Aaron Ekblad...Leaps and Bounds! Part II Defense
Photo: Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire
The timing is perfect to take a closer look at Aaron Ekblad’s ‘defensive’ proficiency over his first two seasons. He recently received a mammoth eight year contract extension, cementing him as the centerpiece on a surging young Panthers group.
In our offensive analysis of Ekblad we noted how a player’s offensive contribution goes well beyond points. Even though his point totals were similar in his first two years, his offensive proficiency showed tremendous improvement in the 15/16 season.
Just as point totals do not tell the whole offensive story, plus/minus provides only a glimpse into a players defensive proficiency. In the 14/15 season Ekblad had a respectable +12 and followed it up in 15/16 with a bump to +18.
Over the same two seasons, the Panthers went from a -15 goal differential to a +32, a very significant 47 goal improvement. Ekblad’s plus/minus improvement in the context of the Panther’s improved plus/minus is interesting, but a thorough play-by-play analysis reveals how he actually contributed defensively.
Before we get to the results, here is a quick explanation on how a defenseman influences the game defensively, and how he can be evaluated.
Every moment Ekblad spends on the ice, when his team is on defense, he will have a defensive influence on the game. This influence could be breaking up a 3v1 rush or as simple as positioning himself appropriately in front of the net while the battle ensues elsewhere. As opportunities present themselves for him to become more engaged defensively, he will make contributions on a scale from extremely positive, ie. breaking up a 3v1, to extremely negative, ie. having bad positioning leading to a great chance against in front of his net. The net sum of these positive and negative plays reveal a player’s defensive contribution level and the finer details illustrate his defensive profile.
Note: The results below include a ‘Ranking’ among NHL defensemen. Refer to the Defenseman Ranking Scale at the bottom for placement on the average NHL blueline.
On a play-by-play basis, from the 14/15 to 15/16 seasons, in all game situations, Ekblad’s defensive contribution ranking rose from 168 to 52. This massive increase moved him from a mid 6th spot defenseman to a mid 2nd spot defenseman in respect to defensive proficiency. At even strength his increase was even more impressive, rising in ranking from 150th to 27th, squeaking into the top 30. The rise in rankings lands him in a similar neighborhood as Kris Russel and Cody Ceci, two well respected defensive defensemen who are both in line for new contracts.
How did he manage this increase in net defensive contribution? He had to either increase his positive defense or decrease his negative defense….. simply, make more positive defensive plays or fewer defensive mistakes, or both. Ekblad improved in both, but excelled in the most important area.
Positive defense includes plays that involve: closing shot lanes, closing passing lanes, taking away time and space, closing skating lanes and hits, making proper reads and adjusting positioning accordingly, etc.
Ekblad’s ranking in positive defense in all game situations rose from 158 to 122, basically from a 6th to 5th spot. At even strength, his positive defense ranking rose from 122 to 87, moving from a 5th spot to a 3rd spot defenseman. These numbers indicate a modest increase in positive defensive plays, with most of the increase being ‘Good’ plays as opposed to ‘Great’ positive defensive plays. Note: Good, Great, Poor and Bad are used to simplify the description of various levels of numeric plays.
Negative defense is defensive mistakes and includes the failure, at the required time, to: close shot lanes, close passing lanes, take away time and space, close a skating lane, make the proper read, adjust positioning, etc.
Ekblad’s reduction in defensive mistakes from 14/15 to 15/16 was quite remarkable. In all game situations he improved from a ranking of 141 to 19, and at even strength from 137 to 18. Minimizing defensive mistakes is one of the most important measurements of a defenseman, and Ekblad moved from a 5th spot to 1st spot…. in one season. Most of his improvement was the reduction of ‘Bad’ defensive mistakes (as opposed to ‘Poor’), moving from a ranking of 159 to 29 at even strength. In comparison, in the 15/16 season, Subban ranked 180+ (7th D-man) in defensive mistakes and Weber ranked 87th (3rd D-man).
The importance of minimizing defensive mistakes can not be overstated. For example, consider the defenseman that is too aggressive at defending a 3 on 2 rush and gets beat. He recovers and makes a sensational stick lift to prevent a shot and break up the 3v1 he created. This is a bad defensive mistake followed by a great defensive play and is characteristic of a 'high event' defenseman. It's easy to see how the first play creates the second and how the preference would be to eliminate the first bad defensive play.... unless the priority is delivering exciting hockey to the fans. Being able to clean up mistakes is great, but not making them is even better.
Next we look at defensive game situations at even strength: Defensive Zone Coverage (DZC) and Rush Defend (RD):
DZC – From the 14/15 to 15/16 season, Ekblad's ranking rose from 102 to 55 in DZC, rising from a 4th to a 2nd spot defenseman.
RD – From the 14/15 to 15/16 season, Ekblad took a huge jump in RD from 140 to 54, moving from a 5th to a 2nd ranked defenseman.
Further analysis would reveal Ekblad's percentage contribution to the Panther's increase in goal differential, but the play-by-play results are clear. Ekblad made remarkable defensive improvement from his first to second NHL season, led by a reduction in defensive mistakes.
Offensively, Ekblad improved from a 4th to 2nd spot defenseman.
Defensively, he improved from a 6th to 2nd spot defenseman.
Combined, Ekblad’s performance improved 153% to move him from a 5th spot defenseman in his rookie season, to a 1st spot defenseman in his sophomore season, ranking 23rd.
There are few superlatives to describe this increase in performance, but from one season to the next, these numbers set the bar for development of a young defenseman. The only questions remaining are how quickly and how much further can he climb?
Defensemen Ranking Scale
|#1 D||#2 D||#3 D||#4 D||#5 D||#6 D|
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