Is the Nashville Predators' Shea Weber Really an Elite Defenseman?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistMarch 26, 2016

DENVER, CO - MARCH 05:  Shea Weber #6 of the Nashville Predators awaits a face off against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on March 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Predators defeated the Avalanche 5-2.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The advent of analytics for hockey has done much to change the way we view the game, and in a lot of cases, it has also shifted the perception of players. One of those players is Shea Weber, whose status as one of the league's best defenseman has been called into doubt by some of the new metrics.

For many, it's hard to square that skepticism with what they see from Weber on the ice.

Weber seems to check all the boxes for an NHL defenseman. In 2013, McKeen's Hockey said that the 6'4", 236-pound rearguard "can suffocate one-on-one, exploiting a strong body, textbook positioning, and impressive foot speed." That trio of qualities would seem to make Weber the definition of an elite shutdown rearguard.

Add in perhaps the most powerful slap shot in hockey and a high degree of hockey sense, and the typical analyst ends up sounding a little like the mother from Seinfeld when he discusses Weber.

The contradiction lies in the fact that the Nashville Predators really haven't been better with Weber on the ice than they have with him on the bench. When we look at the team's performance at even strength since the 2012 lockout with and without Weber, there's virtually no difference:

5v5 Predators Goal Differential, 2012-16
with Weber52411991922.282.200.08
without Weber84963143022.222.130.09

The same isn't true of other top defensemen. While putting this piece together, I took a quick look at some other famous rearguards (as well as shutdown specialist Marc-Edouard Vlasic, for whom I've long had a healthy respect) to see how they fared by the same metric:

Seeing those gaps eliminates some of the obvious defenses of Weber's numbers. Weber plays top competition, but so do all the other defensemen on that list. He gets a heavy diet of defensive zone starts, but Vlasic starts more shifts in his own end of the rink.

Add in that Weber routinely plays with Roman Josi, and it's easy to see why questions have started to come up in regard to how good Weber actually is. While maintaining team-average numbers in the tough role he plays is quite an achievement, there's generally an expectation that a truly elite defenseman can drive the play, even against tough opponents.

Yet Weber's defensive skill should not be in question.

He plays a remarkably controlled, efficient game in the defensive zone. He maintains position in front of the net, not running around, but he can be aggressive when he needs to be. Consider a four-on-three Vancouver rush during a recent game against the Canucks:

Credit: NHL Game Center Live

That's Weber circled. The puck came in the zone on his side of the ice, with defense partner Josi and the Predatorsโ€™ high forward both on the other side facing two Canucks attackers.

Weber couldn't be aggressive at the blue line because he was facing multiple opponents, but he's in great position here. In the coming seconds on this shift he'll step up, using his long reach to deny one shot and then blocking out Vancouver's second attacker to prevent a second shot.

He's also good in recovery mode.

Credit: NHL Game Center Live

In this instance, Weber came on the ice just as Vancouver counterattacked, leaving him with no chance to get in position. He closed with the Canucks attacker quickly and got his stick in the lane, forcing him to the outside. Rather than a breakaway, Vancouver had to settle for a mediocre chance.

It's textbook stuff. Weber has the long reach and the physical strength and the speed that every coach wants in a defenseman, but more than that, he's internalized the things a defenseman needs to do to the point where they are routine. He holds the scoring chance area, preventing shots from the slot and not allowing himself to be dragged out of position.

This is where a combination of video and statistics can be helpful. The numbers help us know where to look, while the video helps us understand what the numbers are saying.

We've considered Nashville's goal differential with Weber on the ice, but one thing we haven't mentioned yet is Corsi, the measure of all shot attempts taken when a player is on the ice.

With Weber on the bench the last four years, Nashville has been rather good at Corsi, averaging almost three more shot attempts than the opposition in an average hour. With Weber on the ice, that hasn't been true; the Predators take two shots per hour less than the opposition.

The problem appears to be that he isn't an elite transition player.

We can see this with the puck. In the Vancouver game, Weber rarely made an outlet play under pressure; instead he deferred to Josi, who would make the difficult outlet passes far more often than not. The power play used Weber's shot but actually ran off Josi's stick; Weber was a triggerman rather than quarterback.

At even-strength alone, Josi made two zone exits for every one that Weber did, and the numbers get more lopsided including power play time.

He also made turnovers. I counted four against the Canucks, with this one perhaps the most instructive:

Credit: NHL Game Center Live

Weber is under pressure with the puck and on his backhand, and he has two obvious choices. He can put the puck to the open ice behind him, banking on Josi to get it, or he can toss it up the boards to a waiting Eric Nystrom (circled in black). The trouble with the latter option is that it's a 50-50 play; it's just as likely that Vancouver's Jannik Hansen (circled in red) wins the battle.

Weber threw the puck up ice. Hansen won the battle. Vancouver got a good scoring chance in the ensuing chaos.

Weber has limitation as a puck-mover, which is part of the reason why Josi's been a good partner for him. In my viewing, he mostly deferred to Josi on breakouts, settling for lower-risk lateral plays. When not under pressure, he passed fine, and a lot of the mistakes were 50-50-type plays in the neutral zone, where he chipped the puck out and hoped for the best rather than making a clean pass.

Those limitations, however, suggest a compromise between number-crunchers and eyeball-test assessors. Weber is as good as billed without the puck, particularly in the defensive zone. He's also a lethal shooter and pretty good at activating on the attack. However, he spends more time on defense than other top defenseman, both because he faces quality opponents a lot and also because he's less capable of driving play with the puck on his stick than some of his peers.

In recent years, the analytics community has become increasingly convinced that transition play has been underrated in traditional hockey analysis. Finishing skills in the offensive zone and play without the puck in the defensive zone obviously matter a lot, but it's also important for players to do the things that allow teams to spend more time on offence than they do on defense.

Weber is an elite player in the first two areas, but the third is more open to question and explains why there's some debate over his status as a top-five NHL defenseman.

Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com, Puckalytics.com and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.