Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SPORTS
If you were to ask people around the NHL what Jake Gardiner is good at, you’d probably hear a lot of things related to his offensive abilities. Earlier this year James Reimer said that Gardiner has a rare aptitude for passing. Writing for the Canadian Press last fall, Stephen Whyno described Gardiner as a “young, smooth-skating, offensive-minded” defenceman but added that he “could be an adventure in the defensive zone.” I think those comments are representative of the general opinion about Jake: he’s a talented skater who’s got great vision, but he hurts his team when he doesn’t have the puck.
Conventional wisdom on Gardiner, however, is wrong. While he struggled a bit early on in his NHL career, over the past few seasons Gardiner has been one of the most reliable players in the league at reducing the burden faced by his team’s goalie. The same skills that Gardiner uses to generate offence, like his skating and his vision, help him keep the puck away from his own net.
RELATIVE SHOT ATTEMPTS
The primary way that a defenceman can impact his team defensively is by limiting the number of shots that the other team gets. By that measure, Gardiner has been extremely good over the past three seasons. The best way to measure this is Corsi Against per 60 minutes of ice time at even strength, relative to a player’s teammates. Relative Corsi takes the shot attempts when a player is on the ice and subtracts the shot attempts when he’s on the bench, so it gives us a good idea of how much better (or worse) a team does with a given player compared to his teammates. For Corsi Against, a low number is better (ex. -5.0 would mean the team allows 5 fewer shot attempts with a player on the ice while +5.0 would mean the team allows 5 shots more). Here are the top 10 players by CA/60 Rel over the past 3 seasons (minimum 100 games played):
Only one regular defenceman in the entire NHL has done a better job than Gardiner at limiting shot attempts relative to his teammates over the past three seasons: Mark Giordano.
One of the things that you might have noticed about that list is that it seems to have a lot of players from some teams that have been pretty bad, like the Leafs, Flames, and Coyotes, and almost no players from top teams (Anton Stralman being the notable exception). There’s a simple explanation for that, which you can probably guess: it’s easier to have a good rating relative to a bad team than a good team.
However, if you go down the list a bit further, you’ll find most of the top defencemen from some of the NHL’s better teams, with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kevin Shattenkirk, Victor Hedman, and Drew Doughty all in the top 30. Keep going a bit further and the top 60 also includes names like Hjalmarsson, Muzzin, Lindholm, Jones, Subban, and Suter.
Because of this bias towards players on bad teams, we shouldn’t interpret CA/60 Rel to be an ordered list of the best defensive players in the NHL. It’s much harder for a player like Drew Doughty to have a good result relative to the Kings than it is for Chris Tanev to do on the Canucks. Jake Gardiner is certainly not the 2nd best defensive defenceman in the NHL. But what the list does give us is players who are, on the whole, providing their teams with good defensive impacts. Gardiner probably wouldn’t appear at the very top of the list if he played for the LA Kings, but in all likelihood he’d still wind up looking pretty good.
Indeed, not only is he one of the best in the league in aggregate over the past three seasons, Jake Gardiner is also one of the top players in each individual season. Among players with at least 40 GP, Gardiner was 37th best last year, 3rd the year before, and 7th two years ago. With 60 top-pair defencemen in the NHL, Jake is easily ranking as a top-pair player by this metric on a consistent basis.
17 players in total have ranked in the top 60 in CA/60 Rel in each of the past three seasons. Here’s the full list: Matt Niskanen, Calvin De Haan, T.J. Brodie, David Schlemko, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jake Gardiner, Mike Green, Mark Giordano, Ryan Ellis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Chris Tanev, Barret Jackman, Anton Stralman, Mattias Ekholm, Brian Campbell, Brendan Smith.
You might complain that if we’re putting together a list of best defensive defencemen in the NHL, that list doesn’t look quite right. While there are some players who are widely recognised for their great defensive play, like Giordano or Vlasic, there are far too many good players missing. But if you add in the list of players who’ve ranked in the top 60 in two of the past three seasons, most of the names that you’d expect to see show up. Among others, we can add to the list P.K. Subban, Jake Muzzin, Seth Jones, Victor Hedman, Aaron Ekblad, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, and Drew Doughty.
WHAT ABOUT GOALS?
One of the complaints about Corsi is that it doesn’t take shot quality into account. I think there’s pretty good evidence that defencemen are not able to significantly affect save percentage. That’s why shot attempts are the best measure of how a defenceman is contributing defensively. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that defencemen are able to significantly affect SV% and that therefore we should be looking at goals against rather than shots against to determine who is playing well. Let’s look at the top 10 players in GA/60 Rel over the past 3 seasons (once again limiting to a minimum of 100 GP):
Well what do you know, Jake Gardiner appears near the top of the league again. Regardless of whether you use goals or shots, Gardiner winds up looking great.
Looking at this list, though, I think you’ll agree when I say it doesn’t look anything like a list of the best defensive defencemen in the NHL at all. And it doesn’t get any better if we go further down the list. Here are the next 20 players:
This list looks almost entirely random to me. You can pick out some good players here and there, but on the whole, there isn’t any clear order. You can easily compare this to the list of players ranked by CA/60, and it’s clear that shot attempts are producing a much better list of good defensive players.
The case that Jake Gardiner is a valuable player defensively seems pretty strong. Not only is he among the league leaders in reducing shot attempts over the past 3 seasons in total, but he’s also among the league leaders in each of those seasons individually. He is likely getting a bit of a boost by playing on some pretty bad teams, but on the whole, the evidence says that Gardiner’s defensive impacts should not be overlooked.