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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports

Troy Stecher Was One of The Best Penalty Killing Defensemen in the NHL

Picture a prototypical penalty killing defenceman, and I’m sure a burly defensive blueliner like Roman Polak or Erik Gudbranson comes to mind.

But in a league that’s putting a new premium on speed and skill, the disadvantages associated with small stature are becoming attenuated. One player who’s thrived in light of this paradigm shift is 5’10 defenceman, Troy Stecher.

The Richmond, BC native saw his deployment change drastically under new Canucks head coach Travis Green — watching his powerplay time plummet, while simultaneously receiving a significant increase in shorthanded minutes. The latter was undoubtedly due in part to injuries to right-handed defensemen Chris Tanev and the aforementioned Gudbranson, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Stecher outperformed both on the penalty kill this season.

In fact, you could go as far as to say that the 24-year-old was the Canucks’ best penalty killing defenceman period.

Stecher led Canucks’ defencemen when looking at goals against, high danger shot attempts against and expected goals against rates. His unblocked shot attempts against rate also slotted him second, behind only Ben Hutton. All this tells us that the Canucks excelled at suppressing shot attempts, high danger scoring chances, and goals when Stecher was on the ice shorthanded.

Particularly interesting when examining the data is the substantial margin between Stecher and Gudbranson’s underlying metrics in spite of the latter’s far superior reputation as a penalty killer.

One area where you might expect the undersized Stecher to struggle relative to a hulking defender like Gudbranson would be at clearing the crease and preventing shot attempts close to the goal mouth, though the numbers suggest he did just fine.

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Not only are a lower proportion of shot attempts coming from the front of the net with Stecher deployed, but the right slot as a whole sees fewer attempts compared to the left side.

Stecher’s excellence isn’t just limited to his own team — his shorthanded performance shines just as bright when pitted against the rest of the league’s blueliners.

Stecher finished within the top-10 for every significant underlying metric this season among 119 defensemen that spent at least 100 mins TOI on the penalty kill.

This sounds all fine and dandy, but how is it that an undersized blueliner with unheralded defensive acumen was able to kill penalties at an elite level? Let’s turn to video to highlight some of Stecher’s defensive strengths.

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Defending the Blueline

The biggest challenge for any power-play unit is getting set up in the offensive zone. Effective penalty killing teams are able to deny controlled zone entries by aggressively applying puck pressure and holding the blueline.

For this to work, penalty killers need to keep their feet moving, maintain tight gap control on the puck carrier, and use both their body and stick positioning to cut off skating and passing lanes. Fortunately, these attributes are among Stecher’s greatest strengths.

Stecher forces Connor McDavid to the outside by initially blocking the inside skating lane with his stick. With McDavid pushed to the outside lane, Stecher moves quick laterally to take space away from McDavid before rubbing him off the puck against the boards.

This play is all about getting into a sound defensive position at the blueline. It’s subtle, but Stecher does a good job of holding in an area where he can both intercept a pass to the wing, or challenge Auston Matthews if he tries to skate through the middle. Matthews opts for the pass and Stecher is right there to poke the puck away to create a turnover.

Not every rush attempt can be snuffed out at the blueline, but Stecher does a fine job of maintaining gap control here as Colin Wilson takes the outside lane. Stecher’s persistence causes him to eventually close all space and force Wilson to give up the puck.

The key in this instance is Stecher’s powerful strides while backpedalling to follow Wilson. Rewatch the clip and focus only on Stecher’s mobility and explosiveness with his first few steps.

Nathan MacKinnon dishes the puck to Gabriel Landeskog in the clip above to create a mini two-on-one on the outside. Stecher counters this with a good decision to protect the middle and check MacKinnon out of the play first, before attacking the puck to create a turnover.

Focus on Stecher’s skating in the clip above and his explosive backpedalling is highlighted once more. Jakob Chychrun isn’t rushing the puck at top speed, so Stecher makes the aggressive move to wedge his body between Chychrun and the puck.

The key in these clips is Stecher’s ability to keep his feet moving fast enough to maintain gap control. He makes it look easy in the examples shown, but holding the line against players on the rush is more difficult than it seems.

 

 

 

The first clip has Tanev caught flat-footed, while the second is an example of Gudbranson’s lack of mobility.

This isn’t a knock on Tanev or Gudbranson, but rather a testament to Stecher’s backwards skating and gap control.

Closing Time, Space, and Angles

There’s no question that Stecher is bound to have a physical disadvantage at defending when the opposing team has set up in the offensive zone. He overcomes this with excellent anticipation, and relentless competitiveness down low to take time, space and angles away.

Here, Stecher is like a dog on a bone, denying Tyler Bozak of the space and angle necessary to make a pass to Nazem Kadri. Stecher leverages his stick well and gets a piece of the attempted pass, before fighting along the boards to dispossess both Bozak and Kadri.

Gap control is essential, but Stecher’s swift pivots and willingness to sacrifice the body are crucial for taking away shooting lanes. His proficiency in both regards is validated by the fact that he’s 28th highest among NHL defensemen for shot blocks per hour (minimum 100 minutes shorthanded).

In this clip, Stecher shifts fast laterally to block Justin Faulk’s first one-time attempt. From there, he stays tight on Elias Lindholm, using his stick to block multiple passing lanes, before diving in front of another one-time bomb. Most impressive about this is that Stecher was on the ice for the duration of the two-minute powerplay up until that point.

This may look like a straightforward play at first glance, but the angle of Stecher’s approach tells us that he anticipates the pass to Brendan Perlini very early. Stecher notices that Derek Stepan has the puck on his backhand and is, therefore, more likely to flip the puck to Perlini than he is to carry the puck down low. Because of that, Stecher takes a route between Stepan and Perlini instead of closing Stepan directly.

In this clip, both Stecher and Del Zotto poke the puck away from David Backes who tries to drive to the net. Stecher recovers well after falling– sprawling to get a piece to disrupt Backes’ pass to Brad Marchand. This sequence shows off Stecher’s edgework and speed once more.

Effective Clearing Attempts and Puck Management

The work a penalty killing unit does to gain possession is nullified if they’re unable to clear the puck, or worse yet if they give it away in a prime scoring position.

Stecher is patient when he picks up possession, only attempting a clear when he’s in a good position to do so.

 

 

This contrasts someone like Gudbranson who tries hammering the puck the first chance he gets instead of skating to move to a more advantageous position.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, there’s no data available to quantify each player’s clearing efficiency, although it is interesting to note that Stecher is one of just three defensemen in the NHL to have zero registered giveaways in at least 100 minutes of shorthanded TOI.

Conclusion

The Canucks killed penalties exceptionally well this season when Troy Stecher was on the ice. The 24-year-old’s excellent skating package, above average anticipation, and relentless competitiveness make him effective at defending the blueline, taking passing and shooting lanes away, and maintaining gap control.

If there’s one caveat, it’s that Stecher accomplished this largely against the opposing teams’ second units. By this token, it’s fair to wonder how Stecher’s play might hold up not only against stiffer competition but a larger sample size. Nevertheless, Stecher’s performance to date only serves to strengthen the argument that he’s earned some extra penalty killing opportunities for next season.



  • Gino über alles

    This is an excellent breakdown of Stecher’s abilities that we don’t normally get to appreciate. I always wondered how he’d really do with a bigger role and the more I question him the more he proves my doubts wrong. Thanks for taking the time to present this to us like this, great work.

  • Great article!

    Suggestion for a follow-up piece – a look at Tanev’s struggles this year and an analysis of whether it was simply a matter of adjusting to a new coach and system and some injury-related sluggishness from which he can bounce back, or if it’s the start of a real decline due to accumulated injuries.

  • Sandpaper

    Stecher has never really impressed me until his last 30 games or so. He has shown much better positioning and defensive awareness.
    Hopefully he continues improving and becomes a legit top 4 defender.

      • TD

        Travis Green said something that intrigued me this year when he spoke about players you can win with. It’s interesting, because I have often echoed this site’s analysis of a top line player as one who produces amongst the top 93 forwards in the league. By a pure definition, they are producing at that level. Half the teams don’t make the playoffs, so teams aren’t likely winning if all their players are in the lower half in their position, ie 47 to 93 in scoring forwards etc. I think most fans agree that Horvat is better suited to be a number two centre on a winner than a number one. I want the Canucks to win, so all the analysis of the players should be on the basis on being in the upper half in the league at their position. Stecher may fit there, I hope he does, but good teams probably have players performing in the upper half of there position when compared across the league. The Canucks are never going to win until their players fit into that analysis.

        Looking at the 2010-11 team as an example, the Sedins were elite first line players. Kesler and Raymond were likely low end first line producers playing a second line. Erhoff and Edler put up upper half of first line producing d men. Hamhuis and Bieksa produced really top end numbers for second pairing d men. Hell they had Salo playing on the third pairing. I would argue that players need to excell in their role, not just fit in.

  • Killer Marmot

    Tyler Motte also was also stingy on the penalty kill last year. Admittedly he only had total 40 minutes of ice time, but he allowed only 2 goals.

    Like Stecher, he’s also quick and small.

    • Locust

      Agreed. Being quick, small and tenacious on the PK is a huge advantage. As it is ‘no hit time’, a 160lb player can thrive in that environment. Top four pairing, twenty minutes a night – – not so much.

      • argoleas

        That really makes sense. Good penalty killing means knowing where to be to disrupt the PP, and being able to get there. So hockey sense and speed. Not really size. I suppose that size helps more to disrupt the PP’s front-net presence, but even that may be a matter of strength more than size.

  • Gampbler

    I like Stecher and the videos, but I hate to say that the analysis might be considered cherry picking a little. It’s a highlight package for Stecher, without showing any of his mistakes that don’t show up as giveaways on the stats sheet. I know where you’re going with it and it’s more to demonstrate and breakdown a few of his attributes but you could show Drew Doughty getting walked around or trying to hammer a puck along the boards and it wouldn’t mean much as a comparative.

    • Harman Dayal

      That’s a valid point, but it’s important to understand the point of including the clips. I’m not using the video to evaluate Stecher relative to his peers because as you said it’s easy to cherry pick one way or another. The main goal of this piece was to outline the statistical evidence that indicated that Stecher performed like an elite penalty killer this year. The video clips were simply there to help the audience understand how and why he came away with such sparkling underlying numbers. The video clips should merely be thought of as a means of highlighting the penalty killing strengths that enabled Stecher to perform at the level he did.

      • Gampbler

        If that’s the case then I think you could do away with the what didn’t work videos as they aren’t necessary to your narrative. Other than that I thought you did you a great job showing what he did well to back up his underlying data.

  • Locust

    Interesting article and like the highlights but some may seem that as cherry picking to fit the narrative but in this case it works for me. Thanks.
    I hope you get to do Sutter and Guddy as the douchbaggery is strong on this site. I think we all prefer honest analysis and opinion as opposed to the juvenile knock-downs of non-fancy-stat darlings.
    PS: Your comment about Guddy hammering the puck at first opportunity just means he is trying to have the puck beat the opposing player to the blueline. It is what defencemen are taught to do from day one.

    • Harman Dayal

      Like I mentioned to the other poster, the video clips should merely be thought of as a means of highlighting the penalty killing strengths that enabled Stecher to perform at the level he did. The underlying data is far more valuable at objectively evaluating each penalty killer. If I had left it simply at the underlying data, many would have wondered why Stecher was so successful shorthanded. I for one certainly was.

      As for Gudbranson’s strategy of hammering the puck at the first chance, it simply didn’t work out very well. I watched hours of PK footage and it didn’t succeed nearly as often as I would have liked it to have. I much prefer the idea of skating around the net and wristing the puck out when possible.

  • Cageyvet

    I agree with many others, great article and the videos I took to be demonstrative of his success, and not ignoring the fact that he also gets beaten cleanly at times.

    I have always thought he’s a keeper for the Canucks and needs just a good partner and more pp time, he’s legit top 4 IMO.

    As for Gudbranson and his efforts, deployment is key. It’s a good point that he is best served by being sent out when the draw is in our end, and he does seem to be improving, but the footspeed isn’t ever going to be there like Stecher.

    Gudbranson actually makes a good first pass, sometimes a good stretch pass, and can skate it up ice reasonably well, he doesn’t always just bang it off the glass. The problem is he can only do those things when he has space, if he’s under pressure kiss those moves goodbye, he’s hammering the puck whatever way looks open, and he’s the same at even strength. He needs a partner who does the puck moving and also has good forward support. Guddy will keep the puck to the outside more often than not, and pin his man, but that’s when he needs someone else to come get the puck.

    Stecher and Tryamkin, that would work for me, Guddy we can trade if we get a decent return, but he was so much more expendable when the big Russian was part of our d corps. I still hold out hope that we’ll get him back as the team starts it’s rise from the ashes.

  • Betty

    Stecher also played on the 2nd unit penalty kill, which means he predominantly faced weaker opposition than Gudbranson or Tanev. Comparing the two roles seems a little silly.

  • sloth

    Very interesting, I really liked the use of videos to show actual on-ice abilities which can bear out in the stats, but obviously both video and stats can be manipulated to show certain conclusions, and it makes me wonder about some key variables.

    I especially wondered about how deployment and quality of competition affects on-ice numbers for penalty killers. Special teams situations are highly unique because teams are very consistent in matching their PP and PK units, best-against-best and second-against-second. They also create small sample sizes and wild variance in the way stats can be weighted and interpreted.

    Looking at deployment stats, Stecher averaged 1.5 minutes of short handed time per game.

    That puts him right around Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns at 1.6 and 1.5 respectively. It also puts him at 123rd in the league among defenders who played at least 41 games, just behind Ben Hutton (1.6), and just ahead of Robert Bortuzzo (1.4). In comparison, the top 10 minute-crunching penalty killers this year were Ron Hainsey (4.1), Erik Johnson (3.7), Zdeno Chara (3.6), Patrik Nemeth, Andy Greene (3.3), Chris Tanev, Mark Giordano, Ryan McDonagh, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Brooks Orpik (3.1).

    Interestingly, the top performers in the on-ice statistical categories that Stecher excelled in also mostly happen to have played a lot less than the ice-time leaders.

    In FA/60, Stecher was 7th, behind J. McCabe (1.9 sh-min/gp), R. Gudas (2.0), A. Macdonald (2.0), O. Ekmann-Larsson (1.7), Ben Lovejoy (3.1), and Ian Cole (2.3)… B. Dillon (1.4), A. Martinez (2.4), and K. Russell (2.1) round out the top 10.

    In GA/60 Stecher was 10th behind M. Dumba (1.8), K. Bieksa (1.9), N. Holden (2.0), B. Burns (1.5), B. Dillon (1.4), D. Doughty (2.8), J. McCabe, F. Beauchemin (1.7), N. Zadorov (2.1).

    Interestingly, in the top 10s of those key statistics, only 1 player was also in the top 10 for shorthanded minutes per game, Ben Lovejoy, 5th in FA/60, T10th in TOI/GP.

    One more interesting stat: according to Corsica, Stecher had the 10th lowest quality of competition based on his opponents’ average ice time (TOI%QoC), and many of his peers in those FA/60 and GA/60 leaderboards show up on this list too, including Dillon (5th), McCabe (7th), Burns (8th) Beauchemin (11th), Zadorov (12th), Bieksa (17th), Holden (19th), Russell (22nd).

    Meanwhile, many players who play the most PK minutes also tend to play against the toughest competition: Greene (1st), Lovejoy (2nd), Orpik (3rd), Giordano (8th), Hainsey (14th), Chara (18th), McDonagh (20th), and Johnson (28th) all crack the top 30, along with many of the rest of the league’s big minute-eaters and elite 2-way defensemen, including Hedman, Provorov, Boychuck, Lindholm, Ekblad, Staal, Hamonic, Suter, Ellis, Yandle, Vlasic, Manson, Niskanen, and even Alex Edler.

    Obviously there’s some nuance and chicken-and-egg questions around coaches’ evaluations and deployments of players and their special team units, but I think it would be fair to say that the players who play the most against the toughest opponents are generally the elite players, and the players who put up exceptional metrics against average or easier competition are definitely good value, but simply not at the same level.

    This isn’t to diminish Stechers on-ice abilities, but to provide some context. To suggest he performed at an “elite” level is an overstatement based on his statistical cohort, and based on the statistical profiles of players who are more conventionally considered elite penalty killers. At this point I would say Stecher is a very good 2nd-unit penalty killer with strong fundamentals to develop into a legitimate 1st-unit player, but he will need to earn more PK time against more dangerous PP units before we can start talking about “elite” performance seriously.

  • MrTrip Darren

    Very skewed article. He is a good player but when Others are put out against top lines this is not a real comparison. This writer obviously loves Stetcher but he should be a powerplay guy as opposed to a penalty killer. He is a tenacious player and when you are smaller you must play that way. Could try him out as a top penalty killing defender but his numbers would not be what are shown here.

    When you are put out as an after thought at the very end of a penalty you are in a much better position.

  • Holly Wood

    Impressive work as a second unit penalty killer, but it’s Tanev and Edler doing all the heavy lifting. Will be interesting to revisit this if Stecher is moved to the first unit.