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Who Plays the Hard Minutes? Thrashers Defensemen

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First I must give credit to the Edmonton bloggers who really began doing this sort of analysis a few years ago. They had a lively debate over at Battle of Alberta blog during Dion Phaneuf's rookie season about whether Phaneuf really deserved all that adulation or weather the Flames coaching staff was shielding him from playing against the opposition's best offensive players. In later years Vic Ferrari created this awesome website that spits out the head-to-head match ups for every game on the NHL schedule (I have a link posted on the right hand side of my blog.)

We are nearing the one quarter mark of the sesaon and I thought it would be really interesting to take a look at which Thrashers forwards and defensemen get handed the toughest defensive responsibilities each night. Who shadows Crosby? Who shadows Ovechkin?

I went through all 19 Thrasher games and looked at who played versus the opponent best forward and how many minutes they played. For some teams the "best forward" is obvious (Ovechkin, Staal, Iginla, etc). In other cases it is less clear cut (Tampa and Detroit). To keep this from being to subjective, the "best oppositon forward" was based on which player had the most ice time per game so far this season. In essence I let the opposition coach identify who THEY considered their most valuable player. It is not a perfect method, but I'm happy with the results. Here is the list of "best opposition players" for the Thrashers first 19 games: (Ovechkin, Horton, M. Koivu, Parise, D. Roy, St. Louis, Zetterberg, Savard, Richards, Gomez, Weight, Staal, Crosby, Nash).

Next I calculated the percentage of ES ice time when each Thrashers played head to head against the opposition team's "best forward" so far this season. Without further ado, let's look at who plays the "tough minutes" among the Atlanta defensemen.

Percentage of Even Strength Minutes Versus the Opponent's Best Forward
34.3% Enstrom -49 Corsi Number (Net Shots Attempted While On the Ice)
33.0% Hainsey -27
32.5% Havelid -37
32.3% Exelby -37
30.9% Bogosian +17
28.4% Schnedier +13
22.9% Oystrick +16
20.7% Valabik +5

Enstrom is getting the highest percentage of "tough minutes" so far this season, but really the quartet of Enstrom-Havelid-Hainsey-Exelby are not that far apart. Which players are being protected by the coaching staff and playing fewer minutes versus the opposition's top forwards? Valabik and Oystrick by a large measure, and Schneider and Bogosian to a lesser degree. Honestly I was a little surprised to see Schneider that low on the list, but most nights this season he has been paired with a NHL rookie and it makes a certain amount of sense to protect both the NHL rookie and he isn't the fastest guy anymore.

Now when thinking about match ups it is important to keep in mind that the home coach gets the last change and therefore can more easily engage in line matching. On the other hand, the road coach must concede a certain amount of control over match ups. So what happens if we look at home and road splits?

Distribution of Home "Tough Minutes"
Percentage of Even Strength Minutes Versus the Opponent's Best Forward
41.1% Bogosian 4 GP +12 Corsi
38.1% Enstrom 10 GP -30 Corsi
35.7% Havelid 10 GP -19 Corsi
31.0% Hainsey 10 GP -13 Corsi
30.6% Exelby 10 GP -9 Corsi
29.4% Schneider 8 GP +7 Corsi
22.4% Valabik 2 GP -3 Corsi
20.5% Oystrick 6 GP +9 Corsi

When at home the Thrashers have chosen to match the Swedish defensemen (Enstrom and Bogosian) against the opposition's top forward. Enstrom and Havelid have the worst Corsi number in Thrashers home games among defensemen. In the middle, veterans Hainsey, Exelby and Schneider each are getting about the same percentage of top player minutes. At the other end we find two NHL rookies (Oystrick and Valabik) who have been sheltered by the coaching staff when they have the last change. (For both Bogosian and Valabik the sample size is very small so don't get overly excited about those numbers.)

Distribution of Road "Tough Minutes"
Percentage of Even Strength Minutes Versus the Opponent's Best Forward
35.1% Hainsey 9 GP -14 Corsi
34.3% Exelby 9 GP -28 Corsi
30.3% Enstrom 9 GP -19 Corsi
29.3% Havelid 9 GP -18 Corsi
26.7% Schneider 6 GP +6 Corsi
25.5% Oystrick 5 GP +7 Corsi
23.1% Bogosian 4 GP +5 Corsi
19.9% Valabik 3 GP -3 Corsi

On the road, where the opposition coach can pick his matchups they have chosen to target the Exelby-Hainsey pairing and try to get their top player away from the Swedish duo. While Enstrom has struggled at home in the Corsi department, Exelby is getting owned on the road so far this season when opposition coaches have the last change. Surprisingly they have not been targeting the Oystrick-Bogosian-Valabik rookie trio.

Both the Thrashers coaches and the opposition coaches consider the Enstrom-Havelid pairing to be the Thrashers top defensive pairing. The Hainsey-Exelby pairing is targeted by coaches when the Thrashers go on the road. The rookies and Schneider have no really be targeted when out on the road. Here's one thought, one of these road game put Schneider and Hainsey together on a road game and make it more difficult for the opposition to target Exelby by giving him 3rd pairing minutes.