The Ottawa Senators appear to be hell-bent on playing Mark Borowiecki (and Jared Cowen, and Chris Phillips) instead of Patrick Wiercioch, at least to start the season. This should worry you if you are a fan of the team. Ottawa's management has long favoured "big bodies" and players that were tough to play against. On the surface, this isn't really an issue: if a player is good and tough, then all the better, right? The problems arise when the fetishization of size and "toughness" overrides all other considerations. Add in that Borowiecki is a good, local boy, Wiercioch doesn't look like he's trying too hard, and you have a recipe for disaster. That said, this particular issue is not specific to the Ottawa Senators; rather, it is emblematic of a systemic failure to recognize the forest for the trees at so many levels of hockey. Simply put, we often confuse hitting, blocking shots, essentially noticeable events, with being a good "defensive/shutdown" defenseman. In reality, the root of good defense can often be traced back to the absence of those very things. This is a great example of why it is so critical to track events like shot attempts, or time on attack, or the metric of your choice when we are analyzing player performance. Our eyes fool us, and in many cases we have been taught to watch for the wrong things. If all of the things that Mark Borowiecki does well that Patrick Wiercioch does poorly were actually what mattered the most, the results would bear themselves out in the numbers over any reasonable sample. That is simply not the case.
Before we continue I should clarify something: this article is not meant to pick on Borowiecki specifically. In fact, he played a more than decent game last night; I was pleasantly surprised. My issue is with a mentality present in Sens management, and large pockets of hockey in general, that subscribes to the notion that you absolutely need big, bruising defensemen that play the body. The idea is that you need to have some sort of balance on the backend, ignoring results and context, and it creates a false choice between a grinder and a skilled puck-moving defenseman.
Evaluating defensemen is a tricky business. Why? Because short of egregious giveaways, mediocre, and even bad, defensemen can hide by taking the body and ringing the puck around the boards. But when there are horrible giveways, everyone remembers them. This one may be familiar:
The above sequence was the foundation upon which the "Wiercioch doesn't deserve to be in the line-up" argument was built. It was, maybe not coincidentally, around this time that we also started to read about how well Borowiecki had played during the pre-season. It's funny that, because the Senators consistently outshot the opposition when Wiercioch was on the ice this pre-season, while the Sens were badly outshot whilst Borowiecki was on the ice. The actual numbers were tallied as +16% CorsiRel for Wiercioch and -14% CorsiRel for Borowiecki (stats courtesy of B_T). Small sample size issues aside, the Sens didn't have better results when Borowiecki was on the ice than with Wiercioch.
If you want to take a bigger picture view, which is more sensible, we can use the numbers from the 2013-14 season:
Stats above are courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com
They are not any kinder to Borowiecki, and at this level of detail something jumped out at me immediately: the sizable gap in shot creation (CF/20) between the two. The Senators seem to have been a bit more successful deterring shots when Borowiecki was on the ice but they produced significantly less offense. The net effect is negative; it would appear the team is giving up more offensively than it gains defensively from playing Borowiecki. This is why it's so critical to come back to these numbers in order to try to understand what is important in evaluating defenseman. All of those passes that Wiercioch completes to start a clean break-out, all of those times he keeps the puck in at the blueline to re-start the cycle, all of those things add up. During the course of a single game, he may have dozens or so of those little plays that go well. Those very same plays are easily forgotten when he coughs the puck up the middle like he did against Winnipeg. Sometimes a slick, offensively talented defeseman can make up for a perceived lack of defensive ability by other means.
One of the most visible ways in which Borowiecki differs from Wiecioch is his willingness to hit anything and everything that moves. This is recognized by many fans, and I suspect Senators management, as a positive attribute. Hitting is an integral part of the game, but it's possible to chase a hit in such a way that you give up a chance in doing so. This is a much more subtle mistake, and so the defenseman in question is far less likely to field any kind of blame. Watch the below clip from last night's game in which the Predators tie the game up with the man advantage. Borowiecki over pursues the body, despite being short-handed, and ends up being partly responsible for the breakdown that leads to the goal:
You're probably watching that video and thinking to yourselves, "That really isn't all that bad" and you wouldn't be completely wrong. Nonetheless, Borowiecki simply cannot allow the Nashville forward to get inside body position on him, especially when the team is short handed. These kinds of little mistakes add up over time, and if you are continually making them then that will show up in your team's possession metrics while you are on the ice. If, instead, you are consistently doing little things right that often go unnoticed, that too will show up in your team's underlying possession metrics. Offensive and defensive prowess are not two equally weighted, binary items. If you want to provide nuanced analysis, players simply can't fall into simple categories such as "good" or "bad". Borowiecki vs. Wiercioch isn't as simple as offense vs. defense where the score is 1-1. The truth is that Borowiecki seems to be marginally better than Wiercioch defensively but Wiercioch more than makes up for it with his ability to generate offense.
So, what am I trying to say? Basically this: there's a reason that the Senators do very well when Wiercioch is on the ice, and simultaneously do poorly when Borowiecki is on the ice. When (if?) Wiercioch is next in the line-up, look for all the times he wins puck battles with little bits of skill, how smoothly the team breaks out, or how well they cycle -- you'll very quickly start to understand why he's as successful as he is. And then remember all those little victories if he has a head scratching giveaway and you're tempted to call for his replacement with a "Tough D" that hits everything that walks.