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Reality Check: Andy Greene was Fine Last Year — He’s Just No Longer a Top Pairing Defender

Greene has been given a licking from Devils fans this offseason. He’s not what he once was, but he’s not done yet. I look at the sum total of the statistical evidence for and against him.

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Vegas Golden Knights v New Jersey Devils Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

In my article last week, some of the conversation in the comments section led us to a discussion about whether or not Andy Greene was awful last year. This isn’t the first time this conversation has occurred. During the season — I wrote a piece about Severson being the best defender on the team spurred on by how I felt he was unfairly maligned in, among other places, a Devils Fan Facebook Page poll. As a reminder, in that poll, out of 105 voters, 77 thought Andy Greene was the one that most needed to be replaced on the team. That could be read a few different ways, but none of them are flattering.

And, just to clarify, this is not just a “FB fans are unaware of analytics” thing. Finding the positives in his analytics can be a bit of a chore, as John demonstrated in depth a month ago. So am I disagreeing with John’s findings? No, not really — John says that he is no longer effective in his role as a high-minute, tough-matchup, #1 defender. I’m with him there. Greene’s being relied upon very heavily for a 35-year-old defender. He’s struggling, but it’s possible that basically any other defender on this team would struggle even more.

As a quick reality check, let me point out a few things, both good and bad, about the Devils’ ice time leader.

WAR Loves Greene. Why?

Viz by Alan Wells

WAR models have received mixed review from many, especially with regards to their appraisal of defenders. It is worth noting, however, that these two models use COMPLETELY different methodolgy and came to very similar conclusions. First of all, they concur that Greene was absolutely a top pairing defender at his peak (2013 and 2014) — over which span he was the #1 defender in the NHL in Corsica’s WAR and #5 in EW’s. His best hockey was very good. The second thing that they are in agreement on is that Greene is still a pretty good NHL defender.

Over the past two years, Corsica’s model has him 56th out of 216 NHL defenders with 1000+ minutes in GAR rate. That’s a back end first pairing defender. I think this overestimates his value slightly due to, among other things, the very low rating of Sami Vatanen. It likely credits Greene for the performance of that pairing moreso than Vatanen. Even so, Greene’s numbers were at 5v5 were pretty awful — negative in Rel CF%, xGF%, and GF%. How can we square this with his WAR ratings. If you want to study it thoroughly, here is what EvolvingWild presented about their WAR model at RITSAC, and here is Corsica’s WAR notebook. I’ll highlight what I believe to be the three biggest reasons for the high WAR value, in no particular order.

1. Severe Zone Usage

Generally speaking, there is reason to be skeptical of the impact that zone start usage has on player results. The fact that on-the-fly shifts account for roughly 60% of starts it’s rare for players to have usage so severe that it effects their results. However, if anyone does have such usage — it’d be Andy Greene. Over the last 2 years, the 3 lowest zone-start ratios in the NHL among defenders are Greene, Ben Lovejoy, and Steve Santini. In other words: Greene and whoever has the misfortune to be paired with him. This is likely diluting the impact of his horrible shot rate numbers.

2. Shot Quality

Particularly when it comes to limiting damage in the defensive zone, Greene has excelled. Despite having a +2.68 RelT CA/60 (allows 2.68 more shots per 60 against than teammates) his RelT xGA/60 is negative. For the expected goals he allows to be so low despite a significantly above average shot allowance, he must be limiting the dangerous attempts very well. This does appear to, at least somewhat, be the case. Despite spending extra time in his own zone, he allowed high-danger chances against at a lower rate than anyone other than Lovejoy. He may get pinned back more than most, but he also is still very responsible in his own end.

3. Penalties

This is the one that seems to be a really well-kept secret. Andy Greene’s usage — high minutes against tough competition in the defensive zone — should land him among the most penalized defenders in the game. But he was actually, somehow, a +2 in penalty differential. Greene took only 9 penalties in 1711 minutes and managed to draw 11. For a player with his usage, being able to come out on top in that area is very important. For reference, the 3 most played defenders in the league — Doughty, Suter, and Burns — were -11, -10, and -18 in penaltiy differential respectively.

So Wait, How Good Is He?

He’s not THAT good. I have my doubts that these WAR models are grasping how much he needed a puck mover to his right in order to keep his head above water. I just did a presentation at RITSAC about how important transition statistics are to defenders and sat down with Ian Tulloch of The Athletic to talk about this on his Leafs Geeks podcast. The short version is that, in my opinion, the role of a defender is rather fundamentally misunderstood to be preventing goals. Every one of the 5 skaters has the same purpose — to help the team score more goals than the opponent. Limiting damage in the defensive zone only helps prevent goals. Exiting the defensive zone helps prevent shots against AND generate shots for. As you can see below, Greene has been struggling to exit the zone and very seldom generates shots. Vatanen’s ability to do that made up for important deficiencies that contributed to the cratering Greene experienced with the comparably immobile Santini.

To me, it’s clear that Greene needed help prevent the continuation of the spiral he experienced in the beginning of the year.

Concluding Thoughts

Andy Greene is no longer a top pairing defender. His responsibility in his own zone is still present, but he’s getting older and slower as the game gets younger and faster. That said, it’s still better that he is on this team than not. He’s still likely a 2nd pairing defender on many rosters. Barring a something unexpected from Butcher or another young defender, he’s likely still the top LHD on this team. And, while that is obviously not ideal, it shouldn’t be conflated with the erroneous stance that Greene is no longer a valuable defender in this league.

This, of course, could all change at any moment for a man entering his age-36 season. But the captain has earned the right to not be written off before his time has come.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Andy Greene? Is he still a first pairing defender? Second? Third? Fringe NHLer? Is it time to start giving him a little more shelter? Who should he play with next season? Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts below.