The Dallas Stars signed Esa Lindell to a six-year, $34.8 million contract extension last week. The extension will carry an average annual value of $5.8 million against the team’s salary cap. There’s been a fair amount of debate that I’ve seen over Twitter and online hockey boards whether or not $5.8 million per year is an overpay or not for the defensive-minded defenseman. For what it’s worth, Evolving Wild, a popular hockey analytic site and account, had predicted Esa Lindell’s six-year contract term being worth $5,814,973 per year, which was right on the money. So in terms of market value, his AAV of $5.8 million wasn’t a surprise. (You can see his and the rest of the UFA and RFA contract predictions by @EvolvingWild here.)
One thing I’ve noticed is that defensive defenseman like Lindell do not measure well in today’s advanced metrics. A lot of the “smarter” advanced stats like Expected Goals For/Against (xGF, xGA), Goals above Replacement (GAR) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are what is most commonly used to predict a player’s true value and performance. While I do believe there is a time and place for these metrics, especially among forwards, defensive-first defenseman have a lot of their value lost through these analytics. Most of these metrics go off of NHL’s RTSS scraped data which simply provides hits, giveaways, takeaways, shot attempts, shot locations, etc.
However, a lot of the great but small things that Lindell does around the net and on the boards don’t get tracked. If Lindell was to be defending a 2-on-1 and he correctly interrupted the cross-ice pass to stop the forward’s play, that interrupt will more than likely not show up in any recorded stat, despite being a crucial play. If Lindell was to tie up a stick and body a player out near the crease to prevent a high danger scoring chance, that positioning and stick-lift will not show up in any recorded metric. Statistics that are very important to defensive play, such as blue line gap positioning and zone exits are only tracked by hand by less than a handful of hockey contributors. None of these stats are accurately recorded for every play and every game.
So although someone like Lindell may not show up as great in these type of metrics, you have to allow yourself to apply some logic after watching him game-by-game to help determine his true value, which is where a lot of the debate lies. What we do know is this: Lindell played some of the most defensive minutes out of any player in the league and did so on a team that flourished defensively. He was also extremely efficient in minimizing high-danger chances against Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.
One of the popular hand-tracked measures have Lindell doing very well in blue line efficiency. He has very good gap control and it shows in the minutes that have been manually tracked and observed, sitting in the 90th percentile across the league. There’s no denying Lindell is a force on the blue line. One of the caveats people will point out is his inability to move the puck. The way I personally interpret this data is that Lindell isn’t the person to skate the puck in an exit or entry. I believe, especially this year, Lindell was coached on and utilized two methods for exits: pass to John Klingberg or Miro Heiskanen and let them work their magic on skating, or dump the puck to get off the ice. Sure, skating the puck out is not Lindell’s strong suit. But when he has Heiskanen or Klingberg there to utilize their strengths, why even bother trying to skate the puck out? There’s only one puck on the ice and I’m sure even Lindell would say he’d rather dish it to Klingberg to exit than for him to personally skate it out of the zone. Rely on your strengths and those of the players around you, not what you should be doing.
Defensive Deployment & Protecting Against High-Danger Chances
Esa Lindell took 603 defensive zone face-offs this year. This was the most out of any defender in the league. Lindell also had 295 defensive zone starts. This, again, was the most out of any defender in the league. Keep in mind, especially if you watched a lot of Stars games this year, of how many of these games ended 2-1 or 3-2. Those third period defensive stands were not easy minutes and this season, the Stars had plenty of them. To say that the Stars absolutely leaned on Lindell this year to close out games and be their rock in the back end is nothing but the truth. Again, remind yourself the Stars were third in 5-on-5 goals against and second in 5-on-5 high-danger goals against. So there is no lie in the statement “Esa Lindell was the most defensively deployed player on the team with the best defense in the league.” And with that should carry some weight. Yes, Bishop was crazy good in the net, but his work was made easy due to the defending in front of him.
If you’re going to give somebody 898 defensive zone starts in total, you need to be sure that defender isn’t going to give up easy chances. You’re going to want that player to be efficient in negating high-danger chances and keeping shots to the outside. Here again, Lindell excels. He gave up just 24 high-danger goals against. In relation to defensive zone starts, that is the best in the entire league. You’re much more likely to face a high-danger chance or goal during a defensive zone start than an offensive one. Lindell was excellent in managing his starts and not allowing anything easy.
Lindell wasn’t just an outlier in 5-on-5 defensive deployments, he also was a rock on the penalty kill. His 265 minutes on the penalty kill ranks second in the league for time on ice on the penalty kill. The Stars ended the regular season fifth on the penalty kill (thanks in large part to Bishop), but with Lindell logging a league’s second-best time on ice for special teams, a lot of credit should be given to the Finnish defenseman as well. One of his more amazing stat lines has to be Game 5 against the St. Louis Blues. The Stars had eight minutes of penalty kill in that matchup, and Lindell played 7:49 short-handed. The Blues did not score a power play goal in that game.
Lindell is worth every penny of his new contract. Let that sink in for a minute.
He’s a defensive specialist that will get extreme, league-leading minutes while being defensively deployed. Being deployed in the back end more than any other defenseman in the league is going to hurt his metrics, whether that’s CF%, expected goals or zone entries. He’s the one player on the team’s defense that they know to send out to close out a one-goal lead or to leg out an entire penalty kill to win a game.
This year’s playoffs proved the team can lean on him to play any amount of minutes that they need him to. Having him allows them to save Heiskanen and Klingberg for more offensive zone draws and starts, which was something we saw head coach Jim Montgomery utilize. This is a tool crafted specifically for this team. The Stars have diversified weapons on the blue line with Lindell being the shield for defensive zone draws and minutes. After watching NHL playoff games and the amount of pressure one-goal leads have in the third, it is clear they need someone like Lindell. They have to have somebody they know will make that right stick lift, that right body check, that right battle against the boards to squander any high-danger chance and to keep the game calm. Lindell provides that value and that value, to me, is worth $5.8 million per year.
Yes, the league is moving towards more mobile and offensively-skilled defenseman. But is it realistic to have six of your six roster blueliners all be mobile players? Having someone like Lindell — who has now proven they can lean on for defensive minutes — is a gem and is a weapon that not every team has, but wishes they did. The generic stay-at-home defenseman is fading out of play, but when a team can sign someone who can specialize in defending as well as he can, they should absolutely do it. And the Dallas Stars did just that. The implications of his contract will get sticky in a few years when Klingberg and Heiskanen need new deals. But right now, I’d put Klingberg, Heiskanen, and Lindell against any top three defensive units in the league. They cover each other’s strengths very well.
The window is wide open.