Why Mark Friedman is the Vancouver Canucks’ new best option at 3RD
Photo credit:© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
On Tuesday, October 17, the Vancouver Canucks completed their third trade of the young 2023/24 season, swapping out Jack Rathbone and Karel Plasek in exchange for Mark Friedman and Ty Glover of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On the surface, this is a significantly less notable trade than the ones that brought Casey DeSmith and Sam Lafferty to town. Plasek and Glover are both longshots to ever see NHL minutes, and both Rathbone and Friedman cleared waivers earlier in the preseason.
But less notable doesn’t necessarily translate to inconsequential, and especially not when it comes to the Canucks and their specific roster needs. That’s because Friedman is already the Canucks’ new best option at 3RD, and seems poised to make a positive difference on the ice right away.
No one will argue that the 27-year-old Friedman is anything more than a bottom-pairing defender at the NHL level at this point in his career. But while that might not sound all too exciting, the bottom pairing is one that the Canucks have had difficulty staffing of late, and particularly so on the right side.
Heading into the season, many expected Tyler Myers to be filling that role, with Filip Hronek and one of the new LHDs Carson Soucy or Ian Cole slotting in ahead of him on the right side depth chart. But early injuries and Rick Tocchet’s aversion to playing defenders on their off-sides has put Myers back in the top-four, leaving a noticeable gap at 3RD.
Noah Juulsen won the job out of camp, but that was almost by default, beating out Jett Woo, Filip Johansson, and the still-too-young Cole McWard.
Through three games and just over half an hour of even-strength ice-time in 2023/24, Juulsen has noticeably struggled. He’s got some of the worst fancy statlines on the team and in the NHL, with a Corsi of 35.09%, an expected goals rate of 22.58%, and a high-danger chance ratio of just 9.09%. In other words, an upgrade is both needed and not that difficult to achieve, and that’s where Friedman enters the picture.
Friedman is a year and a half older than Juulsen, but has a little less NHL experience, having arrived on the scene a bit later after three full seasons at Kevin Bieksa’s Bowling Green State University. Across parts of five seasons, Friedman, like Juulsen, has never advanced beyond part-time minutes on the lowest rungs of NHL depth charts for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The key distinction here is that Friedman has generally thrived in his limited role.
Friedman’s own advanced statline is relatively sparkling, even given the context of his sheltered minutes. He’s rarely posted a significant stat below 50%, and his numbers with the Penguins in 2022/23 in particular were very strong: a 53.85% Corsi, a 56.27% control of shots, a 57.05% expected goals rate, and a 54.21% control of chances. These were some of the best numbers on the Penguins’ roster, period. And, sure, that’s in part because defenders like Kris Letang were taking on way more and way harder minutes, but the Canucks don’t need Friedman to be a Kris Letang. They just need him to keep performing well in that exact same bottom-pairing role in which he’s already found success, because that’s where they’ve got a hole in their lineup.
And we’re not exaggerating when we say “success.” Those multicoloured charts that attempt to measure a player’s value above the replacement level are probably leaned on a little too much in modern sports discourse, but they’re still plenty valuable, and in the same way as a cholesterol test: especially meaningful when either really good or really bad.
Friedman’s multicoloured chart definitely falls into the “really good” camp:
What all those numbers and shapes translate to is Friedman being far more effective, and contributing far more to his team’s win-rate, than the vast majority of other players playing the same role. Sometimes, when we write such nice things about a new Vancouver acquisition, commenters will say something along the lines of “you could spin this stuff about anyone!” What this chart really shows is that that is not the case this time. Very few other players have done what Friedman has done with his allotment of minutes over the past few seasons.
As JFresh notes, Friedman has a penchant for two things in particular, and those things are physicality and getting under his opponent’s skin, which are two welcome attributes in Vancouver.
Juulsen has thrown his fair share of big open-ice checks, too. But Friedman excels at making a physical impact on his opponents all over the ice. In the corners, along the boards, in front of the net, after the whistle; Friedman is almost always seeking to get a piece of someone, and he doesn’t pay much heed to the consequences. He’s one of those rare players to play a genuine agitatorial role from the blueline, and that’s probably why he draws minor penalties at a higher rate than basically any other player in his position in the entire NHL.
Just how much of an agitator is Friedman? Take a peek at this YouTube compilation that is essentially five full minutes of the Philadelphia Flyers trying to kill Friedman. Shots from behind, shots after the whistle, a fight. In just a couple of games, Friedman was able to draw so much negative attention from the Flyers as to have it become the dominant storyline between the two rival teams at the time.
The kicker? This all came just days and weeks after Friedman was claimed on waivers by the Penguins from the Flyers. Those are Friedman’s own former and recent teammates trying to take his head off. That’s how good this guy is at pissing people off.
Again, this is all done with a purpose, and that purpose is to get opponent’s off their game and into the penalty box. Usually, when a bottom-pairing D is the center of attention in a game, it’s a bad thing. Not so with Friedman!
Really, it’s difficult for someone to make a real impact with a career average ice-time of around 13 minutes per game. Yet Friedman has consistently managed to do so, and in a multitude of ways. He posts excellent defensive and possession-based results. He provides a modicum of offence. He punishes and frustrates opponents. He often becomes the center of attention.
All of the Canucks’ current options for 3RD are of the variety who can just barely manage to survive the role. Friedman, on the other hand, has proven that he can thrive in it.
As one trolls around various message boards, one can find plenty of sentiment from both the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh fanbases that Friedman wasn’t given a fair shot in either city. Truly, that’s the ultimate compliment that can be paid to a depth defender, that fans wanted to see more of them.
Of late, that certainly hasn’t been the case for many depth defenders in Vancouver. Is Friedman the one to break the streak and start contributing from the bottom-end of the blueline?
The sum total of his career thus far suggests the answer may be ‘yes.’
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