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Solid defense is no minor issue

When trying to judge the contribution of defensemen towards the success of their team, offensive statistics can be useful for one side of the story, but when it comes to their ability to prevent goals, the primary tool available is the plus/minus stat, which takes a basic stab at measuring the goals for/against ratio when a given player is on the ice in most situations. In particular, if a team is shorthanded and a goal is scored against them, plus/minus isn't affected. Combine that with the fact that plus/minus is largely affected by the other players on the ice, and you have a pretty limited measurement to work with.

One way to shed a little more light on the play of defensemen is to examine how many minor penalties they take relative to their ice time. For example, if two stalwarts play twenty a minutes a game, but one takes twice as many minor penalties (leaving his teammates shorthanded) as the other, surely the player who commits fewer fouls is a greater help to his team, all other factors being equal. Sergei Gonchar, for example, has led the league two years in a row in Hooking calls, but if a goal gets scored while he's sitting in the box, his plus/minus doesn't take a hit.

Today's tables outline those defensemen taking both the fewest and most minor penalties given their ice time (minimum 41 games played). Those minor penalties have then been converted into a "Goal Cost" figure, reflecting a calculation done in a piece by Alan Ryder that provides a guideline, stating that the average shorthanded situation costs its team 0.153 goals, and that 12% of minor penalties are offsetting, meaning that 4-on-4 or something similar results. Therefore if a given player takes 40 penalties, we take 40 times 0.153 times 0.88 to yield a Goal Cost of 5.39, which is worth right about two points in the overall league standings. That may not sound like much, but for teams such as the Lightning, Islanders, Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Flames and Avalanche, it meant the difference between making the playoffs or not. Bringing this aspect of a defenseman's play into focus can help round out the view of their total impact on a team.

To start with, here are our elite defensive performers...

Fewest Minor Penalties based on Total Ice Time, 2006-7 Defensemen
Player Team GP TOI/G Minors GoalCost Min/Penalty
PAUL MARTIN NJD 82 25:13 9 1.21 229:45
MARC-EDOUARD VLASIC SJS 81 22:11 9 1.21 199:39
TOMAS KABERLE TOR 74 25:52 10 1.35 191:24
ALEXANDRE PICARD PHI 62 18:28 6 0.81 190:49
SERGEI ZUBOV DAL 78 25:56 13 1.75 155:36
MARK STREIT MTL 76 14:00 7 0.94 152:00
TOM PREISSING OTT 80 15:15 9 1.21 135:33
LUBOMIR VISNOVSKY LAK 69 24:27 13 1.75 129:46
SCOTT HANNAN SJS 79 22:49 14 1.88 128:45
BRIAN RAFALSKI NJD 82 25:29 17 2.29 122:55
BRIAN CAMPBELL BUF 82 21:52 15 2.02 119:32
ZBYNEK MICHALEK PHX 82 23:39 17 2.29 114:04
KEVIN DALLMAN LAK 53 12:48 6 0.81 113:04
SAMI SALO VAN 67 21:27 13 1.75 110:33
BRENT SOPEL VAN 64 20:15 12 1.62 108:00
JOHN-MICHAEL LILES COL 71 17:45 12 1.62 105:01
ROBERT SCUDERI PIT 78 18:48 14 1.88 104:44
TEPPO NUMMINEN BUF 79 20:47 16 2.15 102:37
SHEA WEBER NSH 79 19:23 15 2.02 102:05
KARLIS SKRASTINS COL 68 21:13 15 2.02 96:10
NICKLAS LIDSTROM DET 80 27:29 23 3.10 95:35
PETTERI NUMMELIN MIN 51 20:17 11 1.48 94:02
BRENT BURNS MIN 77 15:47 13 1.75 93:29
DENNIS SEIDENBERG CAR 52 16:10 9 1.21 93:24
MATTHEW CARLE SJS 77 18:08 15 2.02 93:05

It's interesting to see the number of young players near the top of this list, as you typically think of more experienced blueliners not allowing themselves to get caught out of position and taking penalties as a result. And now, those defenders spending way too much time in the sin bin...

Most Minor Penalties based on Total Ice Time, 2006-7 Defensemen
PlayerTeamGPTOI/GameMinorsGoal CostMin/Penalty
WADE BELAKTOR655:01202.6916:18
NICK BOYNTONPHX5916:47395.2525:23
BRANISLAV MEZEIFLA4515:57253.3728:42
JASSEN CULLIMORECHI6516:16324.3133:02
BRENDAN WITTNYI8121:38537.1433:03
SEAN HILLNYI8122:32557.4133:11
ANDREW HUTCHINSONCAR4112:13152.0233:23
JANNE NIINIMAAMTL4114:50182.4233:47
RHETT WARRENERCGY6217:07314.1734:14
ROSTISLAV KLESLACBJ7522:54506.7334:21
STEVE MONTADORFLA7213:08273.6435:01
RORY FITZPATRICKVAN5814:05233.1035:30
ANDREW ALBERTSBOS7619:40425.6535:35
STEPHANE ROBIDASDAL7518:04385.1235:39
DENIS GAUTHIERPHI4316:39202.6935:47
MARK GIORDANOCGY4813:26182.4235:49
HAL GILLTOR8218:53435.7936:00
SHANE O'BRIENTBL8014:58334.4436:16
MICHAEL KOMISAREKMTL8219:15435.7936:42
MIKE COMMODORECAR8219:53445.9237:03
RUSLAN SALEIFLA8223:19516.8737:29
GLEN WESLEYCAR6815:34283.7737:48
MAREK MALIKNYR6919:16354.7137:58
SHAONE MORRISONNWSH7820:57435.7938:00

You have to feel for poor Wade Belak - perhaps one reason he only snagged 5:01 per game of ice time is that his coach couldn't trust him to stay out of the box. 5:01 per game? Yeesh, that's hardly worth the effort of lacing up your skates. And look at the dynamic duo of Brendan Witt and Sean Hill for the New York Islanders - cutting down a few trips to the box between those two could easily have bumped them up a seed or two in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

So keep this in mind during the long months of the upcoming regular season, as you see the same defenders going to the box time and time again - over the long haul they truly hurt their team. By comparison, those blueliners who take fewer penalties are often underappreciated, and even labelled "soft" for having disappointingly low PIM totals.

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