I put out Part 1 of this series the other day, focusing on a handful of forwards spread across the league that I’ve really grown fond of as players. The loosely defined criterion is all spelled out there in the preamble.
Next up: the defensemen.
It’s quite possible that Vatanen is already universally held in high enough of a regard that he shouldn’t be eligible for this list. Initially I wanted to use this as an opportunity to gush about him and Tyson Barrie, but the latter having finished last season as a top-10 scorer from the blueline unfortunately made him an instantaneous cut from this list.
While Vatanen himself already has an awfully productive campaign under his belt, I just couldn’t get myself to omit him, too. Ultimately this list is about shedding light on guys who are good at hockey and whose play warrants it.
I’ve been high on Vatanen for a while now, ever since he stepped into the spotlight and made a sudden impact in a playoff series against the Kings two years ago. What immediately stood out about his game was how silky smooth he was getting around the ice surface. At that time he was a sight for sore eyes for an Anaheim Ducks blueline that included the likes of Mark Fistric, Luca Sbisa, Ben Lovejoy, and even a Stephane Robidas cameo late in the season.
Even though their back-end is leaps and bounds better now, Vatanen still remains their go-to offensive weapon from back there. Amongst Ducks skaters only Ryan Getzlaf saw more time on the man advantage than him last season and with good reason. His 5.08 points/60 were 14th best amongst all NHL defensemen. He was doubly devastating when you consider how often he used his aforementioned skating ability to put the opposition in precarious positions ultimately resulting in penalties needing to be taken.
It’s not like he was chopped liver at 5v5 either. I’ll be very curious to see what he’ll look like there if he’s ultimately able to detach himself from the anchor that is Clayton Stoner at some point this season.
Unsurprisingly, its taken Ellis some time to find his footing in the NHL following his obscene major junior career. It was just this past season – five years after the Predators spent a lottery pick on him – where he took a big leap and became an integral part of a largely successful team.
Given Nashville’s embarrassment of riches on the blueline, it’s important to view his production in terms of rate and not raw numbers. Given that he was stuck behind one of the league’s top defense pairings in the league, his opportunities were justifiably capped. That sort of secondary, hired gun role served him well though. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an offensive category in which he doesn’t shine brightly in. Amongst defensemen he was 2nd in points/60, 4th in primary assists/60, and 8th in goals/60 (all at 5v5). Him and his most common partner Mattias Ekholm controlled 56.8% of all shot attempts and 60.8% of all goals scored at 5v5 when they were on the ice together.
It remains to be seen how high his ceiling is in his current surroundings given the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. But for Nashville, that’s a good problem to have. I’d say the wait was ultimately worth it because Ryan Ellis rules.
In theory Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and even potentially Christian Folin could be cc’d in this section. The Minnesota Wild have one of the deepest, most versatile defense corps in the entire league yet their insist on riding Ryan Suter to a point of diminishing returns.
Suter is an interesting discussion point because of what he represents. While a lot of his underlying numbers wouldn’t necessarily suggest that he’s a truly elite defenseman, there’s no denying that he’s an immensely effective player. It’s just impossible not to wonder whether (and maybe more precisely, how much) he’d be better under a smaller workload. Considering that he averaged north of 29 minutes a game last season, I’d venture to guess that there were times his foot wasn’t exactly fully on the gas pedal. Which isn’t a knock against him in the slightest; it’s humanly impossible to consistently go full bore for that long a period of time. For a team that surely has playoff aspirations this year it would behoove them to ease up on Suter during the regular season and spread the wealth around.
Which brings us to Spurgeon, who’s my favourite of the bunch listed above. He’s not necessarily an overwhelmingly impressive player at first glance, and he’s diminutive in stature, but all he does is make his teammates lives easier:
An added bonus to Spurgeon is that he simply doesn’t take penalties. It’ll be interesting to see what he fetches as an RFA in his next contract considering his partner from last season got reward with a fairly lucrative extension this past summer himself.
“Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers: WHAT THE HECK PAUL HOLMGREN, GET OFF OF MY COMPUTER!!!”
It’d be disingenuous of me to end this project without addressing Steve Mason’s unforeseen rise to stardom since the time the inaugural All-Hipster Team article was published. Even when taking into account how random goaltending can be, saying that its been ‘unforeseen’ still doesn’t seem fitting for how completely out of left field this development has been.
I’ve taken my fair share of potshots at Mason over the years, deservedly so. After his Calder Trophy winning rookie season back in ’09, he went on to quite possibly be the most damaging goalie in the league over the course of the next 3 years. Especially if you factor in how frequently he was used by Columbus during that time, presumably because of an obligation they felt internally to stick with him following his initial success. He ranked 41st out of 46 eligible goalies (min. 50 GP) in 5v5 save percentage from 2009-2012. Taking it a step further, during that time his 44 “Real Bad Starts” (a game in which a goalie registers a save percentage <.850) were far and away the most out of any goalie in the league.
Given both Mason’s recent history and the Philadelphia Flyers track record with goalies of late, the fit seemed like a match made in hell at the time. Instead, he’s been downright fantastic during tenure with the Flyers:
That’s as pronounced an improvement as you’ll see. Only Carey Price and Tuukka Rask posted a higher 5v5 save percentage than Mason over the past two seasons amongst regulars. Last season alone, no one was better (acknowledging that his 51 GP paled in comparison to Price’s 66, for example).
It’ll be interesting to see whether he’ll be able to not only replicate some semblance of that success this season, but also do so over the course of a bigger workload. Should he fail to do so, at the very least the Flyers are better positioned to avoid completely falling apart like they did last year whenever he wasn’t between the pipes with the addition of Michal Neuvirth as a back-up.
Whether it was something that the Flyers staff tweaked technically with his game, an adjustment he made himself, or some stroke of unsustainable good fortune, the fact of the matter is that Steve Mason proved us very wrong the past two seasons. Goaltending is weird.