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Florida Panthers Advanced Stats 2014-15 Season Preview: Defensemen

Any way you slice it, the Panthers blue line will be young this season, but hopefully there's enough veteran flavoring to the cake that it stays nice and tasty.

The dream is to have this photo be replicated, with Mitchell in a Florida Panthers jersey.
The dream is to have this photo be replicated, with Mitchell in a Florida Panthers jersey.
Bruce Bennett

SB Nation 2014 NHL Preview

Welcome back to our hopefully informative series where were throw tons of data at you in the hope that you understand what the numbers say about the guys on the Florida Panthers' roster headed into the 2014-2015 season.  Please feel free to check on the first two (three?) portions of the series, in the forms of our center preview, part one of our winger preview, and part two of our winger preview.

Welcome back!  Horrible cake metaphors aside, the defense for the Panthers this season will hopefully be much better than it was last year.  The addition of Roberto Luongo between the pipes will give the players a better "eraser" behind them (hopefully Luongo erases the mistakes the defense makes), and the addition of Willie Mitchell brings another Stanley Cup winning pedigree to the team.

That being said, the Cats back end this year will most likely consist of five younger guys (Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen, Aaron Ekblad, and Colby Robak/Alex Petrovic) whose average age is 22-years-old, and two older guys (Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell) whose average age is 36-years-old.

There are two ways to look at this.  The first is that the youth and inexperience will not be able to handle the task next season, as only one of them (Kulikov) has hit the 300 game threshold that Dale Tallon uses to gauge the development of a defenseman.  The veterans, then, will be leaned upon heavily.  They will be counted on in games to eat up big minutes and in the locker room to lead the younger guys, and show them the ropes as they come into the NHL.

The second way to look at it is statistically.  Using Eric T.'s useful player aging charts, we can look at how Corsi is affected with age to give an educated guess as to the peak age for defensemen in the NHL.

Corsi

Aging_-_d_corsi_medium

via cdn1.sbnation.com

The upswing in the graph around the age 20 region is most likely due to the fact that defensemen who make the NHL that young are either incredibly good, or heavily sheltered during their first couple of seasons.  That being said, the peak age for defensemen is possibly between 21-25-years-old.  It's possible that the usage factor still stands for the rest of the graph and not just age 20, meaning that older defensemen get more heavy defensive usage because they're trusted more, though I doubt that this has that large of an effect on the results.  That being said, for the average NHL defender, we'll assume that peak age is between 22-27.  Given that range, only one player out of the five mentioned as "young" would fall outside of it, and that person was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Aaron Ekblad.  With this view in mind, the defensive corps looks more promising; a player by player breakdown may help further. (Stats taken from progressivehockey.com , which uses a regression to account for zone starts and score effects.  Hextally visualizations taken from war-on-ice.com )

Willie Mitchell

Player G A P Corsi For % RelCorsi For % ExCorsi dCorsi PDO Ex.GF% Rel.Ex.GF%
Mitchell 1 11 12 55.4% -0.94% 4.22 -0.39 100.8 55.3% -0.75%

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Good Corsi, but negative RelCorsi.  Given the right partner, he could be a positive player. Looking at some of Mitchell's tendencies show us a hint as to who that might be.

Capable of withstanding a forecheck and allowing a more mobile skater to begin break-outs, Mitchell was a poised and calming influence on his younger defensive partners.

"Mobile skater" and "younger defensive partner(s)." screams Dmitry Kulikov.  I understand that the perception is that Mitchell will go with Ekblad to allow the rookie more of a cushion to make plays and grow his offensive game, which is fine, but Mitchell played incredibly well with Alec Martinez, who is a fast, not so physical defenseman who makes good reads and passes with the puck.  Kulikov is more offensive than Martinez, (and maybe less defensively responsible), which should just serve to further compliment the pairing.

As for Mitchell's Hextally, I think it's safe to say that he benefits from Los Angeles' cycle game.  He only had 73 shots in 76 games last year, very clearly shown by the huge blue block up at the right point.  Mitchell showed a distinct preference to cycle the puck back down low to the forwards, and let them do the work, grinding the opposition to dust.  Asking him to take tons of shots from the point, or to change his game in some similar fashion, may change the results we see out of Mitchell, at least in the offensive zone.  As for the defensive side of the Hextally, it seems like Los Angeles tried to push the shots out of the high slot, and give Jonathan Quick shots that would be easier for him to save, given his style of play.  Let's give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt and figure that he's a good shot suppressor.

Brian Campbell


Player G A P Corsi For % RelCorsi For % ExCorsi dCorsi PDO Ex.GF% Rel.Ex.GF%
Campbell 7 30 37 51.4% 2.60% 0.69 1.12 99.6 50.9% 3.19%

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Brian Campbell is a top ten defenseman in the NHL.  I think it would be a bit of a stretch, but plausible, to call him a top 5 defenseman.  As for those better than him, I can come up with Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and maybe Ryan McDonagh and Jake Muzzin.  That's it.  That places him at 8th in the league.  Argue that point all you want, but Campbell does it all for the Panthers, and puts up great numbers while doing it.

Interesting to note, for a person not really noted as "physical", Campbell does a good job clearing out in front of the net.  So, speed and hockey smarts is more effective than being really big.  Crazy, right?

Dmitry Kulikov

Player G A P Corsi For % RelCorsi For % ExCorsi dCorsi PDO Ex.GF% Rel.Ex.GF%
Kulikov 8 11 19 50.1% -0.48% -0.07 0.87 97.1 48.6% -1.64%

Here I ask you to look at three Hextally charts.  I think they explain why Kulikov did so poorly last season.

Kulikov 2013-2014 NHL Season
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Kulikov NHL Career (minus 2013-2014 Season)

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Kulikov NHL Career Shooting Percentage

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Whatever adjustment was made in the defensive zone was good.  Keep that.  Shots in the high slot that typically were taken with ease were suppressed last season.  More shots from the point got through, but so long as Luongo gets to see them, it may work in the Panthers' favor.

In the offensive zone, yikes.  Shots from Kulikov's point shrunk.  That total is incredibly low.  When we look at the shooting percentage chart, we see that he has an above average shot, especially from that point.  It may be safe to say that Kulikov was asked to adjust and play a game similar to the one Willie Mitchell does, and cycle the puck back down low.  Doing that, however, robbed Kulikov of the chance to unleash more shots on net, which ended up hurting the team.  Having Kulikov shoot more from the point, or giving him more room to work up at the point, may result in an increase in the goals scored with him on the ice.  Just food for thought.

Erik Gudbranson

Player G A P Corsi For % RelCorsi For % ExCorsi dCorsi PDO Ex.GF% Rel.Ex.GF%
Gudbranson 3 6 9 49.5% -0.50% -0.53 1.42 99.4 49.6% 0.32%

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There aren't many events on Gudbranson's Hextally, so I don't know what to make of it.  He has shown positive development though, and had a good dCorsi value, as well as a positive Rel.Exp.GF%.  I have high hopes for him headed into the season.

Dylan Olsen

Player G A P Corsi For % RelCorsi For % ExCorsi dCorsi PDO Ex.GF% Rel.Ex.GF%
Olsen 3 9 12 51.1% 1.36% -1.08 2.07 99.0 51.8% 2.30%

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Olsen is actually pretty good.  Fascinatingly enough, he actually took tons of shots from his point, contrary to Kulikov, and had good numbers.  That really shouldn't be too surprising at this point.

Fun Fact: Olsen and Gudbranson together had a CF% of 55.9%.  Apart?  Olsen had a CF% of 46.5%, and Gudbranson had a CF% of 49.7%.  Keeping them together sounds rather intelligent, because they just seem to mesh well together for some reason.

Aaron Ekblad

Ekblad is a rookie.  We have no data on him.  Instead, we have a ridiculous amount of scouting reports and some highlight videos.  Do what you please with those.

Colby Robak vs. Alex Petrovic

Player G A P Corsi For % RelCorsi % ExCorsi dCorsi PDO Ex.GF% Rel.GF%
Robak 0 2 2 48.1% -1.27% -1.01 0.93 96.5 46.2% -3.23%
Petrovic 0 1 1 43.3% -6.34% N/A N/A 110.6 41.5% -7.16%

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Petrovic has little to no data outside of the typical stats.  Robak's stats and Hextally are scary, but they definitely look better than Petrovic's (at least the ones we have available).  Regardless, this is a decision entirely based on how the two perform in training camp, though I'm going to give the edge to Robak.

Conclusion

I really like the Panthers defensive core headed into next season.  A lot of people are skeptical due to their youth, but the stats show that may turn out to be an advantage.  Given the development of some of the players, and the new additions of others, I think that the Cats have a chance to have a six-man defensive corps that is borderline in the top third of the league, and at least in the top half.  As for the pairings, I think the case could be made that they look like what I have below, though how head coach Gerard Gallant wants the team to play will end up deciding what the pairings will actually be.

Pairing Left D Right D
1st/2nd Mitchell Campbell
1st/2nd Kulikov Ekblad
3rd Gudbranson Olsen

Hear me out before you start bashing my pairings.  Erik Karlsson is god-like with the way that he breaks the puck out of the zone. Though only half of the season has been tracked in terms of zone entries and zone exits, Brian Campbell is second behind Karlsson in terms of zone exits.  Overall, Karlsson, Subban, and Campbell are way ahead of the rest of league.  Pairing Mitchell and Campbell together, and giving them tough, defensive oriented minutes (lots of d-zone face-offs) gives the Panthers the best chance to consistently break out of the zone.  Putting Kulikov and Ekblad together creates a pairing that could be sheltered, and receive easy minutes, with the goal of producing offense.  If the adjustment is made to get Kulikov shooting the puck more, that could be coupled with Ekblad's cannon to produce an efficient offensive pairing.  The third pairing of Gudbranson and Olsen could be the versatile pairing that picks up all the minutes that are "left over" after the other two make the best use of their time.

Note: Part of the reason I say that the Panthers could have a pretty effective six-man rotation is that San Jose is much worse with Marc Edouard-Vlasic off the ice than they are with him on it. As mentioned in the article,

For a team with legitimate Stanley Cup hopes, bringing their "without Vlasic" numbers closer to their "with Vlasic" numbers should be an organizational goal.

The Panthers have Brian Campbell, and I think that with the group we have this year, our "without Campbell" numbers will be close to our "with Campbell numbers".  We don't have legitimate Stanley Cup hopes, but we do have legitimate playoff hopes.  And I think our blue line definitely gives us a chance to get there.