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Unlocking the Offensive Defenceman

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Can Justin Schultz fit into McLellan's game plan this coming season?

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Schultz will be a player to watch this upcoming season, as he works to become a legitimate top four defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers. The offensive talent is there, but he has yet to round out his game and be a reliable defenceman in his own zone.

The fact is over the past three seasons, Schultz has received a lot of ice-time and often started in the offensive zone. It makes sense: the team trailed a lot and Schultz was often the best offensive option on the Oilers blueline. It was also uncovered recently by Travis Yost that Schultz has had a very high percentage of his team's high danger scoring chances (HDSC) that occurred when he was on the ice. (Source: War on Ice)

I decided to take it one step further and see what percentage of the high danger scoring chances happened when the score was close. This takes away score effects and gives us a better assessment of the player at even-strength. Here are the top 10 defencemen from last season. The average among defenceman who played at least 35 games was 2.89% in 2014/15.

Proportion of On-Ice High Danger Scoring Chances (Score Close) - 2014/15
Player Team % of On-Ice HDSC
J. Schultz EDM 9.43
K. Bieksa VAN 9.39
D. Boyle NYR 8.84
M. Hunwick NYR 8.27
Z. Bogosian WPG/BUF 7.01
N. Nikitin EDM 6.94
M. Green WSH 6.62
E. Johnson COL 6.08
M. Del Zotto NYR 5.88
T. Myers BUF/WPG 5.85

Should note that Dustin Byfuglien and John Scott (!) are at the top, but we can't say for certain if their individual high danger scoring chance occurred when they were playing forward or defence. Regardless, young Schultz is on the list, and oddly enough, so to is Nikita Nikitin. Weird.

It sounds like a bad idea to have a defenceman, let alone two that played poorly last season, getting that proportion of high danger scoring chances. Getting into the high danger areas in the offensive zone takes the player way out of position, increasing the chances of the opposition breaking out the other way. And considering how bad the Oilers are in the neutral zone, they probably shouldn't have been taking those types of risks.

Todd is On It

Digging through the Sharks' data, I found that Todd McLellan had also relied on a few defenceman to get in on high danger scoring chances. This surprised me at first, but when you dig a little further, it starts to make sense.

Now the data for Brent Burns can't be trusted 100% as he switched between forward and defence. I'm fairly confident he got a lot of high danger scoring chances, but I can't say with full confidence what that proportion was over the past few years. Instead, we can look at the numbers for Dan Boyle, a right side, right-shooting defenceman like Schultz, and begin to see how McLellan deployed his full-time offensive defenceman. Here are his numbers at even-strength (Source: War on IceHockey Analysis).

Season Games TOI/Gm Points Corsi For% (Corsi Rel) ZSO% (ZSO Rel) % of On-Ice HDSC (Score Close) Most Common Partner
2008/09 77 16.77 6-14-20 56.27 (+3.13) 56.17 (+2.69) 6.90 B. Lukowich
2009/10 75 18.15 6-20-26 53.63 (+3.96) 51.21 (+2.82) 3.23 D. Murray
2010/11 76 18.63 5-15-20 52.84 (-0.63) 50.31 (+1.04) 4.72 D. Murray
2011/12 81 18.7 4-24-28 51.72 (-0.12) 53.14 (+3.29) 5.88 M.E. Vlasic
2012/13 46 16.75 1-4-5 55.45 (+6.42) 51.15 (+0.78) 6.40 M. Irwin
2013/14 75 16.37 4-8-12 52.98 (-0.99) 52.17 (+3.4) 4.96 M. Irwin

Appears to me that McLellan had a pretty good strategy for using offensive defenceman:

  1. Utilize defencemen that can contribute offensively, and not be a liability everywhere else on the ice. Boyle played a lot against the other team's top players and didn't need generous zone starts.
  2. Ensure that the rest of the team knows how to defend against a breakout and cover for the offensive defenceman. The Sharks were an excellent team in the neutral zone under McLellan, often forcing dump-ins and poor quality shot attempts.
  3. Pair the offensive defenceman with a steady, experienced defenceman. Worth noting that when Rob Blake was on the team in 2009/10, he took up 7.1% of the high danger scoring chances he was on the ice for and was often paired with Marc-Édouard Vlasic.
  4. Keep the proportion of high danger scoring chances within reason. Rely on others (Brent Burns, Rob Blake, Scott Hannan) to keep the opposition guessing.
Just to put things into perspective, below is a graph of how Dan Boyle and Justin Schultz compared to the league average. Please note, the green represents Boyle's time with the Sharks.

Thoughts

I highly doubt that McLellan pairs Justin Schultz with Oscar Klefbom this coming season. McLellan would pair Boyle with a more steady, stay-at-home style defenceman, so I think we can expect to see Schultz paired with someone like Andrew Ference or  Eric Gryba, but we'll have to see how training camp plays out. I highly doubt Schultz will continue to get that high of a proportion of high danger scoring chances and fall more in line to the proportion Boyle was getting. I can definitely see those high danger scoring chances being distributed among the other defenceman, with maybe someone like Andrej Sekera getting in on the action. Sekera did get the third highest proportion of high danger scoring chances (score close) league-wide in the lockout season, so it's something to keep an eye on.

What we do know for certain is that Schultz will get a prime opportunity to prove his NHL worth under an elite coaching staff that has had success deploying offensive defenceman. Here's hoping he makes the most of it.