Sharks defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are a traditional ‘shutdown’ pairing, but their Friday night counterparts are anything but.
That’s not surprising, since Blue Jackets blueliners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who have spent more five-on-five minutes together than any other defensive pairing according to Corsica, play for notably forward-thinking head coach...John Tortorella?
"A shutdown pair in our game now is being up the ice, having the puck and doing things in that end, so you're not defending all the time," Tortorella told BlueJackets.com last week.
That John Tortorella?
Yes, that Tortorella. The man who’s long decried the use of puck possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick while repeating any number of hockey cliches to anyone who would listen, now sounds like he’s angling for the keynote at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.
Tortorella’s backed up his words with forward-thinking usage this season. Jones and Werenski have started 57.89 percent of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone, the highest among the 27 pairings that have played 500 five-on-five minutes together as of Thursday.
Plus, the pair has seen a pretty even distribution of top competition, as the following charts from Micah McCurdy’s HockeyViz.com show.
The blue bars in the upper right of both graphs represents each player’s ice time against opposing forward by their position on the depth chart. The red ‘stairs’ represent league-average ice time against that depth chart position.
Jones and Werenski, then, play above-average minutes against opposing teams’ top-four forwards, and slightly below average-to-average time against the rest of the group. All things considered, Tortorella distributes their minutes pretty evenly.
By contrast, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer uses Braun and Vlasic in a far more traditional sense. Out of the previously mentioned 27 pairings, the two started the lowest percentage of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone (38.68) as of Thursday.
Braun and Vlasic also see much more time against their opponents’ top forwards.
DeBoer, on the other hand, uses Vlasic + Braun far differently. pic.twitter.com/i8Xlw0bOI3— Marcus White (@marcuspwhite) February 2, 2018
That’s above-average or average time against a team’s top-six forwards, and below-average minutes against the bottom-six. Unsurprisingly, Braun and Vlasic see a lot less of the puck in their offensive zone (47.23 percent adjusted corsi-for percentage) in five-on-five situations than Jones and Werenski (55.47 percent).
Why the stark difference? It likely comes down to personnel.
Columbus also relies on Jones (33 points, second on Columbus) and Werenski (22, fifth) for offense, while Vlasic and Braun’s assignments free up San Jose’s best offensive defenseman and leading scorer, Brent Burns. The Blue Jackets have a celebratory cannon, but they don’t have the same firepower aside from their shutdown defenders that the Sharks do.
Don’t call it an advanced stats awakening just yet, as San Jose’s still a better possession team than Columbus. Nevertheless, it’s surprising to see the notoriously old-school Tortorella ahead of the curve on anything, let alone player usage.
In a season where an expansion team sits atop the Western Conference standings, though, maybe we should have expected it.