There is no doubt that the Philadelphia Flyers’ biggest weakness is, and has been, defense. Going into his first offseason as general manager, there were a few options Ron Hextall could choose to improve the Flyers biggest weakness. Rather than making a big splash by signing a bigger-name defenseman, Hextall decided to sign a few veteran guys to fill in the gaps while the Flyers young defensive prospects progressed and developed in the minor leagues. So far many have been surprised with the play of Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz, the two defensemen that Hextall decided to sign. After looking more in-depth at Del Zotto’s game so far on Tuesday, I wanted to look at Schultz’s game as well in comparison to some of Hextall’s other options.
The free-agent defensemen available in the offseason included a variety of defensemen, I’ve decided to look at seven of them: Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Anton Stralman, Christian Ehrhoff, Tom Gilbert, Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz. The defensemen are listed previously by cap hit, from highest to lowest as displayed on the chart below.
The players in this chart are color-coded by team; Niskanen and Orpik red for Washington, Stralman blue for Tampa Bay, Ehrhoff yellow for Pittsburgh, Gilbert red-pink for Montreal and of course Del Zotto and Schultz orange for Philadelphia. Throughout the rest of the article, the charts will display the defensemen in this order, with the highest cap hit (Niskanen) on the left, and lowest (Schultz) on the right. All of the stats displayed in this article are at 5v5 play, ignoring special teams.
As one would expect the higher paid defensemen are generally given more ice time. Stralman looks lower on this chart due to his special teams play, accounting for about seven minutes of his ice time per game. Del Zotto and Schultz see nearly the least time on ice, which could be explained by the Flyers defensive depth forcing them to spread the minutes around as well as the time spent on special teams by these defensemen.
How a player is used is just as important (if not more important) as how much he plays. For this, I looked at offensive zone start percent relative, shortened to Off ZS % Rel. This is how a player’s deployment compares to his teammates. A player who starts more of his shifts in the offensive zone will have a higher Off ZS % Rel while a player who has more defensive zone starts will have a lower Off ZS % Rel.
Its pretty amazing that the two highest paid defensemen, both on the same team at that, are relatively sheltered as they take more offensive zone starts than their teammates. What Stralman lacks in 5v5 time on ice he makes up for with his deployment. He starts nearly 10 percent less of his shifts in the offensive zone than his teammates. Likewise, though not to the same extent, for the rest of the bunch. Del Zotto and Schultz have been playing a bit tougher minutes than the rest of the Flyers, but the relative zone start percentage is still pretty close to zero.
Ultimately a hockey game is about putting pucks in the net. How a defenseman impacts their team on the scoreboard can sometimes be as important as protecting the net.
As the above chart shows, Stralman not only plays in tough situations, he is able to put points on the board while he is on the ice. The same holds true for the Flyers two here, as Del Zotto and Schultz are just behind Stralman in points per 60 minutes.
How well a player is able to play defensively and help his team control the puck isn’t exactly shown well in points, which is why we look at corsi. In this instance since we are comparing across different teams, we use corsi relative. This is just how a team performs with a player on the ice compared to when he is not on the ice.
Niskanen and Orpik who are by far the highest paid of the bunch are given good zone starts and still manage to perform worse than the rest of their teammates at puck possession. Meanwhile Anton Stralman who is paid slightly less manages to thrive at possessing the puck despite horrible zone starts, and he is putting up points in the process. Getting to the Flyers defensemen, we saw Tuesday how well Del Zotto has been performing, and Schultz isn’t too far behind. For how bad people expected Schultz to be, a relative corsi of barely negative one percent is great.
In an effort to combine a player’s usage (zone start wise) and a players puck possession, I looked at a player’s corsi for relative percentage. and took away their offensive zone start relative percentage. This isn’t a regular stat, but I did it in an attempt to show how well a player does at puck possession while factoring in their zone starts.
Due to their high offensive zone start and poor puck possession, the two highest paid defensemen are the worst in this category and they are the only ones in the red. On the other hand, Stralman looks fantastic due to his low offensive zone starts and high puck possession numbers. The rest of the bunch look around the same, with Del Zotto performing 2nd best behind Stralman and Schultz in a tight race behind him.
One last thing I wanted to look at was how tough of an opponent a player was playing against compared to his teammates. In an effort to come up with a “competition factor” I took a player’s competition corsi percentage and took their teammate corsi percentage away from it. This would leave the percentage that their opponent is better or worse than them based on corsi.
Looking at this Niskanen and Ehrhoff really stand out as having much better teammates than opponents, while our two Flyers defensemen and Tom Gilbert stand out as playing against tougher competition. Schultz and Del Zotto have each had a few different defensive partners throughout the season, but they still are playing against players who have better possession numbers than them.
Lets bring this back full circle. When looking at these numbers and these charts, you might come to the conclusion that Del Zotto and Schultz are about middle of the pack, if not a little bit towards the bottom in some instances. They are even the cream of the crop in some statistics. However, when you factor in the cap hit that each of these players have it is quite something. Del Zotto’s and Schultz’s cap hits are 1.3 million and 1.25 million respectively. Combined that is less than Tom Gilbert’s (2.8 million) who is the next lowest cap hit. Del Zotto and Schultz are each making less than a quarter of what Niskanen and Orpik are making, and less than a third of what Stralman and Ehrhoff are making.
After former general manager Paul Holmgren made some mistakes, namely Andrew MacDonald, Ron Hextall is trying his best to clean up the mess with what little cap room he was given. Looking at the statistics of these defensemen so far this season, Hextall has made some great signings in Del Zotto and Schultz. This is still a relatively small sample size, just over a dozen, so things can change, but for now it looks like Hextall is maximizing production from what minimal cap room he was given.
Ryan Gilbert is a contributing writer for Flyerdelphia and can be found on twitter @RiskyBryzness.