Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
It is long past time for the NHL to start officially distinguishing between left and right defence
5 months ago
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There’s every chance that this is a hyper-specific pet peeve that only really applies to a member of the media who spends a lot of time sorting through stat columns. Then again, maybe not. Let’s find out what the rest of you think.
The point that we think we have is, to little surprise, the one in the headline. “It is long past time for the NHL to start officially distinguishing between left and right D.” Really, that says it all, but we’re going to say more anyway.
It is point-blank silly that in this modern era of hockey, the sport’s highest league still lists everyone who plays the blueline as simply “D.” This, despite left and right defence having quite obviously evolved into two vastly different positions.
That goes for roster-building, as fans of the Vancouver Canucks (see, Quads, this is Canucks-related) know all too well. The Hunt for Right-Handed Defencemen isn’t a Sean Connery film, it’s the story of the Canucks’ last decade or so. An NHL blueline typically needs some of each, and often in equal measure.
From a coaching and strategy perspective, LD and RD have had distinct responsibilities within systems since at least the ‘40s. Scouts talk about them like two different kinds of prospects. You can bet the players know the difference, too.
But if you were to look up the four players tied for fifth-place on the NHL assist leaderboard last year, you’d find Nathan MacKinnon (a C), Mitchell Marner (an RW), Matthew Tkachuk (a LW), and Quinn Hughes (just D).
And if you click through to Hughes’ player profile, it still just says Hughes (D), like he’s a congressman.
It (D)oesn’t make much sense, (D)oes it?
A couple quick pre-emptive rebuttals here.
It is true that things are not quite that set-in-stone when it comes to LD and RD. There are defenders who play on their “off side,” and there are players who can play both sides with the same relative effectiveness. But:
A) They’re an increasingly limited commodity in today’s arguably over-coached game. By the time a blueliner has made their way to the NHL, they’re usually fairly specialized in what they do. There are those rare exceptions, sure, but they are just that: exceptions.
At the very least, this line of thought makes it clear that it makes no sense whatsoever that LD and RD are not distinguished by the league, but left wings and right wings are.
On scoresheets, on stat columns, on profiles, NHL forwards are listed as either centers, left wings, or right wings. But, again, as fans of the Canucks well know, wingers swap around sides all the time. JT Miller has played all three positions for the Canucks. It’s really pretty common.
The point being, there’s probably more difference between a LD and an RD than there is between a LW and an RW. But not according to the National Hockey League.
B) Even in the case of a switch-skater, LD and RD are two different positions. The Canucks, in part, signed Ian Cole because he can play both sides of the blueline. But if he winds up partnering with Hughes on the top pairing, he’s going to be playing right defence. And if he stays over on his natural left-handed side, he’s going be playing left defence. Players like Cole don’t disprove the theory, they prove it. What’s unique about folks like Cole is that they can play two different positions.
And yeah, sure, there are independent stat-trackers who do distinguish between LD and RD, and that’s certainly helpful in the long-run, but it can still prove a pain in the backend for even experienced researchers, and that’s to say nothing of more casual fans.
Wouldn’t it be helpful, as a follower of the Canucks, to learn about the signing of someone like Cole or Carson Soucy or Matt Irwin and be easily able to find out whether they’re an LD or an RD or the rare LD/RD. Probably!
It’s not just about stats and websites, either. There are tangible implications. At the end of each year, the NHL names a First and Second All-Star Team. It’s not the most sought-after award, but it’s something that frequently comes up in Hall of Fame debates and other legacy-related discussions. And each year, the NHL names one LW, one C, one RW, one G, and two Ds.
How many Ds in riddiculous?
Sometimes, it’s even a genuine problem. Players like Alex Ovechkin have missed out on First All-Star honours because they split their season — and thus votes — between left wing and right wing.
The Norris Trophy can stick to being just for all blueliners. It’s not like there’s an award for Best Left Wing. The award for top left wing is the LW slot on the First All-Star Team, and so it reasons that there should also be a slot for an LD, too.
Most mainstream sports outlets will put out their own rankings of the top players at each position, and almost all of them will lump all the D together when they do. This will, in turn, lead to a lot of mainstream and casual discussion around the sport being conducted as though LD and RD are the same thing, which is kinda like referring to a baseball player as a “baseman.”
It just boggles the mind that the thing hasn’t been addressed yet in this, the year 2023.
It’s a shame, too, because it does seem to actually effect how the majority of fans and media think about these players.
When it comes to the Canucks and the discourse around their players, the distinction really couldn’t be more obvious. Why was the acquisition of Filip Hronek such a big deal? Because he’s the best RD the team has had in a long time, period.
Hughes, meanwhile, is a LD, through and through. He’s played a few shifts on the right side here and there, it hasn’t really worked out. He could probably figure it out if he had the time and put his mind to it, but that would be him switching positions.
Hughes should be talked about as a left defence, because that is what he is.
This past season, only four other left-handed defenders received more Norris votes than Hughes: Hampus Lindholm, Josh Morrissey, Miro Heiskanen, and Rasmus Dahlin. But Dahlin played the bulk of his minutes at RD, Heiskanen played a quarter of his there (and a lot more prior to this season), and damned if we don’t think Hughes is better than the other two.
Should we not be talking far more often about Hughes as one of the best LD in the NHL?
As you can probably tell by now, we certainly think so.
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