As any fan of the Ottawa Senators will tell you, the Achilles' Heel of this year's team has been the play of its defensemen. With the exception of perennial Norris candidate Erik Karlsson's brilliance, it's been a disappointing mix of under-performance and untapped potential: Cody Ceci and Patrick Wiercioch have failed to re-kindle the magic of last season, Jared Cowen hasn't taken the step forward the organization so desperately needs him to, and even Marc Methot has had his struggles. It's led to the team giving up an alarming 33.8 shots against per game,easily the highest mark in the NHL. What might that look like?
The above graph is courtesy of Micah McCurdy's indispensable work at Hockeyviz.com, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. What you're looking at is how many shot attempts the Sens both give up and generate per 60 minutes of 5v5 play. The black line represents the shot attempts for, the red line represents the shot attempts against. In short, it hasn't been pretty. The Sens have defensive issues that need addressing, badly.
Which brings us to Fredrik Claesson: it's been something of a long wait for the 2011 draft pick and standout for the Binghamton Senators. Fans may remember all the way back to 2013 when Claesson took home the "Hardest Worker" award at the Sens' development camp. In some organizations this might not signify much, but for the Sens it's often a precursor to a call-up to the parent club. However, until recently the logjam on defense had precluded much movement between the NHL and AHL teams; it's taken the quasi-retirement of Chris Phillips, the trade of Eric Gryba, and the continued poor play of Jared Cowen to finally free up a space for Claesson to get a look.
It's against this backdrop that Claesson made his debut last week against the New Jersey Devils. And now that he's finally getting his shot, Claesson has looked the part of a competent NHL defenseman. So keeping in mind all of the above paragraphs about this team's defensive struggles, and it's been awfully hard to temper expectations in the fanbase. Claesson just looks good, plain and simple, and the unbridled enthusiasm has been a salve against a year that's been threatening to go awry for some time now. His partnership with Karlsson has been a net positive, and his mere existence has freed up Methot to, in theory at least, shore up the second pairing.
It's a bit too early yet to have a fully formed opinion on the subject of his viability as an NHL defenseman, but it's easy to see some of the attributes that have made Claesson a rock in the AHL. Specifically, he's a good skater with strong positional awareness who seems more capable of making the quick pass than he's been given credit for. For a supposed stay-at-home defenseman with limited offensive skill, I've frequently been impressed with his ability, and willingness, to wait to find the right pass instead of simply wiring it around the boards. This is an especially valuable skill when playing with other skilled players, particularly Erik Karlsson. Karlsson thrives off of puck possession, and better yet controlled defensive zone exits where he can jump into the rush to create odd man situations. Karlsson simply can't force that issue if the puck is constantly being chipped off of the glass.
One sequence from early in the first period in the game against the St. Louis Blues provides a handy illustration of what it is that Claesson does so well:
The Sens are on a line change after Curtis Lazar has carried the puck to centre and dumped it into the Blues' end from the red line. The Blues player has collected the puck and is headed to the neutral zone with a full head of steam. There are no Sens forwards in this picture, so you can guess that he's going to get pretty far before he meets a defensive presence .
As it turns out, the Sens forwards haven't yet completed their change so it's up to Claesson (whom I've highlighted with the red arrow) to defend the rush. I've frozen the image here because it crucially illustrates one of the young Swedish defender's best attributes: his gap control. Even in the face of an unimpeded rush, Claesson has come all the way out past the blueline and is making a hard C cut to control the gap and not cede the blueline without a fight. This can be a risky proposition if you're not a good skater, but as you'll see in the next frame Claesson has timed it perfectly and moves well to cut down the rush completely:
Et voila, by the time the St.Louis attack is over the blue line, Claesson (with the help of Karlsson) has clamped down completely and the Blues player is left to try to dump the puck to the corner. As it turns out, because of the tight coverage, the puck would actually bounce to the corner, where Claesson retrieves it cleanly:
And then makes a clean outlet pass to Max McCormick who chips it to a streaking Zack Smith (off-screen) and the Sens are out of their end and off to the races:
An underrated part of this play is how Claesson takes a hit to make the pass. It would have been much easier to simply rim the puck off the glass and try to stand up the forechecker, but by taking the extra beat to make a clean pass and instead taking the hit Claesson buys the Sens a clear zone exit. None of this is ground-breaking stuff, but it's good hockey. There hasn't been nearly enough of that from the Sens' defensemen this year.
So, look: it's still way, way too early to say much about whether Fredrik Claesson has a long term future with the Senators. Almost anyone can look good in such a tiny sample of games. That said, there's a lot to be encouraged by here. And in this season, that hope and basic competence is really refreshing.