NCHC 2015-16 Returners: Defense


This is part three in a series on returning 2015-16 NCHC talent. Earlier in the week, we created models to evaluate the relative on-ice performance of goaltenders and forwards. Today, let’s tackle the defenders. But before we do, we need to have a quick discussion about the analysis itself, because this category is always more subjective than the other two.

I picked an image of a talented NCHC defensive player (SCSU’s Ethan Prow) making an offensive move for a reason. Prow is a good two-way guy in a lot of ways, and I’ll show you why we think that in a minute. But 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.

Top Losses

NCHC teams lose 18 defenseman in 15-16, whether through graduations or defections. No player will likely be as missed as Denver’s Joey LaLeggia, one of the top five point earners in the league. North Dakota’s Jordan Schmaltz leaves with a year of eligibility, and Nick Mattson graduates – both contributed 20+ points. Colorado College will miss sophomore Jaccob Slavin and senior Peter Stokykewich, who combined for 139 blocked shots last year. WMU’s Kenny Morrison leaves a year early after a relatively fruitful 2014-15, but he certainly could have contributed significantly in the upcoming season. SCSU’s losses of Andrew Proncho and Tim Daly will be felt, too – Daly led the league in blocked shots.

UNO, Miami and Duluth remain relatively unscathed, however, losing only four defensive players between them, and only two who played a full season.

Traditional Analysis

There are 48 returning defenders in the NCHC. As we did for the forwards, let’s look at the top d-men in a few of the more traditional ways – points, blocked shots, and blocks per game.

I’m also going to throw in total shots attempts (TSA), which is a decent proxy for ice time, which is often a good indicator of talent (assuming that coaches will give their best players the most time on the ice). Here are those four categories:

Points   Blocks Blocks per Game Total Shot Attempts
Nolan Zajac (DEN) 26 Brian Cooper (UNO) 73 Troy Stetcher (NDAK) 2.09 Andy Welinski (UMD) 220
Matthew Caito (MIA) 24 Troy Stetcher (NDAK) 71 Brian Cooper (UNO) 1.87 Luc Snuggerud (UNO) 189
Ethan Prow (SCSU) 23 Paul LaDue (NDAK) 68 Taylor Fleming (WMU) 1.81 Will Butcher (DEN) 174
Paul LaDue (NDAK) 22 Taylor Fleming (WMU) 67 Neal Goff (WMU) 1.72 Nolan Zajac (DEN) 172
Ian Brady (UNO) 21 Matthew Caito (MIA) 64 Paul LaDue (NDAK) 1.66 Chris Dienes (WMU) 170
Andy Welinski (UMD) 21 Joel Messner (UNO) 64 Matthew Caito (MIA) 1.64 Paul LaDue (NDAK) 168
Louie Belpedio (MIA) 19 Neal Goff (WMU) 62 Joel Messner (UNO) 1.64 Tucker Poolman (NDAK) 163
Will Butcher (DEN) 18 Nolan Zajac (DEN) 55 Thomas Nitsche (WMU) 1.62 Louie Belpedio (MIA) 161
Tucker Poolman (NDAK) 18 Nathan Widman (SCSU) 52 Nick McCormack (UMD) 1.42 Matthew Caito (MIA) 157
Willie Raskob (UMD) 17 Andy Welinski (UMD) 51 Nathan Widman (SDSU) 1.41 Willie Raskob (UMD) 155

Whether points, blocks or shot attempts, we’re seeing a lot of the same names across categories – Miami’s Caito, UND’s LaDue, Denver’s Zajac, etc. That’s good – that means we have some strong indicators of the two-way defensive talent in the NCHC.

New Model

Now let’s take a look at defensive players with the method we used on forward – comparing them to the Average NCHC Skater. As I explained in that article, this method helps us understand who is making the most of their time on the ice, whether through skill or luck.

The Average NCHC Skater model has allowed us to put a point value on each kind of shot a player takes – wide, blocked, post, saved shot and goal. It also allows us to do a fair comparison of guys who took 250 shots against a guy who only took, say, 75. We run each player in the league through this model to get an expected points output. From there, we can compare each individual player’s efforts last year to the Average NCHC Skater and give them a rating based on how they compare to expectations.

What this method does is allows us to see the extent to which each defender took advantage of the opportunities they were given. That is, on average, each time Player X had the puck, how likely was he to make a decision that led to his team scoring compared with the other players in the league.

This will not give us the top goal scorers, or the most accurate shooters, or the best possession guys. It will simply tell us who are the smartest, most effective or just plain lucky hockey players.

We’re also looking at only those players who took more than 50 shots. That roughly equates to players who got significant ice time in 35 or more games last season (aka cutting out the typical scratches). Here’s what that analysis returns for 2014-15 NCHC blue liners:

Team Player Year Total Shots Expected Points Actual Points Rating
SCSU Ethan Prow Sr 92 11.30 23 2.04
UNO Ian Brady Jr 131 14.93 21 1.41
MIA Matthew Caito Jr 157 17.10 24 1.40
SCSU Niklas Nevalainen Jr 69 5.23 7 1.34
DEN Nolan Zajac Sr 172 19.52 26 1.33
MIA Chris Joyaux Sr 61 4.60 6 1.31
WMU Taylor Fleming Jr 105 11.76 15 1.28
NDAK Paul LaDue Jr 168 19.13 22 1.15
SCSU Nathan Widman So 63 7.01 8 1.14
WMU Chris Dienes Jr 170 15.59 17 1.09

So, a couple of things here. First, we’re still seeing a lot of same guys show up in this method compared with the traditional methods. Nevalainen is new, Joyaux is new, but that’s about it. This means the defensive ratings are a lot more in line with the actual points than they were for forwards. So we’re still mostly measuring offensive over- or under-performance with this method. It’s also saying that quite a few more of the defenders got more points than expected given the shots they took. That’s likely because they were not doing as much shooting as the forwards – instead they were making key assist passes that led to goals. That’s valuable, too.

Yet we’ve only really identified those guys who are the most offensively oriented. Should we look at those players who rank low against the Average NCHC Skater? No, those will be the players who are just plain not very good. What about those defenders who are smack in the middle – performing exactly as expected given the shots they take?

Team Player Year Total Shots Expected Points Actual Points Rating Blocked
DEN Will Butcher Jr 174 17.99 18 1.00 48
UNO Joel Messner So 71 5.98 6 1.00 64
UNO Luc Snuggerud So 189 16.28 16 0.98 35
DEN Adam Plant So 105 10.18 10 0.98 32
UNO Brian Cooper Sr 138 16.37 16 0.98 73
NDAK Troy Stetcher Jr 118 13.46 13 0.97 71
UMD Willie Raskob Jr 155 18.17 17 0.94 42
MIA Louie Belpedio So 161 20.42 19 0.93 36
WMU Chris Dienes Jr 170 15.59 17 1.09 48
MIA Scott Dornbrock So 87 9.31 8 0.86 47

What’s interesting about this look is that among the most “meets expectations” defenders, we see three of the top six shot blockers, and eight of the 10 are above average for the NCHC. This isn’t the most scientific method of analysis, but the combination of expected offensive performance (that is, not over-playing offensively) with a high indicator of defensive performance makes me think we’re looking at the strong two-way blue liners. But this is nothing more than a hunch at this point without better data.

Evaluating Good Defense?

This will always be an elusive category until more game data becomes available for NCAA games. However, if anyone reading this is looking for ideas on what those categories might be, there are a few prevailing ideas that wouldn’t be all that difficult to track:

  1. Zone entries – Track each time a player defends an opposing team’s entry into the offensive zone, and what happens. Does the offensive player carry the puck across the blue line or dump it in? Does the defender successfully break up the play either through a check, steal, pass break up or something else? This data could give us a great idea of which players are doing the best defending.
  2. Zone starts – For which faceoffs does a defender get put into the game? When the drop is near his goalie? Or when his team is in the offensive zone, ready to attack? Theoretically, the best defenders will get more defensive zone starts, because they’re the best at clearing the puck.
  3. Player-level possession – If teams simply published the clock time for the start and end of each player shift, we could do all kinds of wondrous things with NCAA analytics. Among them, we could calculate a player-level possession stat for every player. For defenders, this might mean the most, because if we notice a team’s possession goes up when a certain defender is on the ice, well… there’s really no better indicator of their effectiveness.

These would all be major improvements, and I hope some of this data will be coming soon. In the meantime, we have what we have, so let’s finish up here with an informed-but-not-perfect ranking of returning defenders.

Top Defenders

Given the data we have on NCHC returning players, and given the limited analyses we are able to perform, we’ve selected the top five defenders to watch in 2015-16:

  1. Ethan Prow, St. Cloud (Sr.)
  2. Matthew Caito, Miami (Sr.)
  3. Paul LaDue, North Dakota (Jr.)
  4. Nolan Zajac, Denver (Sr.)
  5. Troy Stetcher, North Dakota (Jr.)

Honorable mention: Brian Cooper, Omaha (Sr.); Will Butcher, Denver (Jr.); Willie Raskob, Duluth (Jr.); Chris Dienes, Western Michigan (Jr.)

There you have it – top goalies, top forwards, and now, top defenders. Denver appears to return a very talented defense on both ends of the ice, as do North Dakota and Miami despite some key losses. UNO also appears very solid, returning every top-four guy they had. St. Cloud has some pieces to work with, too. To the Colorado College fans hoping to find their favorite players in this article, my apologies – no CC returners really stood out relative to everyone else on the NCHC rosters. But that’s why they play the games, right?

I’d love to see your rebuttals (find me on Twitter at @joel_gehringer). In the meantime, good luck to all teams on the ice in a few short weeks. Prove me wrong, guys!

See top returning NCHC goaltenders.

See top returning NCHC forwards.

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