With third-paring regular Jordie Benn out for at least one week with a lower-body injury, the young defensemen of the Dallas Stars are finally getting the chance for a good long look.
The recall of Esa Lindell appears to be an interesting commentary on how the team views the trio of Jyrki Jokipakka, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak. After all, Benn's injury and a recall of Oleksiak from his conditioning assignment in the AHL would leave the team with a full set of seven and some playing time to go around. Making a move to keep eight up indicates the Stars may be exploring other options than the status quo.
The eye test hasn't been kind to these players either, particularly Oleksiak and Nemeth. But does that really tell the whole story of their season?
Given that the eye test is prone to biases, I decided to dig into the possession-based metrics of the three young defensemen. As Benn is clearly not included in this group by the coaching staff, he's been left out. Lindell is also not included as he has but a single game under his belt.
So how have the young defensemen been faring this season? I'll admit to this here - the underlying numbers are much stronger than I suspected.
The first look was at even-strength possession statistics. All numbers, unless otherwise mentioned, are from War On Ice:
Primer on the terms for people who may be unfamiliar - CF% is the percentage of shot attempts a team takes with that player on the ice. PDO is the combination of on-ice save percentage and on-ice shooting percentage - a relative metric of luck that should normalize to around 100 for a team, though it's a little squirrelier for an individual as third-line defensemen may not spend as many minutes with a team's skilled shooters or against the top talents of another team.
PenD is the differential between penalties taken and penalties drawn. ZSO%Rel is the percentage of starts a player makes in the offensive zone against ones the defensive zone, then normalized for the team's tendencies (so in this case, Jyrki Jokipakka starts in the offensive zone 7.4 percent more than the Stars do as a team).
Jokipakka is the standout here, but not in a positive way. Despite relatively sheltered minutes and a higher level of "luck" than either of Nemeth or Jokipakka, he has a slightly lower CF%. Still, all three are within spitting distance of each other, and both Nemeth and Oleksiak are on the positive side of the ledger.
As all three are expected to work on the penalty kill, at least a little bit, I also looked at those numbers:
The CF%s are awful, but that's to be expected on a PK. The team average for the regular defensemen is in the 11 neighborhood, so both Jokipakka and Oleksiak show a little improvement here relative to the mean. None play a significant amount of minutes, and Oleksiak is succeeding despite harder zone starts while both Jokipakka and Nemeth are being sheltered.
(For comparison, Johnny Oduya has a -0.5 zone starts in this category while Benn has a -7.7 in 2.0 minutes of PK time a game. Jason Demers is the highest of the regulars at 0.8 in 2.5 minutes a game.)
With so little difference between the three in terms of possession, especially at even strength, the next obvious place to look is the scoring chances, which measure shot attempts from certain dangerous areas of the ice.
HSCF% is the high-danger scoring chance for percentage, while SCF% is all scoring chances.
Nemeth looks very solid here, particularly in the high-danger areas. The unanswered question, though, is that of matchups. He is getting relatively more difficult zone starts, but mitigated by easier competition. In fact, Nemeth, Jokipakka and Oleksiak have the lowest quality of competition on the team among the defensemen, with Okelskiak and Jokipakka being especially sheltered according to BehindTheNet.ca.
So let's get to the final chart - all the possession statistics are lovely, but what do they all mean when it boils down to allowing goals against?
Well despite the nice possession numbers, both of the regularly-scratched young defensemen show why they don't play as much.
|Player||ES GA60||PP GA60||PK GA60|
Some of these numbers area little deceiving - Klingberg plays practically nothing on the penalty kill, though he has been on for goals against, and obviously a group of defensemen have essentially no power play time as Klingberg, Goligoski and Demers have the lion's share of that group.
Still, this chart is probably the ultimate bottom line. The job of the defensemen is all wrapped up in preventing goals against, and the you regularly-scratched defensemen are the least effective in that category. Nemeth, particularly, really struggles on the penalty kill, and you can point to limited minutes, but that same caveat also applies to Oleksiak, who does not have such concerns. That number is disturbingly large.
On the flip side, Oleksiak is the least effective defenseman at preventing even-strength goals against despite relatively solid possession numbers. The reasons for that are up to interpretation - perhaps he is unlucky, or perhaps it all goes very well until it suddenly goes horribly wrong - but the bottom line numbers are pretty stark.
The answer to the question at the beginning of this article, then, is still muddy. There are encouraging signs for both Nemeth and Oleksiak, but in the category that matters most, Jokipakka continues to be the best option. And the inconsistent metrics help support the decision to look at other internal options, namely Lindell, to see if he can settle in any more effectively.