Let’s preface this by saying that Daniel and Henrik Sedin are two of the best players in the National Hockey League and I would probably not trade them straight up for any centre-and-wing combination on any team in the NHL right now. I’ll let foreign fans fester that thought and come up with such names, but for Canuck fans here, it is time to turn our minds to the harsh reality of the situation: The Sedins are not good defensive players.
They are terrific with the puck and in the offensive zone. I never get tired of the cycles, the blind passes and the tap-in goals. Henrik Sedin, in a playoff game, actually passed the puck through Antti Niemi’s five-hole. It’s an accomplishment that looks cooler on the surface because, hey, it’s Antti Niemi, but the fact is no two players are better on the puck in the league right now. Over the course of NHL history, only five times have different players from the same team won back-to-back scoring titles: Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe with Detroit, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull with Chicago, Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr with Boston, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr with Pittsburgh and Henrik and Daniel Sedin with Vancouver.
That said, despite two consecutive seasons winning the Art Ross Trophy, the Sedins have dipped in defensive play over their careers. Take the last two seasons as an example. In 2010, Henrik Sedin finished the year with an average looking 40.42 Fenwick events (goals, saved shots and missed shots) against per 60 minutes of play. It’s a decent enough number, with comparables to David Legwand and Sidney Crosby. However, Henrik Sedin started fewer shifts in the defensive zone than either of those players (15 for Henrik, 16 for Crosby and 20 for Legwand) which play a huge factor in determining how many shots a player will face.
When a player starts a majority of his shifts in the offensive zone, he tends to play what we call “sheltered minutes”. And in 2011, the sheltered minutes were racked up to a brutal extent. Henrik started just 11 faceoffs per 60 minutes of play in the defensive zone, but managed to lob a single full shot off his total from the previous season (39.54). The comparables this time, Artem Anisimov and Anze Kopitar, had 17 and 15 starts, respectively.
Among all forwards who played over 600 minutes in the NHL this season, dead last in Adjusted Fenwick (building off of work that shows a start at a certain end of the ice is worth .6 of a Fenwick event) at numbers 312, 313 and 314 were Alex Burrows, Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin (data pulled from the peerless Behind The Net. I’ll post the remainder of the Canucks numbers sometime next month.) There are a few things to note, here:
A) Score effects. The Canucks played frequently with the lead. Documented by statistician Bill James in 1983, “the balance of strategies always favours the team which is behind” and “psychology tends to pull the winners down and push the losers upwards.” This is true in hockey, where teams with the lead are shown to give up shots more frequently. However the raw data with score-tied has Henrik Sedin’s team controlling 58% of Fenwick events whilst on the ice. His actual number is 54%. While that’s not a truly significant dip, it’s enough to mean that the Canucks first line is probably not the worst defensive line in hockey, but it’s pretty close.
B) This is something we’ve known for a while. When Ryan Kesler isn’t scoring, the general feel is “at least Kesler is playing well defensively and shut the opposition down.” When the Sedins aren’t scoring, beatwriters tend to pull out silly numbers such as “the Sedins are a combined minus-7” which, while mathematically innaccurate, are pretty damning and indicative of one important thing. When the Sedins aren’t scoring, people notice.
C) Even with score-effects, the Canucks third line of Manny Malhotra, Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres scored quite well. They may have been underappreciated offensively this season. I don’t have the know-how to run a script to determine whether the .6 number is still accurate, since the numbers really favoured the Canucks who saw an awful lot of defensive zone time.
*UPDATE* I found my error. I had previously been subtracting my “Adjusted Against” number from my “Adjusted For” number, which runs the .6 adjustment twice, and thus gave a significant advantage to players who had a high number of defensive zone starts. I have cleared the error in my database, and, while the Sedins are still minus players, they are far from the worst in the National Hockey League (an honour which now falls on Joffrey Lupul).
D) The Sedins are still amazing at 4-on-4. The Canucks were 8 shots per 60 minutes better at 4-on-4 this season, behind just Washington and Detroit, and a lot of that has to do with the way the twins are deployed 4-on-4. 4-on-3, they’re even better. They have 135.7 shots per 60 minutes at 4-on-3, tops in the league. (There are actually a handful of teams who seem to be better without the extra man. Weird.)
E) While the cycle game may not benefit a player’s Fenwick number since it involves wasting a lot of zone time and tiring out defenders without putting pucks at goal, the Sedins are still pretty mediocre at giving up chances the other way. Their adjusted numbers defensively put them in a comparative zone to known reckless players in Eric Staal and Phil Kessel, who have the ability to turn things around and generate their own chances off the rush. The Sedins are ill-equipped for those situations.
Burrows always seems to play well defensively off this line, being a known heavy-lifter before he was paired with the twins, I am starting to wonder if he may not be the fit for the twins that everybody hopes him to be. Consider the Sedins success on the powerplay comes with Ryan Kesler, not Burrows, at the wing.
But who to replace him with? It can’t be Kesler, since Burrows and him work effectively as a defensive unit together. My vote, as it has been for the last couple of months, is actually Jannik Hansen. Hansen has all the tools to be an effective scorer in the NHL, except for two of the most important ones; favourable offensive minutes, and competent offensive players to pass him the puck. Remy Greer put forth the argument on this humble blog to push Hansen up to the second line (and does a bang-up job, too) but he may not have gone far enough.
Ideally, the Sedins would hog the puck and, failing that, prevent chances against. They don’t do the latter well enough and, as a result, the Canucks may be giving up a few extra goals 5-on-5 that they may not have to.