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Gritty Defenders: Shero’s New Pet Project, and Why We Should be Skeptical of It

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Shero has recently begun searching for a very specific thing that he thinks the team is lacking. I look at how right/wrong he is.

2019 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

Coming into this past year’s draft, Shero seemed, to me, to be a fairly convincing modern GM. He had won a lot of trades, managed cap space and draft capital as weaponized assets impressively, managed to get 3 (eventually 4) puck-moving defencemen, stole some value by drafting skill forwards outside the first round in drafts (Bratt, Boqvist & Co.), and hired noe one but TWO premier analytics voices from the public community in Tyler Dellow and Matt cane. After drafting Hughes with the 1st overall pick, I didn’t have many complaints outside of his refusal to address the goalie spot year after year. Then, things took a strange turn in the middle rounds of last year’s draft. Here is a chart I made at the time of the Devils draft according to NHLe from Prashanth Iyer, projected WAR from Manny Perry, and aggregated draft position from Colin Cudmore.

Yeah ....

So, the back end of the draft still went pretty well, drafting 4 consecutive guys that were “steals” relative to their expected position, all of whom were over $1M in “value” (think Salary AAV), and the final 3 of whom were projected as positive WAR (above replacement-level) players. The positive outlook on the middle of the draft is harder to find.

I’m going to work back to front through these defenders. McCarthy isn’t a /great/ talent and is not a modern defenceman, but many boards had the 6’1’’, 200lb defender higher, so he was a justifiable selection. Vukojevic is even bigger at over 210lbs and, despite limited offense, grades out as a 50% chance of making the NHL, so again I’ll let it slide. Misyul has been lauded for his transition game, but hasn’t produced at a level indicative of an NHL talent in either the KHL (admittedly limited minutes), or the MHL (certainly not limited minutes). While he may have tools other D in this crop do not, the fact that he’s 6’3’’ as well likely somewhat abates the production concern. And then we get to the shining example of the manifestation of this philosophical initiative: Nikita Okhotyuk.

Okhotyuk was projected to go somewhere in the 3rd-4th round which was probably high given his 20% chance to make the NHL and 0.04 Adj P/GP. And yet the Devils jumped at him at pick 61. Why? As you may expect from a guy with 71 PIMs, he’s physical. He’s 6’1’’ which is about average height for an NHL defender and he plays even bigger, supposedly. Worth noting that playing “big” or “gritty” didn’t do enough to give him a positive EV GF%Rel in the OHL (-3.4%). You can make excuses for each of the picks I’ve mentioned in isolation ... except Okhotyuk. And viewed in the context of the draft as a whole, it’s clear Shero believed that his blueline needed size, grit, and physicality.

To those for whom this shift wasn’t already clear in the 2019 draft, the Taylor Hall trade surely must have solidified the image. Rumors from legitimate sources indicated the Panthers were offering Vincent Trochek plus a prospect. And no one is going to convince me Arizona wouldn’t have been willing to give up someone like, say, Jan Jenik to get Taylor Hall. And yet, what Shero went for, was a 6’6’’ hulking defender and spare parts. I actually like Kevin Bahl, but once again it feels like a continuation of this consistent intent on acquiring blueliners that are tough, big, and physical. Don’t believe me? Listen to Shero himself:

He speaks in pretty fragmented thoughts here, but here’s one of the threads that I think is really telling.

If there was a prospect on defense ... with his size and skating ability ... We have some skill defencemen in our system ... but no one like this. Last year was good with a lot of defencemen added for us with some size and physicality... I feel a lot better with how we’re set up now.

He also says things like “you need different kinds of players” and “you don’t want to look at just one thing” and Bahl has “not only speed, but talent” — but the real reason for this move is clear. Bahl is big, and physical, and Shero thinks we need that.

And many fans probably agree.

So here’s a few reasons why I think that’s a bad approach to take.

When drafting a skater — any skater — the ideal scenario is that they are good both offensively and defensively. The second best scenario is that they are only good offensively. The third is that they are only good defensively. And it is highly beneficial to avoid players bad at both things. The reason for this order is two fold: philosophy and practicality. Philosophically, having a player good offensively and in transition will assist in maximizing possession time. And a great way to defend is to prevent the opponent from possessing the puck at all. Practically, it’s just MUCH easier to project offense than defense.

The top 5 defenders in Offensive GAR the past 3 years are Carlson (1st Rd / 27th overall), Rielly (1st/5), Ekblad (1st/1), Hedman (1st/2), and Gustafsson (4th/93). The top 5 defensively are Jensen (4th/150), Parayko (3rd/86), Brodin (1st/10), Pelech (3rd/65), and Hjalmarsson (4th/108). Notice how random that assortment of draft positions is in the second group? That’s because it’s really freaking hard to predict defense. Which brings me to my next point.

Putting a lot of eggs in a basket full of prospects like these requires a faith in a scouting and development program that, to be honest, has not earned the benefit of the doubt from this fanbase. If you remove the obvious NHLers like Hughes and Hischer, you’re only real scouting successes is Bratt, and the only real development success is Coleman. The Binghamton Devils are a -156 in goal differential over the past 3 seasons which is by FAR the worst in the AHL (Laval at -117, no one else below -90). How can we be confident that a department of our team that’s been traditionally inept, can solve the hardest problem in drafting/development to solve?

I haven’t even mentioned so far that the Devils are 27th in both forward and defender GAR and still need help in that (much easier to predict) position group or that size is one of the most overrated attributes in prospects (according to our own analytics director) or that defensive talent is normally accessible through UFA and trades (ex: Lovejoy, Jensen, Pateryn, Nemeth, etc.). So, ultimately, the case against this approach is clear. The case for?

The “Hockey Men” notion that good teams are built on grit. The Blues had a huge blueline last year and took it to the cup. The Islanders lost skill and added grit under Lou, and are suddenly a force in the NHL. You can conjure up several other anecdotal cases and some of them are quite convincing. Ultimately, the fans will either buy in or not. And Shero’s job may depend on which we decide.

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So what do you guys think? Is this a good thing Shero is trying? Are there better ways to accomplish this goal? How soon do you expect to see the payoff of this strategy if at all? Thanks as always for reading and leave your comments below.