Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Longevity and Offensive Defensemen: Morgan Rielly

Jamie Sabau, Getty Images

With the 5th overall selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs took the player who most scouts believe has the highest offensive ceiling among defensemen.  While most of Leafs Nation was hoping for a forward in that slot, hearing "highest ceiling" in regard to one of our prospects is something most of us can get excited about.

After the initial disappointment of not getting a coveted centre and the subsequent acceptance/realization that Rielly is a player with a lot of potential, I felt a red-flag go off in my mind and at first I couldn't quite figure out what it was.  Then I started thinking about offensive defensemen lately and how often they've been able to replicate elite success with names like Ryan Whitney, Sheldon Souray, and Keith Yandle immediately springing to mind.  With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I decided to have a more detailed look at things.

Using Hockey Reference I decided to look at top-tier production from defensemen since 1995, defining 'top-tier' as 55 points or more in a single season.  In terms of raw numbers, there were 90 cases of defensemen meeting or exceeding this threshold.  9 of these seasons occurred pre-lockout, and 8 were post-lockout.  Pre-lockout there were an average of 4.88 defensemen who achieved these numbers each season while post-lockout the average increased to 5.75.

While the number of cases has increased post-lockout, longevity seems to be on the decline.  Of the 18 defensemen who had their first 55-point seasons post-lockout, only Dan Boyle, Brian Rafalski, Lubomir Visnovsky, and Mike Green have been able to accomplish the feat more than twice and each of them have done it 3 times.  Now obviously part of this can be attributed to opportunity -- Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty will have plenty of chances to exceed the 55-point mark in coming years -- but we simply aren't seeing the consistency of performance among offensive defensemen that we saw from the '90s crop of Lidstrom, Leetch, Bourque, Blake, Zubov et al.  While occurrences have increased, year-in and year-out dominance from star defensemen appears to be on the decline.

Now there are some names on the list who certainly have the opportunity to provide that kind of consistent production -- Doughty, Green, and Karlsson would all be prime candidates -- but outside of Green, there hasn't been a defensemen who has paced himself in that direction and could realistically continue that level of production on a go-forward basis.

Of the post-lockout group, 7 are under the age of 30 (Whitney, Green, Phaneuf, Keith, Doughty, Yandle, Karlsson).  At this stage, it looks like Whitney's days of top-tier production have been de-railed by a combination of injuries and playing for the Oilers under Steve Tambellini.  Green may bounce back but he's been plagued by injuries, failing to exceed 50 games the past two seasons, and his production has slipped even while in the lineup.  Phaneuf is 4 years removed from his 60-point season and looks more like a 40-50 point guy than a 50-60 point guy and I'm inclined to believe the same of Yandle.

Of course there's always a chance that one of these guys will step forward and prove me wrong in a big way but considering things as they stand now, I look at the possibility of having a reliable and consistent offensive producer on the blueline with more than a little scepticism (which makes the 7-year contract Ottawa just gave Karlsson hilarious to me).

All of this isn't to say that these guys cease being useful players if they're unable to crack the 55-point threshold.  Leafs fans saw Phaneuf piece together a pretty solid season while tallying 44 last year.  What it may mean, in Rielly's case, is that he'll need to improve his defensive game in order to be viewed as a premier defenseman over a prolonged period of time.  There's a chance we see these peak years of production from him, but it's unlikely to sustain itself in the longterm -- simply put, things just don't seem to work that way anymore.

With that in mind, we should be hoping that the Leafs take their time in developing Rielly.  Defensive acumen takes time to develop and forcing guys into the NHL before they're ready can seriously stunt the process.  While Rielly's offensive game is likely to tempt us early in his career in the same way Gardiner's did last season, it's incumbent on the Leafs to make sure that he's ready to take care of his own zone before he's asked to make the jump.  Ultimately, we should get a much better player out of the process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think this is an excellent article, with the scarcity of talent the NHL has become essentially a defensive, risk adverse league. There is little room to constistently rush the puck, there will be no dominant offensive defensemen until this changes. The Leafs are, of course, already talking about fast tracking Reilly, so your comment about developing him carefully is unlikely to happen.