In the forwards article, I mentioned just how much offensive talent has left the conference this year. But with the exception of a trio of North Dakota juniors, defensive talent largely sticks around. Coupled with the solid goaltenders who remain, this could be a year of defensive chess matches in the NCHC – very exciting stuff.
Before looking at any data, however, we need to have a quick discussion about the analysis itself, because this category is always more subjective than the other two. When we’re evaluating defensive players in hockey, we tend to conflate their actual defending abilities with their offensive contributions.
Defensemen are the most difficult position to assess in hockey, at all levels. You can evaluate them in the same way you do forwards, but that only tells you who the most offensive-oriented guys are. Trying to determine the most defensive defensemen can be difficult, especially with the lack of data we have at the NCAA level. For so long, plus/minus was the standard, but the stats community has come to a consensus that +/- is unreliable and useless. At the NHL level, two-way blue line talent can be looked at through ice time, relative Corsi, player usage charts, etc., (see here, here and here) but we simply don’t have that kind of data in college yet. We’re stuck with shots, shot blocks, faceoffs, goals and assists.
We’ve tried to make do with what we have, knowing that we still need a better way. But in working with the extant data, we can do a pretty good job of evaluating who is helping the team score goals from an offensive perspective, and we might be able to infer some things about who is actually playing good preventative defense. We’ll return to this discussion at the end of the article, because there are a few more preferable indicators of good defense (and they’re not that hard to get at), but it would take some investment from the NCAA and the conferences.
For now, let’s play with the data we’ve got.
NCHC teams lose 17 defenseman in 16-17, just one less than last year. Let’s take a quick look at the top departures before getting to returning players:
|Team||Player||Year||Total Shots||Blocks||Expected Points||Actual Points||Rating|
Last year, I suspected Ethan Prow would be the best defender in the conference. That held up pretty well – Prow led blue liners in points, and overperformed statistical expectations by about 30%. Similarly, Nolan Zajac and Troy Stetcher – also in my top five – had good years. Matthew Caito was someone of a miss, though. Perhaps he had an off year, but he earned about 40% fewer points than I would have expected. Though quite a few top Miami defenders had poor years – perhaps something about their systems? Could be an artifact, too.
The Fighting Hawks lose the most at defense, as three juniors depart. Interesting, Western Michigan has zero returning defenders, a good sign for them in a year they’ll be seeking a new goalie. Also interesting is that some of the “best” defenders have very even ratings (close to 1.00), which differs from top forwards, who tend to have high ratings. This supports my theory posed last year, which suggests the best defenders cluster around 1.00, or “at offensive expectations.”
Let’s get to it – who are the top returning defenders in the NCHC? There are 47 returning this year, just one less than last year. Let’s look at the top d-men in a few of the more traditional ways – points, blocked shots, and blocks per game.