Why We Undervalue Defensive Contributions



James Reimer and Tyler Bozak were both praised for their defensive efforts against the Flames on Saturday night. After the Flames jumped out to a quick two goal lead each made a strong play to prevent the Flames from extending their lead. Unfortunately their efforts would have gone unnoticed if not for the offense of Phil Kessel. All too often strong defensive play is only rewarded retroactively after a goal is scored. On the other hand “big” saves only earn that status after the game is finished. Hindsight Bias causes us to both under and over value defensive contributions.

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In his game recap over at TSN Jonas Siegel highlighted the importance of Reimer’s strong play in the second period of the Leafs’ 3-2 win over the Flames:

“Reimer stopped the final 25 shots he faced at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, steering the Leafs toward their third victory in three games, a 3-2 defeat of Sutter’s Calgary Flames.

An early 2-0 hole did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 23-year-old. In fact, it was his heroics in the second period that rallied the Leafs to a win.

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Moments before Joffrey Lupul cut the deficit in half with the Leafs first goal of the game, Reimer stonewalled Flames captain Jarome Iginla with a sensational left pad save. Phil Kessel evened the score shortly thereafter (with the first of his two goals), but not before Reimer turned aside a hard-rushing Olli Jokinen with another sturdy left pad stop.

“Those are the saves that stick out the most for me,” said Ron Wilson, following the game.”

Ron Wilson should have prefaced his praise with: “In Hindsight”. Reimer’s saves, while obviously important, only stuck out to Wilson because of the goals that came after. Every single save a goalie makes, especially in a tight game, is equally important. This is what helps to build the narratives of certain goalie’s being “clutch” or “big game players”. Some saves are spectacular because of the play the preceded it, some become spectacular because of a goal afterward. Roberto Luongo made a lot of saves during the Stanely Cup Finals, they would have been “big” “key” or “clutch” saves if the Canucks could have scored a few goals.

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It’s not just goalies who can have their reputations made as the result of hindsight bias. Defensive contributions are often overlooked unless a goal can be directly attributed to them. Tyler Bozak made an excellent play to tie up the stick of Jarome Iginla on the back-check. Carl Gunnarsson picked up the loose puck and sent Kessel on his way for his first of the game. 2-1 Flames. Let’s imagine that the play unfolded exactly the same way except Kessel rings the puck off the cross-bar. We’re definitely not talking about Tyler Bozak’s back-check if that’s what happened. And that’s unfortunate, because it was a good play. The sort of play that helps teams win hockey games, a play that is often overlooked unless a goal is scored soon afterward.

Tim Brent. Chances are the first thought that popped into your head was this shift against the Carolina Hurricanes last season. That shift probably earned him his contract with the Hurricanes over the summer. He was a beast, but what if the Leafs had been unable to clear the zone and the Hurricanes scored? Would we even remember those blocked shots? It’s obviously impossible to know, but I have my doubts. Due to the influence of hindsight bias we tend to magnify the importance of an event based on an ultimate outcome.

We need to combat this by keeping in mind that every save is “big” or “clutch”, every solid defensive play is worthy of praise, not just the ones that lead to goals. While difficult, it will help us identify the players who do the hard work necessary to prevent goals. We might even find a few undervalued players as a result. So the next time you see a good defensive play remember it, even if no one scores a goal afterward.   

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  • One thing that I’ll say is that “analysts”, but even sometimes coaches and GMs, are quick to anoint a player that doesn’t contribute offensively as a “defensive” player. The truth is, if offered the choice between a poor defensive player and a poor offensive one, I’ll take the player that CAN score 10 times out of 10. At least an offensively-oriented player has a hope of making up for his mistakes in one end at the other.

    Just look at Mike Komisarek: he sits at 25th of the top 50 D-Men in terms of cap hit in the NHL according to Capgeek. (OK, so technically, a 4-way tie for 24th.) That leaves us with a nice group of comparables above and below his salary. He and Anton Volchenkov are the only two on this list to not ever put up 20 points in a season. To earn bucks and kudos, you have to put the puck in the net, or else your contract looks like an albatross.

  • I am a disgruntled Leafs fan who year after weary year cheer on the Leafs to my utter dismay.
    Instead of reviewing their past games to see where they are lacking in their power plays, Ron Wilson should be showing them the manner of play of the winningest team of late in hockey who would be their greatest rival, the Detroit Red Wings.
    Detroit has played in more playoffs seasons than the Leafs could wish for.
    And why is that?
    Look at the obvious. Goals are a rarity from the back of the net. Detroit continuously blocks the vision of the opposing goalie.
    Detroit places all five players inside the opposition blue line at every chance they get. This type of play is what earned them the Stanley Cup which Toronto can only dream of.
    When are Toronto Coaches going to see the light?
    I have never played hockey or skated on an inside rink in my close to seventy years existence, but I can tell you I could coach the Marleys to wipe out Toronto three games to one by simply following the lead of the Detroit Red Wing style of play, as much as I have immensly disliked that team for many years.

    • 70 years! Thanks for stopping by to comment.

      I think that Wilson is actually trying to implement at least a part that is similar to the Red Wings in the aggressive forecheck.

      However, there’s definitely a lot they can learn from them especially on the PP. The Wings are, as you noted, great at screening the net.