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