What is an NHL defenceman?

The NHL trade deadline is fast approaching and one of the marquee names in the rumour mill is St. Louis Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk.

The puck-moving defenceman has had many successful seasons with the Blues, so it might perplex some as to why he is on the trading block.

This upcoming offseason the Blues have expiring contracts with Shattenkirk, 28, and fellow defender Colton Parayko, 23.

Also, the NHL salary cap is rumoured to remain stagnant going into next season so the Blues may believe they have only enough cap room for one of these right-handed, puck-moving defencemen.

Parayko is a great talent so naturally, if the Blues have to choose one, they should go with the younger option and trade Shattenkirk before he leaves for nothing this upcoming offseason.

Given that knowledge, Shattenkirk should be on the move by the March 1 trade deadline. Unless, of course, the Blues feel they can only win a Stanley Cup with him this year.

But before faux trades are created in the imaginations of all the armchair general managers out there, Shattenkirk’s trade value must be evaluated.

When asked about a possible move to the Leafs, TSN’s Hockey Insider Darren Dreger said Shattenkirk was ideally a bottom pairing defenceman and power play specialist. Many other sources – but admittedly not all – claim as much.

This is a recurring theme within the hockey community.

Is a player like Shattenkirk being undervalued because he is an offensive defenceman? Would he be valued higher if he was known to be a physical presence in front of his goalie – a defensive defenceman?

According to the definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a defenceman is “a player in a sport (as hockey) who is assigned to a defensive zone or position.”

The definition suggests a defenceman is designated to the role of stopping the opposing offence and never leaves the team’s defensive zone.

But in a fluid game like hockey, where all five players on both sides of the ice are moving units, how is this definition of defenceman remotely true?

In soccer, each team starts nine players. Eight players position themselves across the pitch as forwards, midfielders, or backs. The role of these eight players is to collectively control and move the ball up the field to score while stopping their opponent from accomplishing the same. The goalkeeper plays by separate rules to specifically defend the net.

In basketball, five-man units move up and down the court to score and defend. All players have a role in defending their basket.

In these two other fluid team sports, there is a consensus that every player has a role in defending, despite not one being named ‘defenceman’.

And by its nature hockey is no different. All skaters have to defend, the difference being two are designated the title of defenceman.

 

 

This chart compares a consensus 11 elite defencemen and Shattenkirk.

Despite his recent tag as a bottom pairing defenceman, Shattenkirk is second in 5v5 GF% (5-on-5 goals for percentage) and has the lowest GA60 (goals against per 60 minutes of play) between 2011 and 2016 while playing around 20 minutes a night as a second pairing defenceman.

Shattenkirk is not known as a crease-clearing defenceman but he seemingly does a better job at defending than most of the elite defenceman. In fact, in those same years, in 5v5 GF%, only four defencemen league-wide bested Shattenkirk.

This isn’t a new revelation.

Last season the Montreal Canadiens traded puck-moving defenceman P.K. Subban for Nashville’s Shea Weber. One of the reasons Montreal stated for making the trade was to bring physicality in front of the net and defend the goalie.

Montreal’s offence hasn’t taken much of a hit but the penalty kill has dropped this year and the world’s best goalie, Carey Price, is posting his worst save percentage and goals against average since the 2012-13 season.

Of course, this isn’t all on Weber but it is safe to say the Canadiens are missing their former puck-moving defenceman.

Even the recent Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins featured a defence core with no traditional ‘defensive’ defencemen. Instead, the Penguins focused on puck control and transition as a five-man unit.

There is an old military adage that states ‘the best defence is a good offence.’

And others might be familiar with the sport saying ‘defence wins championships.’

Slowly the hockey world is figuring out that those two sayings should be amalgamated to create ideal results.

The best way to defend is by being able to collect the puck and transition it out of your zone to your opponent’s zone as fast as you can. And keep it there.

Do the Blues recognize what they have and put a heavy, but appropriate, price tag on Shattenkirk? Or do they let some in the hockey world convince them that the puck-moving defenceman is only a power play specialist?

About the author  ⁄ Kyle Medeiros

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