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Dwelling on Erik Karlsson’s D

While doing some digging for an analytics piece that ran in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen outlining the statistical differences between Erik Karlsson’s Norris Trophy winning campaign and why Karlsson is not getting much hype for consideration despite his point totals in 2013-14, I stumbled upon some interesting statistics pertaining to this Senators blue line.

At the crux of the Karlsson piece was that by 2011-12 standards, he hasn’t been the same defensive player and in speaking to Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman, the organization has acknowledged this as well.

“Well, I think the thing with Karlsson and I was talking to some guys in the organization about him yesterday, is that there’s a feeling that as well as he’s played offensively, he’s still not there in terms of his defensive coverage yet. And it’s not just the fact that he’s a one-way guy, it’s just that he, they said, doesn’t seem confident yet after his injury on his puck retrieval and things like that. So I think Erik Karlsson can be a lot better.”

I certainly don’t think it’s any secret that Karlsson has been as sharp defensively as he was during his 2011-12 season, but because of his profile and offensive contributions, there is this tendency to overanalyze Karlsson’s mistakes.

On some level, that’s understandable because he’s Ottawa’s best player and important to this team’s success, however, it gets tiresome fast. For many, there’s insecurity over how competent of a defender Karlsson actually is and for others, they just loathe an easy narrative – that overarching portrayal of Karlsson as being a defensive liability. Or maybe it’s just because Karlsson’s the best offensive defenceman in the league, so inevitably his offence will overshadow his defensive contributions.

Regardless, I don’t think there should ever be any expectation for Karlsson to develop into a dominant defender, but it is worth noting Ottawa’s “defensive defencemen” rarely get the same level of treatment or analysis when it comes to evaluating their play.

It was only a short while ago that management professed that Cody Ceci’s emergence stabilized the defence, but using HockeyAnalysis.com’s databases, it’s pretty clear that that is not true.

Ottawa’s defensive struggles have persisted, but in particular, it’s interesting to see how Ceci and his defensive partner Chris Phillips have fared.

Of the defenceman that have played more than 500 minutes this season, Phillips ranks 192nd out of 198 blue liners in goals allowed per 20 minutes of ice time (1.055 GA/20). Ceci is ranked 176th, slightly behind Erik Karlsson who slots in at the 172nd spot and Marc Methot comes in at the 168th spot.

From a shot prevention standpoint, the situation isn’t much better. Jared Cowen, who had Ottawa’s best GA20 rate actually has the worst shot suppression rate when he’s on the ice. Out of the same 198 NHL defenceman, Cowen is 194th with Phillips and Ceci coming in 187th and 189th respectively.

Looking at the shot attempts situation, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defencemen own the bottom of the rankings. The Phillips/Ceci pairing again fares poorly. Keep in mind that this is typically a pairing that faces the easiest competition too.

It’s easy to lament the fact that the Senators have struggled defensively as a collective this season. It’s even easier to hang that blame exclusively on the defencemen.

As seen through the comments of Murray (re: Ceci’s emergence), management has been pretty supportive of the blue line it has assembled. Given their numbers situation on the left-side (ie. Cowen, Wiercioch, Methot, Borowiecki and Phillips), I think fans can expect a minor trade to alleviate this depth. However, I don’t think it will be a significant move to make this defence substantially better.

Instead, it seems more likely that the management will try to affect change by: 1) bringing in a new voice (Luke Richardson?) in an assistant or head coaching capacity; and 2) addressing the forward situation to bring in more players who are committed to supporting the puck, being dogged around it and being tenacious in their back pressure.

Another Note:

Going back to yesterday’s article in the Citizen, @sens_adnan made a great comment on Twitter regarding Ottawa’s ability this season to suppress shots on goal when Erik Karlsson is on the ice shorthanded.

@6thSens Also while he’s 1st on the team in shots allowed 4-on-5, he’s 1st in the NHL among defencemen in shot attempts allowed 4-on-5.

— Adnan (@sens_adnan) April 7, 2014