“As the game gets tighter and tighter, it makes it even more important, especially for right-handers, because of the fact that right-handers, we don’t have enough in the NHL, so they tend to always play on their forehand side. There’s way more left-handed guys playing on their off side who have spent their careers doing it.”
That’s what Mike Babcock had to say about the more-than-ever relevant discussion, defenseman and the side they play on. For as long as one can remember, the norm is that lefties play on the left side and the same with righties. Easier to collect the puck off the boards, push players to the outside, etc. It’s one of Babcock’s biggest beliefs, it seems.
Recently, a few in the stats community made an attempt to quantify exactly how much it matters. All of them found, as expected, playing on your own side does in fact help. That’s not what we’re looking for. What we are curious to know is how much better does a defenseman playing his off-side have to be than his opposite-handed counterpart to exceed his results.
Domenic Jr. Galamini (@mimicohero) wrote a great piece you can read here which touched very well on the debate. These were his findings:
“It turns out that an unsuitably handed defenseman must have a CorsiRel that is greater than or equal to 6.2* Corsi events / 60** better than a suitably handed alternative in order to be the better option to pair with a partner-less defenseman on the roster.”
*Was later changed to 6.83
What does this mean? Well, if you have a left spot open, unless a righty is 6.83 RelCD/60 better than the left-handed option, you’re better off with the left handed-defenseman. To put that into context, say you have a left spot open. You can have Aaron Ekblad, who won the Calder Cup a year ago, or Dion Phaneuf. The logical answer is, to the surprise of most, Phaneuf. Phaneuf’s RelCD/60 was 0.98, 3.11 less than Ekblad. Since 3.11 < 6.83, Phaneuf is expected to have better possession.
Shifting focus, Canada’s defense was a big controversy this World Cup. Subban, Letang and Giordano were among the names left off. The idea we get is that Subban and Letang were stuck behind what Team Canada thinks is a great right side. We have no clue about Giordano.
The tension heightened when Keith was pulled off the team thanks to injury and needed to be replaced. Perfect time to fix our mistake and put Subban in right? That’s a big fat no. Instead, Jay Bouwmeester was slotted in to play the Chicago defender’s spot. Here we’re gonna analyze if it was really worth it to put him in over Subban and company. First off, let’s check out Bouwmeester.
The Blues defender’s biggest asset seems to be his experience. The 32 year old has played in two olympic games, one world cup, three world championships and three world juniors. His play, however, is far from eye-catching. It is incredibly surprising to see a defender who hasn’t put up more than 20 points in the past two seasons playing on Team Canada. He doesn’t play a ‘gritty’ game, which adds to the question marks surrounding his addition. Add his xGF% relative, a disappointing -3.56% , and you’re left as confused I am. He shouldn’t be on this team. Who should have replaced him?
The former Canadiens star is just one year removed from being on the NHL’s first all-star team. At 27, he’s solidified his role as one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the league, for better or for worse. Being fourth in 5v5 points since 2014 out of defenseman will do that for you. He was average in terms of possession, at -0.11 xGF% relative. If we check though, his Corsi differential relative was 13.22 corsi events per 60 better than Bouwmeester, so even playing a left-handed spot, he would have probably had better possession. In simple terms, Subban would’ve been better than Bouwmeester in about every way.
Letang has been the cornerstone of the recently-crowned Stanley Cup champions’ defense for years. At 29, he’s at the tail end of his prime, but still going strong. He’s often been shadowed by stars Crosby and Malkin, but you should know him as one of the best defenders in the game. Letang had a +7.9 corsi differential relative per 60, even better than Subban, and 17.74 corsi events per 60 better than Bouwmeester. He produces more than a point per 60 minutes of 5v5 play, so he’ll rack up points too. Letang also wins against Bouwmeester.
Finally, if you’re not convinced they can do well in the left position, how about Giordano? Him being snubbed makes no sense – he’s better than Bouwmeester in every possible way. He puts up points more than twice as much and is levels above him in terms of possession. If you’re crying about experience, they’re the same age, too. To put his superiority into context, Giordano was third out of all defenders in CF% Rel and 12th in points per 60. Crazy.
All in all, Bouwmeester should not be in this team. Letang and Subban would’ve done better on the opposite side than Bouwmeester does his own, and probably produced more offense, too. If you don’t believe me, than you can sleep knowing Giordano is miles better, too, and he is left-handed. To be fair, a depth defenseman probably doesn’t mean much. However, Subban and company can be game breakers, and you can always use just one more goal.
All stats are 2014-16 and are 5v5 score, zone and venue adjusted from corsica.hockey