Tough Minutes on Defense

A couple days ago, I took a gander at how Tom Renney was using his forwards and saw that the lines were very consistent over the first four games of the season.  I also saw that the results weren't very good, and noted that there aren't any good options for making them better.  Before the season began, pretty much everyone sensible agreed that this team was short on NHL-ready talent, but there wasn't a lot of agreement on how to deal with that shortage.  I had my ideas about what I thought would be most effective, but there were many other suggestions floating around as well.  That wasn't really true about the defense.  The short on talent part was the same (Oh joy of joys!), but it seemed like a good majority of people thought that the pairings were obvious: Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney against the toughs; Kurtis Foster and Ladislav Smid against the second toughs; and Jim Vandermeer and Theo Peckham getting fewer and softer minutes.  After the jump, we'll see that none of that is happening and talk about whether or not it's working.

The following chart shows the amount of EV ice time each defender has received so far this season, as well as each defender's most common partners, and the percentage of each defender's ice time that's been spent against the opposition's best player (the information is available because of Vic Ferrari's wonderful "time on ice" tools):

Defender_ice_time_medium

As with the forwards, each defender has spent the vast majority of his ice time with the same partner.  But those pairings aren't what was expected; Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert are the team's leaders in ice time, but they aren't usually playing together.  Instead, Gilbert is playing mostly with Ladislav Smid and Whitney is playing with Kurtis Foster.  Further, each of the six defenders has spent between 27% and 37% of his ice time against the opposition's best, giving us some solid evidence that there probably hasn't been any effort to give one of the pairings "tough minutes" so far this year.  Is it a good strategy?  Let's look at some of the possession metrics for each player to get an idea (thanks to Vic, Dennis, and Gabe for the raw numbers):

Defender_ice_time_2_medium

Well, no, it's not a good strategy.  None of the pairings have been all that successful.  In fact, it's mostly just been bad.  This is particularly discouraging in the case of Gilbert and Smid because the scoring chance numbers alone looked very good, but in the early going, they've generally been spending a lot of time in their own end. 

As with the forwards, it looks like something needs to change, but once again, there aren't many good options.  I'd really like to see if Ladislav Smid can handle tough minutes, so I'd be inclined to leave the pairings the same but give Smid and Gilbert more time against the opposition's best, and hope that a little extra shelter helps the other pairings to have a bit more success.  Either that, or move to what was expected at the start of the year and give Whitney and Gilbert the tough assignments and hope that they can cover top minutes effectively.  But honestly, the team just needs better players.

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