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The Defense of Alex Goligoski: a Brent Seabrook Comparison

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If Brent Seabrook is the mythical solution to the Stars' woes, then let's see just how much better he is at defending than Goligoski. This should result in calm, reasonable dialogue.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Brent Seabrook has been the number one name sought after in mock trades by Stars fans ever since Mike Heika (as I recall) first mentioned him months and months ago as someone the team should target.  Seabrook, as you've had ample time to witness by now, is the prototypical big, mobile, shutdown defenseman that the Stars need ever so badly.  He's got one more year left on his current deal with Chicago, and if he does stay with the team, the money will surely be upwards of $6 million per year for quite some time. If he doesn't stay with Chicago, the money will be even more than that when he hits free agency.  Part of that is Duncan Keith's fault, as Seabrook did much better with the "freak" than he did away from him.

Alex Goligoski also has one year left on his contract with Dallas.  Going into the season, the Stars claimed to value the Goose/Daley chemistry that had manifested itself late in the preceding year, which probably worked out well, don't remember right now.  Contextually, Goligoski was adamant that he no longer thinks about the stigma surrounding the trade that brought him here, but it was tough to stomach how much other teams valued James Neal (traded to Nashville) and Matt Niskanen (signed to a mammoth deal in Washington) when the Stars' defense began collapsing into itself over the first couple months of the season.  The Stars were giving up goals, and once Nemeth went down and Dillon got traded, the blue line suddenly looked awfully non-threatening.  "Looked" is an important word here, as we'll see.

Goligoski's future is less clear than Seabrook's, and his name has come up more than once as a possible trade chip the Stars might use in an effort to bring their defense out of beta.  Here's the thing about Goose, as Wes put it back in September:

The only problem I can find with Alex Goligoski is that there are a handful of better players out there. It’s an accurate critique, but also one that is desperately unfair. Unfair to a player somehow expected to do absolutely everything, and unfair to us as fans, who focus on what he isn’t at the expense of appreciating a history of mostly excellent play. Derian Hatcher never had a 40-point season. He worked out okay.

Next season, Alex Goligoski will be a slick, puck-moving driver of positive possession from the Stars’ backend. He’ll be durable, he’ll match up well against high quality competition, and he’ll contribute offensively at a top-20 level. Simultaneously, he’ll be counted upon to introduce the next generation of Stars defenders to life in the NHL, and support another run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s a lot, it’s certainly enough, and the sooner we appreciate that, the sooner we can begin to appreciate how great it is having a guy like Goose to kick around.

Indeed, Wes was pretty right on with most of his points (blind squirrels and all that).  Goligoski faced tough competition, started in his own zone quite a bit, and still came out of the season with numbers to be proud of, especially for a smaller-than-average top-pairing defenseman.

Okay, the fun part: War-on-Ice has some experimental Similarity Scores up in their Labs section, and do you know what defenseman's season is listed as most comparable to Alex Goligoski over the last year?  Well, you can go there and type in "Goligoski," but I'll save you the trouble: It's 2013-2014 Brent Seabrook, which makes for some nice symmetry given the introduction to this post. (Yes, the similarity categories are variable, but I used the default settings, so I didn't manipulate nothin'.) And hey, when you look at Goose and Seabrook side by side, a lot of things do stick out.  In fact, let's look at each player's last three seasons (from War-on-Ice here).  Conveniently for us, they've played almost the exact same amount of games over that timespan:

Sea-Gol

Goligoski not only compares to Seabrook, but he compares quite favorably.  A couple of things here:

Seabrook has better overall shot-attempt numbers, but he plays with some pretty okay folks up there in Second City, so that's why I invented what I call "relative" possession numbers.  Nope, that's a lie, I have never invented anything.  Anyhow, while Seabrook has better possession percentages overall, Goligoski's relative numbers are much, much better.  That doesn't conclusively mean one is outright better or worse than the other, but it does indicate that Seabrook's shot attempt numbers aren't outstanding compared to other players on his team (though they are still very good, and that's why every team wants him).  Goligoski's numbers, as you can see, are much better compared to others on his team, perhaps somewhat because of the chaff that's been played alongside him at times over the past few years.  Both players are very solidly positive when it comes to driving possession, which is nothing new.

Scoring chances are the big thing, though.  Seabrook is 6-foot-3 and starts the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone (ZSO%), while Goose is decidedly not 6-3 (but could still beat all of us up, I'm sure) and faces slightly tougher competition (TOIC%) with 6 percent fewer offensive zone starts.  If Goose's one fatal flaw is his supposed inability to be a "shutdown" defender like Seabrook, one would expect him to have surrendered markedly more scoring chances against--that is, plausible opportunities for the other team to score a goal--than a big, shutdown guy like Seabrook over that time.  I mean, that's the complaint, right?  That Goose can't out-muscle the players in his own zone when they have the puck, that he can't "clear the crease" (he demonstrably does, the horrific result in the linked case notwithstanding), and that he is a liability, especially when defending a lead late in the game?

Well, look at SCA60 up there first.  You can see that Goose does allow about 1.6 more scoring chances per 60 minutes played (that's around 0.6 more per game).  I'm tempted to explain this difference away based on the fact that Seabrook starts more of his shifts in the offensive zone, and you would expect any comparable defender to do better with more offensive zone starts, but it's not a huge difference.  If that were the whole story, then we could all agree that yes, Seabrook is a tick better at scoring chance prevention, and even though he's older and played with Duncan Keith a lot, he could be the solution for Dallas.  It is not the whole story.

Because look at SCF% up there.  The relative numbers are overwhelmingly better for Goligoski, but even straight percentages show that when #33 is on the ice, his team generates slightly more of the total scoring chances in the game than Seabrook's team does when he's out there.  This isn't because Goose is some kind of defensive zone equivalent of Mike Ribeiro, just trying not to screw up too much in his own zone until the puck finally starts heading north again and reaping copious rewards that balance out his sub-par defense.  I repeat: Goligoski is not an "offensive defenseman" who stays afloat in his own zone before looking good once the puck is moving--rather, he has consistently shown himself able to bring the defense you need from a number-one defenseman in the NHL without being sheltered or protected.

I don't know how much more clearly I can spell it out: Alex Goligoski, in various measurable ways, has been a top-pairing defenseman in the NHL over the past three years.  He has not done it by going all Trevor Daley in his own zone and trying to even things out with abundant offense - and it's not like Daley even came close to evening out his bad defensive numbers anyway - and he certainly hasn't done it by benefiting from a stalwart system that shuts down the other team as a group.  Rather, he has done it by utilizing his skating, his vision, his "hockey IQ," his passing, his positioning and yes, his body.  In short, he has accumulated numbers that are either similar to or slightly better than Brent Seabrook, and that sentence says everything.

"But wait," you might say, "wasn't John Klingberg incredible, and didn't he perhaps glam up Goose's stats this season in a big way like Keith may have done for Seabrook?"  Well, first I would respond by asking you never to use "glam" as a verb again, but then I would say, "let's look at that and see if Goose was just riding Klingberg's coattails this year."   So here's one more graph, this one a look at how Goligoski's performance in shots for/against varies depending on linemates.   (Image via Micah McCurdy, whom you should follow on Twitter)

Spider Goose

The red line is 50 percent, with lower being better defense and further right being better offense.  As you can see, Goose is far from reliant upon Klingberg for his defensive aptitude, although he was stronger with Klingberg than without, which is true for roughly everyone.  What we also see here is that Trevor Daley very capably yanked Goligoski back to the negative side, which was pretty standard for No. 6 this year (see here if you dare).  In summary, if Goligoski were outrageously benefiting from Klingberg, it would be somewhat apparent here, and that's not what happened. Besides, that's just this year, and we've already seen that Goose's last three years have collectively been outstanding.  (For comparison, here is Seabrook's spider chart from this year.)

I'm probably belaboring the point.  Alex Goligoski and Brent Seabrook look very different, and they necessarily go about their jobs in different ways.  The Stars got shellacked in the goals-allowed department this year, but when it comes to everything from points to possession to scoring chances, Goligoski was not the problem.  Goligoski hasn't been the problem for a while, even with a couple of small funks in years past that quickly cleared up.

If the Stars manage to trade a collection of other players for Seabrook this summer, they will be much-improved as long as none of their top defensemen head the other way.  Seabrook's size would be nice, and perhaps it could have a deleterious effect on opponents that Goligoski's frame is unable to impart.  If that's the case, I don't really see it in the numbers, unless Seabrook is actually less effective than Goose, and his size is helping him to make up the difference.  The more you pore over what each of these players has done, the more it becomes apparent that the Stars have been asking Goligoski to do a Seabrookian job for some time now, and Goligoski has responded by doing exactly that.