Saturday, November 13, 2010

What Is The Role of A Defenseman

Maybe I am being too simplistic in my thinking, maybe it is too “old school” for the way the NHL is played these days but when someone asks me about a defender the first thing I want to see is them DEFEND.  Each year I see all this talk about how this guy needs to add offense to his game and all I can think is, the man is paid his salary to STOP the other team from scoring FIRST.  
Marc Staal is the perfect example of this phenomena in how the expectations and talk about a player can screw with what made a player who he is and got him the contract he plays with.  Each year for the last two we heard in the summer how Staal was going to produce more offense and this and that, the end result on the ice has been a player caught in-between, thinking too much and having slow starts in his bread and butter the defensive end.  Personally I do not care if Marc Staal never scores a goal or has an assist the rest of his career because he is not paid to be Mike Green, he is paid to be a shutdown defenseman with the difficult enough job of stopping the best players on the other team from scoring.  Focus on that and forget the discussions about improving the offensive output. 

The flip side of this is a player like Michael Del Zotto who has an excellent offensive game and all the work in progress talk is about his defensive play.  I love what Del Zotto can do from the offensive side with his vision and skill as much as anyone and it makes him a huge threat for the Rangers.  The problem for me is that as much as he is an offensive threat he can be that much or significantly more of a liability in his own end.  As I have written before I know he is young and I know the growing pains are to be expected with any young player, my problem is still in the repetition of the same mistakes and that they come from relying on the skill to attempt to bail him out instead of learning or thinking the game.  Overall he is getting better back there, but to excuse when he gives one up because he MIGHT get one back on the other end or when he gets one on the other end to act if he is now allowed to give one up misses the point of being a defenseman for me. 

I just think it becomes a slippery slope where the basis on which play is judged becomes so warped based on who can “get it back” and who cant that the same exact play is judged entirely different based on who made it.  I do not particularly buy into the idea of complete objectivity that you will hear from journalists as they have favorites maybe not as players but as people, but what you can achieve is having a set of standards for play and applying them to the play in front of you regardless of the name and number on the sweater.  The conclusion that I have come to in why certain players become fan favorites and others inevitably end up in the doghouse is those who can make the flashier plays are just remembered more for their positive contributions than those who make the simple correct plays and it makes those same guys who make the simple plays stand out or at least be remembered more vividly and negatively when they have their screw the pooch moments. 

Rozsival is a great example of the flip in fan feelings based on whether they are producing offensively or not because back when Jagr was around and he was chipping in nobody said much about his defensive screw ups when they happened in the same way they discount them for MDZ now, but once the well dried up mostly from not shooting the criticism grew even when he was actually playing well as he has this season.  Last year Girardi got lambasted for the Gaborik thing in Philadelphia and much of that was legit that night and shortly after but it changed the way people viewed him and the way he played and he went from a legit at least top 4 D in many eyes to basically a bum who was soft even though he was 13th in the league among D in hits and 6th in block shots last year because what was remembered for many was Gaborik and his shot continually being blocked.  This year he has responded playing at All-Star level and currently leading the NHL in blocked shots and fans have given him credit for his play this year, but some will never get over Gaborik/Carcillo.

I know he is basically a rookie this year and is playing low amounts and low leverage minutes, but if you told me right now I could get a defensive core with six Michael Sauer’s on it I would take it and call it a day.  There is no flash to the game, not a lot of offensive upside, but I know what I get in my own zone, in front of my own net and in protecting his other teammates.  All Sauer does is make the right play with the puck in his own zone and prevent goals from being scored with him on the ice and you know what, that is what the description on the job title says he has to do because for me preventing the other team from scoring on you is the most important role a defenseman has for me, but we all view the value and role of different positions differently.  For some the rarity of an offensive defenseman might outweigh the negative of his defensive shortcomings and the solid nature of defensive defenseman might fall short of making up for their lack of offense, that is the beauty of hockey and having opinions.

Tell me your thoughts.