Analysis: The Evidence Is Clear — Nils Lundkvist Belongs In the Lineup

Nils Lundkvist belongs in the Dallas Stars lineup. Here’s why.

The trade for Nils Lundkvist seemed like one of Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill’s most daring moves. A first round pick (which he never trades) for a former-first round prospect (who are never expected to be regulars right out the gate)? Lundkvist had the profile of a prospect worth trading premium assets for, too. This is a defensemen who set the record for scoring by an under-20 SHL defender. It was good enough to win the SHL’s version of the Norris Trophy. For a minute, Lundkvist looked like he belonged.

Four healthy scratches later, and it begs the question: was it worth it?

Dallas has been upfront about the healthy scratches, and Lundkvist is aware of them. That’s a nice gesture, but it’s also irrelevant. Because here’s the long and short of it:

  • Nils Lundkvist cost Dallas a first round pick, and he is signed until the 2024-2025 season. He’s 22 years old, with 82 games of NHL experience.
  • Joel Hanley costs Dallas a league-minimum salary, and will be a UFA after this year. He’s 31 years old, with 143 games of NHL experience. /

Here’s the only relevant question in this dilemma:

Why scratch a player with more potential to help Dallas win now and in the future, for which he’s an immediate part of, over a player whose immediate help to Dallas is marginal at best, and who has no future in Dallas beyond this season?

This is what makes the entire thing frustrating. Yes, Lundkvist has struggled and we’ll get to that. But how else will he be prepared for tough minutes if he doesn’t get tough minutes? Against Boston in Feburary, Lundkvist saw just two shifts in the final 14 minutes. The argument that a player’s development has to be sacrificed to the “win now” gods will simply never make sense, nor does it hold up under the most basic scrutiny. If a player’s mistakes are the difference between winning and losing, then why tolerate any mistakes at all? If the difference between punishable mistakes is that one player is experienced, and the other is inexperienced, then costly mistakes can be tolerated. So which is it? If it’s purely about winning games, then there should be no bias, right?

I know you’re listing names in your head that you think I’m thinking and yeah, I am. But I also don’t care. Because that’s not the point. The point is that if you’re willing to tolerate mistakes for the greater good of respecting a veteran player for what they’ve done (or AHL filler), why not tolerate mistakes for the greater good of respecting a rookie player for what they could become?

This, to me, is more important than the evidence that Lundkvist belongs in the lineup. But let’s talk about the evidence.

Analyzing defensemen is tricky. Unlike forwards, there are no obvious benchmarks for efficiency or talent. Even the most advanced stats — Wins Above Replacement, Game Score, etc — draw from a very basic premise: a player’s impact on offense, and how that impact translates into specific (goals) and broad outcomes (wins). These are countable impacts, whereas defensemen do a lot of work that is less (but not “un”) countable.

Let’s start by how we don’t want to analyze defensemen. Goal stats, for example, are terrible, misleading clues. Goal differential doesn’t account for goaltending. Which means Lundkvist’s team worst 47.51 GF% just tells us he’s unlucky. Sure enough, his PDO (which combines the team’s shooting percentage when he’s on the ice with the team’s save percentage when he’s on the ice) is also a team-worst. By this metric, Colin Miller is Dallas’ best defenseman. This is why any discussion about a team’s defense must never start with how many goals they allow.

So fine. What about the amount of shot attempts Lundkvist allows when he’s on the ice versus when he’s on the bench? This would be called CA/60 Rel (or shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes of even strength play/relative to teammates) Here, Lundkvist ranks third among Dallas’ seven regulars, which is good. But by this metric, Miro Heiskanen ranks sixth. What about one of those super fancy stats? What about the rate of quality shots that are allowed when he’s on the ice (xGA/60)? There he ranks fifth, just above Jani Hakanpaa and Ryan Suter. That sounds closer to the truth, but this also makes Colin Miller the best regular on the blueline (I’m ignoring Hanley, who is technically #1 only because of his sample size).

This is the problem with how people sometimes use stats: the numbers themselves aren’t insights in and of themselves. The insight comes from understanding what pattern they’re a part of. Beyond that, Lundkvist is a rookie. We have a small sample size of goals and shots he’s been on ice for. However, the sample size of puck touches exiting the zone, retrieving the puck, and defending the puck are much bigger. Thanks to Corey Sznajder, we have that.

Below is a look at the percentage of carries that are faced (x axis) versus the percentage of entries that are denied (y axis). The verdict?

Not so good. He profiles somewhere between high risk, and conservative based on the amount of zone entries he faces, and the amount of zone entries he allows. However, he’s clearly not the weakest link either. Unsurprisingly, Heiskanen grades out as the best, being aggressive while being responsible.

What about whether or not those entries allowed turn into chances against?

Here he fares a bit better. He’s not targeted a whole lot, and when he does, it’s basically 50/50 as to whether or not those that entry turns into a chance against. Again, he is not the weakest link. And again, Heiskanen grades out as the best defenseman; highly targeted, yet still a brick wall.

What about whether or not he’s able to retrieve the puck?

Again, not good. He doesn’t retrieve the puck particularly well, and he doesn’t exit with possession once he does particularly well. It’s an unusual feature for a puck mover, but also not a death sentence as we see with Esa Lindell. He doesn’t exit with possession a lot, but he gets to loose pucks. Again, Heiskanen grades out as the best.

What about whether or not those retrievals turn into zone exits? (This is not insignificant for goal-scoring purposes since zone exits with possession are more likely to turn into successful zone entries, which are more likely to turn into goals)

Here Lundkvist fares a bit better. When he does retrieve the puck, they don’t become turnovers. They don’t lead to possession either, but again, he’s not the weakest link. And again, Heiskanen tops the list.

This isn’t the ultimate checklist of what makes a good defensemen, but unlike other stats, we have better language to talk about them.

Lundkvist tries to play a safe game in the defensive zone. He’s a peculiar player in the way his vision in the offensive zone isn’t the same as it is in the defensive zone. But he’s also not the worst player in the defensive zone. More to the point, the only way he can get better is by playing more. And he can only get better at what he’s good at by playing more. His offense checks out: 1.01 points per hour in all situations is second only to Heiskanen. His individual shots for per 60 is second only to Heiskanen. Who doesn’t want to see more of this?

I realize Dallas is thinking bigger than Lundkvist’s development. They have dreams of winning a Stanley Cup, and to get there, they need things like home ice against a lesser opponent in the opening round. But Lundkvist, whether he struggles or not, is not getting in the way of that. Teams prepare for the future all the time. And they make mistakes doing so, all the time: botched drafts, free agents with too much term, etc. Why not prepare for Lundkvist’s future? He’s not perfect. But he has value. Just because it’s not obvious now doesn’t mean it won’t become obvious later. Seems like a better bet than giving more icetime to players who won’t even be here when Lundkvist still is.

All stats courtesy of AllThreeZones, Evolving-Hockey, and NaturalStatTrick.