Last time, I showed how passing data is a better predictor of future player scoring than existing public metrics. In this piece, I’m going to spend some time talking about how we can more reliably evaluate offensive and defensive contributions from defensemen, which has been difficult due to a lack of data. Not only due to a lack of data, but from a lack of flexibility regarding the identity of the position. Traditionally thought of as existing to defend and “make a good first pass,” I feel this limits the scope of both how we evaluate the position and its responsibilities.
In order to better evaluate defensemen, we need to identify specific metrics that we can tie to future goals. In looking at entry assists (a pass occurring in the neutral or defensive zones that precedes a shot), both for and against, we can quantify how effective that defensemen is at generating offense in transition, as well as suppressing those chances. The importance of those things at the team level is something I’ve previously discussed (transition here and defensive work here with Matt Cane). Once we identify these metrics as having a strong impact on future scoring and goal-suppression, we naturally then reevaluate what the proper roles are for a defensemen, which in turn forces us to reevaluate how we evaluate them.
Personally, I’d like to see us think of them more as fullbacks or midfielders in soccer (this is part of a larger concept of redefining positions and responsibilities, which will be posted in the next month or so, I hope). There are still going to be various types of players based on their individual skill set and team tactics, but supporting play, overlapping on the attack, and distribution are all pillars of what teams should look for. Let’s get to it.