Defensive Deployment

USA TODAY Sports

Recently, there's been a lot of chatter about Paul MacLean's candidacy for the Jack Adams Award. In my opinion, if MacLean gets this injury-depleted team into the playoffs he should easily win the award. One of MacLean's achievements has been ushering in rookie defensemen: Jared Cowen last season, Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba this year. Looking ahead to next season, the prospect of Cody Ceci joining Ottawa's blue line group is tantalizing. We've talked about how MacLean has protected the offensively-minded Wiercioch by limiting his minutes and challenged the defensively-minded Gryba with tough competition. It made me wonder: what situations have our rookie defensemen been exposed to in their first seasons under Paul MacLean? How has Paul MacLean used his rookie defenders differently than Cory Clouston (Brian Lee's rookie season was split between Craig Hartsburg and Clouston)? What could be in store for Ceci once he reaches the NHL?

Player/Season TOI/60 Corsi Rel Corsi On Off Zone Start% Off Zone Fin% Corsi Rel QoC Corsi Rel QoT
Lee 2008-09 18:53 2.5 -0.29 51.8 50.6 0.197 0.861
Karlsson 2009-10 20:06 7.6 9.92 58.9 53.5 0.179 0.333
Cowen 2011-12 18:53 -2.5 3.85 56.8 50.7 -0.288 0.038
Wiercioch 2012-13 15:14 7.2 10.34 58.4 50.4 -1.387 0.309
Gryba 2012-13 21:38 -20.9 -10.06 53.6 50.0 1.349 -0.554

What does this show us?

Paul MacLean's preference is to shelter rookies more than Clouston. While I expected Wiercioch to play against relatively easy competition I was surprised to see Cowen was protected in a similar fashion, but to a lesser degree, in his first season. The difficult competition faced by Gryba this year probably has more to do with the age of veteran defensemen (Phillips, Gonchar), the enormous absence of Erik Karlsson, and the general inexperience of the other members of the blue line. MacLean has been forced to give more minutes to Gryba or Wiercioch and has chosen Gryba, who despite some ugly Corsi numbers, has over six minutes more a game than Wiercioch. Obviously MacLean has noticed the areas of the game in which Gryba has struggled, but probably sees his simple, defensive game as better suited to bigger minutes at this point in his career than his other option. I think this has more to do with protecting the offensive player in Wiercioch; ideally, MacLean probably wants to use Gryba a bit less (he's averaging almost three minutes more than Cowen last year) but the absence of Karlsson and Cowen is forcing his hand on Gryba.

As for Wiercioch, his stats hold up reasonably well against Karlsson. Now, Karlsson is a Norris Trophy winner who faced much tougher competition in his first season. But Wiercioch's numbers are at least in the same ballpark: similar Corsi Rel, Corsi On, Corsi Rel QoT and offensive zone starts suggests that Wiercioch is being used in a similar way, albeit, more protected.

That's what I expect for Ceci when he cracks the Sens lineup: he'll be protected. MacLean's handling of Gryba seems more the result of the injury situation in Ottawa than preferred practice. MacLean is sheltering an offensive defenseman (Wiercioch) and has sheltered a defensive defenseman (Cowen); it comes as no surprise that Wiercioch starts in the offensive zone considerably more, what was a little surprising was that Cowen's offensive zone starts in his rookie season were not far off the pace set by the offensively-minded Wiercioch and Karlsson. If Ceci makes the Sens in 2013-14 and if the blue line can remain healthy, Cody will most likely be eased into the NHL playing sheltered minutes against easy competition.

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