Ranking the Toughest Assignments in the NHL Today

Rob VollmanContributor INovember 8, 2013

Ranking the Toughest Assignments in the NHL Today

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    Not all assignments are created equally. Some roles require a player to play frequently in the defensive zone, against players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, and possibly when down a man. Who is taking on those roles this year?

    There are several analytics that can be used to paint a picture of a player's usage. The two simplest are the percentage of the player's shifts started in the offensive zone, relative to the defensive zone, and the percentage of all penalty-killing situations that are assigned to them.

    How do we tell who is lining up against the Crosbys and Ovechkins of the league? Since the best players get the most ice time, the quality of competition can be estimated by looking at the average ice time of one's opponents (expressed as a percentage of a team's total ice time).

    Likewise, the support a player gets can be estimated by looking at the average ice time of his linemates, both forwards and defensemen. The source for all of this fine data is Extra Skater, which pulls it directly from NHL game files.

    While forwards are included in this study, obviously it is mostly defensemen who get the tough jobs. In the case of regular defensive pairings, we only took the one who is primarily driving the bus.

    Whether by necessity or by design, here are the players taking on the toughest assignments so far this season, with no particular allowance made for how well they're doing it.

     

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

10. Marcus Kruger, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 25.0 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 55.7 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 27.3 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 26.8 percent

     

    Just beating out Jay McClement for the 10th spot on the list of players with the toughest assignments is 23-year-old Swedish pivot Marcus Kruger.

    Given the quality of the Blackhawks and the high proportion of time that they're in the offensive zone, there aren't a lot of tough minutes in Chicago. But what few exist go to this relatively unknown and unheralded third-year NHLer.

    Not only does Kruger handle these tough minutes, but he does so in such an effective and disciplined manner that the cap-crunched Blackhawks felt comfortable dealing away Dave Bolland this offseason. Votes of confidence don't come much higher than that.

     

     

     

9. Jan Hejda, Colorado Avalanche

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    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 45.5 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 57.8 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 29.9 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 29.2 percent

     

    Perhaps some of the credit for Colorado's amazing goaltending belongs to big 35-year-old Czech defender Jan Hejda.

    Many of Colorado's moves that helped transform it from one of the league's worst teams to the dangerous team it s today were a little more subtle than early draft picks and outspoken new coaches. Signing stay-at-home defenseman Jan Hejda to a four-year, $13 million deal during the 2011 offseason was just such a move.

    If the Avalanche have a weakness, it is the defensive skill and experience on their blue line. Hejda plays a huge role in Colorado and fills one of their greatest needs.

     

     

     

     

     

8. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames

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    Debora Robinson/Getty Images

    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 36.1 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 39.7 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 29.8 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 29.1 percent

     

    Perhaps no player has been presented with as great a new challenge as 23-year-old Calgary Flames defenseman T. J. Brodie.

    Brodie, who had just 114 games of NHL experience prior to this season, made the jump from the third pairing with the likes of Cory Sarich to the top unit at both even strength and the penalty kill this season.

    Then the Flames adopted a system that tilted the ice in favor of one of their top-four pairings (Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell) to a greater extent than any other NHL team. That left T.J. Brodie and his partner, Mark Giordano, to handle the heavy lifting.

    And if that wasn't challenging enough, Giordano suffered a broken ankle October 21. Brodie may have been highly effective on the third pairing, but he has really been thrown into the deep end like none other this year.

     

7. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    John Russell/Getty Images

    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 44.0 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 49.4 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 30.1 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 28.5 percent

     

    Four of the defensemen on Nashville's fast-developing blue line are between the ages of 19 and 23, including three still on their entry-level contracts. That leaves the lion's share of the defensive burden on the capable shoulders of captain Shea Weber.

    Handling the tough minutes is nothing new for Weber, who has been among the league leaders in most of these statistical categories for years, including when he had the assistance of equally talented partner Ryan Suter (now in Minnesota).

    Though his role is as much a result of necessity as it is a result of choice, there's no question that 2011 Norris trophy runner-up Shea Weber has proven that there are few (if any) better defenseman for such a tough job.

     

     

     

6. David Backes, St. Louis Blues

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    John Russell/Getty Images

    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 39.0 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 36.8 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 30.6 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 36.5 percent

     

    Though Alexander Steen has 14 goals in 14 games, the defensive engine behind the NHL's hottest line is its center, 2012 Selke award finalist David Backes.

    Opposing teams have been throwing everything at the Blues top line in an attempt to finally shut it down, but it just keeps on ticking. Coach Ken Hitchcock leans on these guys heavily because he knows he can count on all three (the third member being T.J. Oshi) of them to play consistent, puck-possession hockey.

    But are the Blues relying on their top line a little bit too much? Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a look at their ice time and has concerns that the workload may eventually take its toll. A good point. Look for their roles to lighten up at the first few significant signs of fatigue.

     

5. Andrej Sekera, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 45.0 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 56.0 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 30.1 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 30.3 percent

     

    Though the Hurricanes have several defensively reliable defensemen, even when in the absence of Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen, coach Kirk Muller has chosen to rely heavily on Andrej Sekera and his partner, Justin Faulk.

    The 27-year-old Slovakian was acquired by Carolina from Buffalo at this past 2013 NHL entry draft for Jamie McBain and a second-round selection. The Sabres had originally signed Sekera to a four-year, $11 million deal after a 29-point season in 2010-11.

    Though the 'Canes did get stuck in a five-game losing streak, Sekera has helped the club by leading all Carolina defensemen in both points and blocked shots. The only drawback to the extra duty has been an increase in turnovers, something that should return to normal as duties inevitably start to get re-balanced.

4. Dan Girardi, New York Rangers

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 42.5 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 60.6 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 29.4 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 27.7 percent

     

    Dan Girardi and partner Ryan McDonagh burst their way into mainstream attention in 2011-12 by taking on quite possibly the league's toughest assignment and yet keeping their team above water possession-wise. Only the first half of that is true this season.

    While the 29-year-old undrafted defenseman is one of only three NHL players at the tougher level in all four chosen categories, the Rangers are getting absolutely murdered whenever Girardi's on the ice.

    With Marc Staal back in the lineup this season, new coach Alain Vigneault has the freedom to relax Girardi's assignment if the struggles continue.

     

3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Debora Robinson/Getty Images

    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 39.9 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 57.1 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 30.0 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 28.5 percent

     

    The league's most underrated defenseman is most likely Phoenix's Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The 22-year-old Swede is one of only two players in the top 50 in toughest competition, defensive-zone starts and penalty-killing time. The other is coming up next in our list.

    While Ekman-Larsson gets a lot of help from his partner, Zbynek Michalek, this is quite a tough responsibility for a 22-year-old. Furthermore, his solid defensive play doesn't come at the expense of his offensive contributions. The talented Swede is just one point back of the team scoring lead.

    Ekman-Larsson is one of the league's most complete two-way defensemen, and the Coyotes know it, signing him to a six-year, $33 million contract and playing him over 25 minutes a night. Even in Phoenix, some Norris Trophy attention is only a matter of time.

     

     

     

2. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

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    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 40.2 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 57.2 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 29.8 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 27.7 percent

     

    Even at 36 years old, Boston's captain and 15-season veteran Zdeno Chara may very well be the game's greatest defensive player. The 6'9" Slovakian won the 2009 Norris Trophy, and his lack of scoring was the only reason he was overlooked in 2013.

    The great defensive play sometimes comes at a price, however. Chara is second among active players in career penalty minutes and is frequently questioned about some of his tougher hits.

    Chara also shows signs of fatigue, but only occasionally. Much like Detroit legend Nicklas Lidstrom, a fatigued Chara is often more effective than the fresh version of almost anyone else. Though the Bruins are gradually developing some young new defensemen, expect Chara to keep carrying the load.

     

1. Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts: 42.2 percent

    Penalty-Killing Duties Assigned: 56.1 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Opponents: 31.0 percent

    Average Ice Time Assigned to Linemates: 30.0 percent

     

    Fifty million dollars over seven years—that's what it will cost for the Toronto Maple Leafs to keep their star captain, Dion Phaneuf. If that figure is divided by his 24 minutes per night, and weighted by the difficulty of those minutes, that contract might be far more reasonable than it first appears.

    Though he has yet to be recognized as a peer to the league's elite defensemen, Phaneuf is certainly making a strong case for it this season. Alongside partner Carl Gunnarsson, Phaneuf is doing everything asked of him defensively, including shutting down top opponents and killing penalties, and he's still continuing to contribute offensively.

    Somebody will pay $50 million for a player like Phaneuf; the questions is, will it be the Leafs?

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.