Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Alex Edler is Not a Number One Defenceman

I had intended to write this article prior to hearing that Edler was out one game and then indefinitely. Now, it almost seems in poor taste to write it, as the consensus seems to be wailing and gnashing of teeth now that Edler is gone for the foreseeable future. However, I noticed that Puck Daddy and the Vancouver Sun referred to Edler as the Canucks' "top defenceman" and some Canucks fans were coming just short of throwing themselves off bridges with the news that Edler would be out of the lineup. Heck, Jeff Paterson compared the Canucks losing Edler to the Flyers losing Pronger. I'm hoping he wasn't saying that Edler is as important to the Canucks' success as Pronger is to the Flyers', and instead, merely pointing out that good teams overcome injuries to good players. Yes, I hope that's all he's saying.

Let's not go overboard, people. Edler is a great defenceman: he leads the Canucks in average ice-time, powerplay time, and points from the defense. But he is not the Canucks' top defenceman. To be quite frank, the Canucks don't have a "top defenceman." Edler is merely a very good defenceman who plays with other very good defencemen. No one is doubting his contributions to the Canucks or that those contributions will be sorely missed, but there are too many components missing to label him the Canucks' top defenceman. While he has the potential, he is not yet a number one defenceman.

Edler is putting up fantastic offensive numbers and was set to surpass last season's point-total until this setback. But he's been putting up those numbers while playing some of the most sheltered minutes on the Canucks. While he leads the Canucks in average time-on-ice, that doesn't tell the whole story. Firstly, he's leading that statistic by just over one minute and is playing approximately the same number of shifts per game as Dan Hamhuis. The top-four defencemen for the Canucks are all averaging over 22 minutes per game. Combine them with Keith Ballard, who averaged 22:24 per game with the Florida Panthers last season, and you have five Canucks defencemen capable of playing top-four minutes. Conveniently, that is one more than they needed.

But that is beside the point. Let's look at Edler's minutes and breakdown the situations that he plays in, who he plays with, and who he plays against. In these types of endeavors, Behind The Net is a hockey blogger's best friend and NHL.com's statistics page is the guy in the blogger's group of friends that you mainly hang out with because he's the only one with Hi-Def and the full cable package.

First, let's look at his Quality of Competition. Of Canucks players to play at least 20 games this season (weeding out players like Peter Schaefer), Edler is 11th on the team in the quality of opponents he faces. Of the defence, he's 4th, well behind Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa in the statistic. The Ham-Juice defensive pairing continually faces the top competition night in and night out, leaving Edler and Ehrhoff to a much easier task. In comparison, players who are rightly called number one defencemen around the league generally face much stiffer competition. Duncan Keith is third on his team, just behind his defensive partner Brent Seabrook. Zdeno Chara is second on his team, first amongst the defence. Shea Weber is first in quality of competition in Nashville and Dan Boyle leads defencemen in the category in San Jose. There are exceptions, of course. The aforementioned Chris Pronger is 9th on his team, third amongst defencemen. Keep in mind, however, the injury troubles he faced and the improved depth on the Flyer's blueline; they appear to be sheltering him somewhat. Last season, he led the Flyers' defence in quality of competition and will likely see that number rise as the season progresses.

There are other considerations, of course. I've shown the quality of competition Edler faces, but that's just one component of the situations he plays in. Another area to consider is zone starts. Where do Edler's shifts begin? A whopping 59.2% of Edler's shifts begin in the offensive zone. This places him fourth on the Canucks, first amongst defencemen1. For perspective, that's the 12th most favorable O-Zone start percentage in the entire NHL amongst defencemen. It's clear from this stat combined with his quality of competition that Edler is not asked to focus on the defensive side of the ice. This isn't a knock on Edler, just an acknowledgment of his strengths as an offensive player.

Again, let's compare this to other defencemen who are considered number one defencemen. Duncan Keith is 12th on the Blackhawks, Zdeno Chara is 14th on the Bruins, Shea Weber is 12th on the Predators, and Dan Boyle is 12th on the Sharks. Each of these players plays in all situations but trends towards below 50% in offensive zone starts as they are counted on in tough situations. Edler is not.

Finally, let's look at a breakdown of Edler's time-on-ice. As mentioned above, Edler's icetime doesn't tower over his teammates as the icetime of number one defencemen generally do (Dan Boyle is averaging almost 6 minutes more icetime per game than his closest teammate). In addition, Edler gets almost twice as many minutes per game on the powerplay than he does shorthanded. Bieksa and Hamhuis, unsurprisingly, log the most shorthanded minutes. Again, a comparison with number one defencemen in terms of shorthanded time-on-ice: Duncan Keith leads his team, Zdeno Chara leads his team, and Dan Boyle leads his team. Shea Weber ends up in a situation much like Edler's and sees most of his special teams icetime on the powerplay. Chris Pronger, on the other hand, is second on his team for defencemen in shorthanded icetime despite his slightly sheltered minutes this season. Unsurprisingly, last season he led his team.

Not one of these stats is definitive on its own. In each category, a comparison can be drawn to a player who is considered a number one defenceman. Combined, however, and they paint a picture of a defenceman used primarily in offensive situations against easier competition. This is not a coincidence: the strength of the Canucks' defensive corps allows Edler (and Ehrhoff, but no one's running around claiming he's a number one defenceman) the luxury of playing with two of the top offensive players in the NHL in prime offensive opportunities, just like the strength of the Canucks' forwards allows the Sedins the same luxury. Edler's skill and poise is what earned him that position and he's an extremely valuable player to the Canucks. The powerplay will certainly miss his slapshot from the point and, more importantly, his sublime passing skills, but he's not the versatile, one-man show that a true number one defenceman needs to be. He doesn't play in all situations, he doesn't shutdown the opposition's best players, and he doesn't start on the penalty kill; he is not a number one defenceman.

Fortunately for the Canucks, they don't need him to be.

1. It's interesting to see the Sedins and Burrows at the top of the list and Manny Malhotra at the bottom. A big reason for the Sedins skyrocketing offensively is the increasingly sheltered minutes they have been able to play. It's also a big reason why Malhotra, Torres, and Hansen haven't been scoring a whole lot of points. Also note Keith Ballard's position on that list: you can stop wondering why he hasn't been scoring like many Canucks' fans had hoped.


  1. Excellent work! You've done your research and it's all very interesting to read. I thought Edler had been doing a lot better then he actually was. But these stats bring him back down to earth a bit.

  2. Brilliant work, as usual. Consider my mind changed.

    By the by, I just realized I'm your friend with Hi-Def and the full cable package. If I wasn't so starved for acceptance, I'd take offense to this. Want to watch the game tonight?

  3. Voice of Reason!

  4. Harrison, I would be honored. By that I mean yes.

  5. I dunno about this article. Makes no mention of his physical play and what that might be worth - strange especially since the gist of the article seems to be how he's not a #1 Defensive Defenceman. What I do know is I can go to NHL.com and filter through almost every stat header of Defencemen and Edler shows up in the top 30 results almost every time.

    I mean, the article seems to compare him to a lot of standout #1 Defensemen on other teams, but is the problem that he doesn't stand out on Vancouver because of the team's depth? Would he be a #1 defencemen if he went to another market?

    I dunno - it's not like I'm the biggest Edler fan to walk the earth, this article just felt like a lot of stats to support a story rather than a story to support the stats.

  6. @Ablefish: I am similarly nonplussed. The overall message of the article seems to be "Vancouver fans don't have to be so worried because, by definition, Edler isn't a Dan Boyle type." But who are you going to slot into those "sheltered minutes" with the same result?

  7. Ablefish, why would I include anything that might hurt my conclusion. ;)

    I'm not discounting any element of his play. I think he's a solid defensive defenceman in addition to his stellar work offensively. The point of this article, however, is to point out the differences between him and the defencemen in the league that are typically considered number one defencemen. Edler's statistics are skewed by his extremely sheltered minutes. It seems odd to say that his minutes are sheltered given that he leads the Canucks in average ice-time, but the stats bear it out.

    It's entirely possible that Edler could be a number one defenceman and I'm generally of the mind that in the next 3-4 years he will be. On another team, he might be the guy who is on the ice in every situation, killing penalties, shutting down the opposition's best players and still quarterbacking the powerplay. It's possible that he is capable of that right now. But that's not how he's being used and that's not the role he's playing.

    It's especially astonishing to see his O-Zone Start Percentage in comparison with the rest of the NHL. That's the stat that stands out to me the most. Also interesting: despite starting in the offensive zone 59.2% of the time compared to Kevin Bieksa's 46.8%, Bieksa has the better Corsi rating. Honestly, that's astonishing and shows even more how solid a season Bieksa is having.

  8. @MrcSyrs

    Again, I'm not saying that the Canucks won't miss Edler. That's a lot of minutes that another defenceman will need to play. I'm not even arguing that Canucks fans shouldn't be worried by his absence; keep in mind, I planned on writing this piece before finding out he was injured. All I'm saying is that he is not a number one defenceman (yet) and he's not the Canucks' top defenceman. By design, the Canucks don't have a top defenceman.

  9. I think the QC explains also how Kesler can be scoring a lot more than last year...
    In 09-10 Kesler was leading the forwards in QC, this year, not even close...
    And wow for Burr, HE really is facing tough lines (First line+PK will do that to you)

  10. Hamjuice is the best name for a line.

  11. Ham & Juice is the best half-Juice duo since Gin & Juice.

  12. Ham & Juice IS pretty cool.

    Maybe I'm reacting to the term 'sheltered minutes'. Because that sounds like he needs to be protected from important defensive situations (def zone faceoffs, etc...).

    But the issue isn't really that he's a liability defensively, it's just that the coaching staff have said several times that they make a concerted effort to have Edler and the Hoff out with the Sedins. And as we all know, those two guys usually get to go on the ice after another line has gained the yardage...

  13. That's a fair point. With the way AV deploys the twins (which somehow sounds dirty), Ehrhoff and Edler end up on the ice with them almost constantly, which does affect their O-Zone starts and such. Still, number one defencemen normally get those kinds of minutes and pretty much every other kind of minute as well.

    That said, it's entirely possible that Edler is a number one defenceman who just isn't being used as a number one defenceman, but with the favorable (better word than sheltered?) minutes he gets you can't say for certain. It's equally possible that his offensive numbers would crash and burn if he was placed in more difficult situations.

  14. Of course Edler CAN be a defensive-defenseman. He just doesn't have to. And hasn't been.

    The Canucks can't have a number one defenseman right now, because they divide the roles up so well. A number one defenseman does everything, and no Canuck has to do everything right now.

  15. Yeah, with the depth on the d-corps the Canucks have, it's pretty hard for anyone to stand out. AV probably doesn't play Edler in the way you've suggest #1 D-men should play, because he doesn't have to. He's got a whackload of #1.5-#3 dmen who he can give very defined roles and they're able to excel.

  16. The Canucks don't have a real #1 defenseman but their entire top 6 (if all healthy) would be a #2 on any team in the league. Edler, Ehrhoff, Hamhuis, Bieksa, Ballard, Salo.

    Edler is definitely the #1 offensive threat from the blueline, though.

  17. I've been saying this for a while so it's nice to see someone agrees. We'll see this year if this team can win the cup without a true #1 defenceman, but past results don't look promising: Chicago had Keith, Pittsburgh had Gonchar, Detroit had Lidstrom, Anaheim had Pronger AND Neidermeyer. You have to go back to Carolina to see a team that really did it by committee on defence, but hopefully the Nucks can follow in their footsteps.

  18. I don't understand how a 30 team league can only have 5-6 "number one defensemen" or "number one centers" since that seems to be consensus on all Internet hockey boards.

  19. Mainly because a "number one defenseman" is a very particular type of player, one who is depended on in all situations almost to the exclusion of the other defensemen on the team. Most teams don't have this type of player, instead relying on a rotating cast.

    Just look at Keith Ballard: he is clearly not a number one defenseman, but he had to play big minutes in Florida to the point that once Jay Bouwmeester left, some were tempted to label him a number one defenseman. He's not. He was just a good defenseman on a bad team. Florida simply did not have a number one defenseman.

  20. None of these statistics are truly adequate indicators of defensive prowess since they rely on common variable out of the hands of the player: they are all coaching decisions.

    Ice time, line assignments, faceoff assignments - all decided by the coaches, not the player.

    Its what the player does with the opportunities he is afforded that are the true measure of a player's worth - and in that, Edler is an absolute beast.


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