Could a possible solution to Chicago's D-man woes be sitting in its press box?

It's well-known that the Chicago Blackhawks are shopping for at least one defensemen, although they're hardly the only team to be doing so.

A question which needs to be asked is: Is a possible solution to Chicago's defensive issues already on the team, but spending the majority of his season in the press box?

Finnish defenseman Sami Lepistö was a summer signing, fresh off a gold medal win at the World Championships. Despite what looked like a decent depth signing for that sixth blue line role, Lepistö has spent just 11 games in the Blackhawks lineup. There are certainly bloggers out there eager to decry him as bad (and those same writers are even eager to see him waived), but in light of Chicago's recent six-game skid and overall defensive issues, the question has been stewing for a couple weeks: why can't Lepistö get starts over the likes of John Scott and AHL callup Dylan Olsen?

First, it must be noted that with just 11 games played - just 20% of Chicago's games - this sample is not as complete as if he had played 20 games, so at best it's an indication of what Lepistö is capable of, and what he's accomplished in Chicago, compared to the other "6th/7th defensemen" in Chicago (John Scott, Sean O'Donnell).

Overall records:

Beyond the simple stats, let's also look at the team win stats from another couple angles.

Team wining percentages when one of OD, Scott, OR Lepistö are playing; but not in combination with another of the three:

O'Donnell solo: 16-7-6 (0.552%)
Scott solo: 7-4-1 (0.583%)
Lepistö solo: 2-0-0 (1.000%)

Now let's compare that to if 2 of the 3 "6th/7th d-men" are put on the ice at the same time:

With OD/Scott in same game: 1-3-1, including being shut out 2x
With OD/Lepistö in same game: 1-2-1
With Scott/Lepistö in same game: 3-2-0

No matter which way you cut it, however, with OD playing, the team has the lowest % of wins... and he's played the most out of the three (37 games). O'Donnell is a PK specialist - he's very good on the PK and therefore logs a lot of time on it - but Chicago in recent years has always been one of the least-penalized teams in the league, traditionally hovering in the bottom 5 of the league. Do you sacrifice potential wins in order to bolster your struggling PK? If the defense quality is better, and your team takes less penalties, then it should theoretically lessen the need for a "PK specialist", versus a blue liner who's better at 5-on-5.

There are those who would claim that Lepistö isn't that good. Sure, he's made a bad play or two, but find me the D-man on the Blackhawks that hasn't made bad plays, and that includes Seabrook and Keith. In fact, you don't have to look back any further than the past three games to gawk in amazement at some truly mindblowing D plays all across the blue line.

Lepistö has only had 1 game (out of his 11 played) with a negative +/- this season. O'Donnell has had 12 games in the red this season alone -that's more than Lepistö has even played - and Steve Montador has had 15. Lepistö's only one was the November game against Calgary (a 5-2 loss). Remember the infamous November 16th blowout loss against the Vancouver Canucks? Lepistö was a +2, and wasn't on the ice for any of the goals against. (Lepistö had 1:33 of PK time in that game.) Surprisingly, playing 16:40 in that game - and playing well - translated to getting just 12:21 in his next game, also against Vancouver.

In writing this piece, I went over the Blackhawks' defensive CORSI stats for this season in conjunction with fellow TCL writer Matt Bernot, and what you see might surprise you. Again, it must be noticed that with just 11 games played, Lepistö's sample is not nearly as complete as it would be preferred to be, but it at least helps give indicators.

The stats reflected in this chart are for 5 vs 5 play.

Let's discuss the obvious points first. We already know that Niklas Hjalmarsson is a shot-blocking machine, for example, but it's worth noting that he also has the best improvement of moving the puck from the defensive to offensive zone (offensive zone starts vs offensive zone finishes). His QoC (quality of competition) numbers also indicate that he's playing against mostly second-line players, and doing a pretty good job of shutting them down. When he's on the ice, there's not a lot of shots getting through, and what shots there are, are poor quality. Hjalmarsson is a better defensive d-man than he has been getting credit for this season.

At the other end of the spectrum is John Scott, who has so far logged twice as many games as Lepistö, plays only 63% as many minutes, and spends too much time in the penalty box. In addition to all of that, he has the worst offensive zone finish/start difference, which indicates that when he's on the ice, the puck is frequently moving in the wrong direction. To top that all off, he is playing against the worst players on the other team (QoC) and doing quite poorly against them (rel QoC); and he's playing with the lowest level quality of the Blackhawks players - and making them worse. (Note that the only player doing as bad or worse in overall CORSI is Steve Montador; which makes the remaining years on his contract look bad.)

In short: no matter how much Coach Quenneville or his teammates like him or "feel reassured" when he is on the ice, John Scott should never be dressed for a game over Sami Lepistö again. In fact, as the team heads down the home stretch and every single point counts as teams jostle for position, Scott should not dress again this season. Hockey isn't a game for being nice; hockey is about winning.

Here's where Lepistö's numbers get really interesting. When playing for Phoenix, based on his CORSI numbers, Lepistö was a very good puck controller vs 3rd and 4th line opponents. In his first full year with Phoenix, he played top minutes against 3rd line opponents - and played very well. In Chicago, his numbers would thus far indicate that he's playing against a mix of 3rd and 4th line guys (mostly 3rd), and the positive QoT/rel QoT relationship indicates his strength in puck posession/movement.

In Chicago, based on CORSI indicators, Lepistö is not only sharing the ice with some of the top talent on the team (QoT), but he's also helping improve their play - despite offensive zone start/finishes that indicate a certain amount of turnover. Additionally, he's out against a mix of third/fourth line players, and he's doing an effective job against them. Compare him to Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell, both of whom are playing against mostly 3rd-liners and not containing them well. (QoC vs rel QoC) Looking back to his playoff stats in Phoenix, his CORSI there indicates he spent a lot of time playing top minutes against top line players, and not only that but he was quite effective against them.

Based on an overview of his historical stats and CORSI, Lepistö is exactly the kind of D-man that Chicago loves: a puck-moving defenseman. In fact, his numbers would indicate he's a "poor man's Brian Campbell", as Bernot dubbed him. The skills he's displayed, and his ability to move the puck, lean towards the suggestion is that he is the kind of defenseman that would actually be a good addition to the power play. He's willing to shoot -- he has half as many SOG in a third as many games as O'Donnell; on his previous teams, the majority of his points were assists.

Aside from his short stint with Columbus last season - on a team that was already past hope and well out of the playoff picture - his teams win the majority of the time that he is on the ice. Examining his track record also indicates that he's helping teams win games in overtime.

Most importantly, Lepistö is capable of chewing up a large volume of TOI, averaging a little over 18 minutes of TOI over the past three seasons. Why he cotinues to sit in the press box while Scott has dressed for twice as many games is downright baffling.

There's also one other thing that the Chicago coaches may want to consider for the weeks ahead: Lepistö's record against some of the teams that the Blackhawks have to play the most. His career records across four teams indicate that he's very good against the Predators, Wild and Ducks - teams that Chicago will face 6 times out of their final 28 games. He also has a winning % against the Stars and Blues, and whom Chicago will also face a total of six times.

The Blackhawks have been searching for a serviceable defenseman. But they've had one gathering dust in the press box for most of the season.

It's said that "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Coach Quenneville has no problem putting his forward lines through the blender with great regularity, but the defensive pairings are nearly set in stone. Last season, when Keith/Seabrook went stagnant - as they are currently sliding into - the pair was split, as was Hjalmarsson/Leddy. Currently, Chicago's defense isn't getting the job done. Too many shots are getting through, and neither goalie has proven a hardcore ability to clean up the defensive messes.

The Blackhawks' blue line needs a major shakeup, and it should start with putting Lepistö into games starting immediately.

 

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My thanks to fellow TCL writer Matt Bernot for his assistance with CORSI analysis.

9 Comments

Matt Bernot's picture

As we discussed while putting the charts together last night.

Sami Lepisto is a good offensive D-man, capable of generating shots/scoring chances. I looked over some other numbers and came up with 2 possible reasons

http://www.nhl.com/ice/playerstats.htm?fetchKey=20122CHIDADALL&sort=miss...

I looked up the defense in terms of missed shots. Lepisto doesn't miss many shots, nor get many shots on net which means, the only way for him to have such a positive Corsi rating without getting shots on net is through the use of blocked shot attempts.

Lepisto's attempts, by result, have to be blocked, which means he selects poor times to shoot the puck. This is probably because he's not given enough playing time to get comfortable with selecting top quality shots since his shot totals in Phoenix/Columbus are more normal.

The other possibility, the Hawks forwards are terrible at winning puck battles for rebounds, this allows the opposing defense to clear the zone which kills Lepisto's Zone Finish ratio.

Basically, the Hawks lack Dustin Byfuglien in front to win those puck battles, and whomever is there now isn't as good as Byfuglien at doing this.

To be honest, someone with more experience watching the Hawks this season can answer this better than I can as I've only watched 2 or 3 Hawks games this season

Hockeybroad's picture

For much of the season, Chicago has made a lot of "one and done" shots. Players get breakaways and then don't wait to see if there's a rebound, for example. Or they throw a shot up - Blackhawks are notorious for long blasts - and nobody is at the net to scoop up the rebounds or at least attempt to look for them.

Jimmy Hayes was providing that "Byfuglien presence", and for a while there, we started to see an improvement of players camping around the net. Then he got sent back down and *poof* went net presence again. It's maddening.

Mark Bloom's picture

Nice job on this, and totally agree. I'm afraid Lepisto has been sitting so long though that he'll have about as much rhythm with the team as Morrison. But they should get him in there now to get it going. The thing with Scott that's really frustrating (besides his poor play) is that Q trusts him to start, but doesn't trust him to play deep into a game (and why would he...but isn't that the answer, then? As in, don't play him?). Anyway, with Scott's minutes so low, everyone else has to pick up more minutes. As a result, we're probably going to see Keith and Seabrook slip even a little more as they log more and more. Combine that with Leddy getting fewer minutes now as he struggles a bit and aren't we basically looking at just 4 D men shouldering the bulk of the load? That doesn't translate into a deep playoff run, I don't think.

Matt Cefalu's picture

Agreed. It's absolutely infuriating to me that Q continually insists on dressing Scott, then only playing him for 4 min a night, or whatever it is. You're right - its way too taxing on Keith/Seabrook and forces Hjalmarsson to hold Leddy's hand through any and all adversity night after night. I think throwing Lepisto into the mix immediately relieves some of the pressure on the D-corps and since it seems like trading for an upgrade on D isn't all that likely at this point, what other options are there?

Hockeybroad's picture

Lepisto has been with the team all season; vs Morrison who's been brought in late. It would be a rare player indeed to come in late in the season and have instant chemistry - unfortunately, many fans think there's a "savior player" out there. There isn't; but the coaching staff is not doing the best with the tools that are right in front of them.

Lepisto is not a Seabrook clone, which is what the Blackhawks really need. But then again, he doesn't poop the bed when he's out on the ice, either, so what's more important: having a guy who can eat 15-18 minutes of TOI (thus lessening the workload on Keith/Seabrook) or having a guy play 5 minutes early in the game because he's "liked" around the locker room?

Mark Bloom's picture

Agree, Cheryl. I know it's not Morrison's fault that he's not melding quickly. He's new, so I expected that. I was saying more that Lepisto has been persona non gratis for so long, it's almost like he will be new to the team. Q needs to let him get some rhythm out there.

Matt Cefalu's picture

Great piece. I am all for getting Lepisto more playing time. I certainly think he's an upgrade over Scott (no question) and O'Donnell at this point. At his age, OD's play begins to struggle if he plays too much over the latter half of the season. Though its true Lepisto isn't as experienced as someone like OD, the fact that he's 27 years old is enough of an indication that he has the maturity to adapt to the Hawks system before the post season, especially since its obvious he has offensive upside when you look at his career stats to date.

George Prax's picture

I just wanted to say that these charts are mesmerizing to me. Great job! That said, even with Lepisto in the press box, I'd still like to suggest you trade for Campoli or Hal Gill from the Habs Wink

charlesofcamden's picture

The quote that jumped out at me was that the team "feels reassured" with Scott on the ice? Really? You want to know what REALLY makes a team "feel reassured"? Winning. Focus on that, guys.