 62.0% OZ starts, +2.50 Corsi, 0.111 QOC
The Avs are a bad possession team, and they rely a lot on Johnson and Hejda, who have been OK all things considered. After that, they have a bunch of guys who are closer to bottom-pairing players than top-four guys.
- Duncan Keith: 24:27 TOI, 54.5% OZ starts, +17.62 Corsi, 0.504 QOC
- Brent Seabrook: 21:55 TOI, 54.8% OZ starts, +18.77 Corsi, 0.511 QOC
- Niklas Hjalmarsson: 21:16 TOI, 48.1% OZ starts, +6.02 Corsi, 1.776 QOC
- Johnny Oduya: 20:13 TOI, 48.4% OZ starts, +5.56 Corsi, 1.832 QOC
Probably the best top four in the NHL. Joel Quenneville has used his second pairing (Hjalmarsson and Oduya) as his shutdown pairing, and they’ve been good enough to allow him to use Keith and Seabrook in more offensive situations -- situations in which they’ve excelled.
- Alex Pietrangelo: 25:21 TOI, 50.9% OZ starts, +7.46 Corsi, 1.360 QOC
- Jay Bouwmeester: 24:15 TOI, 50.6% OZ starts, +5.03 Corsi, 1.365 QOC
- Kevin Shattenkirk: 20:21 TOI, 56.8% OZ starts, +11.19 Corsi, -0.356 QOC
- Barret Jackman: 17:58 TOI, 51.5% OZ starts, +7.23 Corsi, -0.195 QOC
The Blues have a very good top pairing in Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, and, as you can see from the quality of competition, they’ve relied on those two a lot. Shattenkirk and Jackman are fine 3-4 guys, but nothing off-the-charts special.
- Cam Fowler: 23:59 TOI, 49.8% OZ starts, -0.67 Corsi, 1.426 QOC
- Francois Beauchemin: 23:05 TOI, 47.0% OZ starts, -5.14 Corsi, 0.299 QOC
- Ben Lovejoy: 19:27 TOI, 48.0% OZ starts, -2.28 Corsi, 1.421 QOC
- Hampus Lindholm: 19:24 TOI, 51.1% OZ starts, 0.00 Corsi, -0.063 QOC
Fowler has been good and Lovejoy has been solid enough in tough minutes, but Beauchemin has taken a pretty big step back after finishing fourth in Norris Trophy voting last season.
- Drew Doughty: 25:55 TOI, 54.2% OZ starts, +18.31 Corsi, 0.606 QOC
- Slava Voynov: 21:55 TOI, 55.8% OZ starts, +8.66 Corsi, 0.341 QOC
- Willie Mitchell: 20:25 TOI, 53.2% OZ starts, +11.37 Corsi, 0.291 QOC
- Jake Muzzin: 19:01 TOI, 56.7% OZ starts, +23.39 Corsi, 0.342 QOC
The Kings are such a great possession team (they lead the NHL in Corsi) that none of these guys have to start in their own zone very much. You could make a case for this group over the Blackhawks, but I’ll put them a little behind Chicago.
- Justin Braun: 21:21 TOI, 43.8% OZ starts, +11.49 Corsi, 0.869 QOC
- Dan Boyle: 21:14 TOI, 52.2% OZ starts, +11.82 Corsi, 0.285 QOC
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic: 20:43 TOI, 46.5% OZ starts, +18.13 Corsi, 0.706 QOC
- Brad Stuart: 19:09 TOI, 49.5% OZ starts, +3.58 Corsi, 0.437 QOC
This is another really solid group. Braun and Vlasic are the shutdown guys, and they’ve been very good in that role. Todd McLellan has been able to use Boyle in more offensive situations, which suits his game well. Jason Demers is a solid No. 5, too.
So there you have it. Hopefully this helps put the much-ballyhooed top-four discussion in perspective. Despite not making any major trades, the Bruins still have probably the best top four in the East. Out west, the numbers indicate that the Blackhawks, Kings and Sharks all have better top fours.
Fortunately for the Bruins, they would only have to face one of those teams. And fortunately for them, hockey isn’t a game played exclusively by top-four defensemen. The B’s have a better offense than the Kings, and when Tuukka Rask is on his game, they have better goaltending than the Blackhawks or Sharks. Those sound like pretty good reasons to give the Bruins a chance in any of those potential Stanley Cup finals.