Great goal scorers get all the glory, but defense wins championships. History demonstrates that shut-down players (SDP) are a key ingredient in the recipe of a Stanley Cup champion. Where would last year’s champions, the Detroit Red Wings, have been without top defensive players like Kris Draper, Dallas Drake, and Daniel Cleary shutting down high-scoring opponents like Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Marian Hossa, keeping the Penguins to just 10 goals in six games? Would the Ducks have won in 2007 without the top defensive line of Travis Moen, Sami Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer shutting down Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators? These SDPs may not always make for exciting hockey, but whichever teams are shutting down their opponents are the ones most likely to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup this June.
Now, SDPs may be easy to spot on the ice, but they're not easy to spot in the box score. Statistically, it's a lot easier to tell if a player is doing well offensively than defensively. When Ryan Getzlaf bags 13 points in eight games, you can see it on the score sheet. It may be easy to see when the goal-scorers or play-makers are doing their jobs, but what do you do about someone like Petteri Nokelainen? His job isn't to score; it's to prevent his opponents from scoring. When an SDP like Nokelainen does his job, he won't show up on the score sheet at all.
These SDPs come in many different forms, both as forwards and defensemen, but the common factor is that they are used to prevent opponents from scoring. They may do it by blocking shots, throwing hits, or threatening to break-out and score themselves, but somehow they keep opponent scoring to a minimum, both at even strength and short-handed, and don't take many penalties to do so. Put simply, all SDPs have three things in common: a low goals-against average at even-strength, while killing penalties, and a low number of penalties taken.
Player Team REG ESGAA SHGAA PEN SDP
Steve Montador Boston 3.87 0.64 0.00 1 0.61
Stephane Yelle Boston 2.55 0.91 0.00 1 0.87
Kevin Bieksa Vancouver 3.36 0.49 2.25 3 1.08
Petteri Nokelainen Anaheim 2.61 0.00 4.49 1 1.19
David Krejci Boston 3.06 1.52 0.00 0 1.22
Drew Miller Anaheim 3.89 0.45 3.99 1 1.23
Jason Chimera Columbus 2.93 1.33 0.00 1 1.28
Nicklas Backstrom Washington 3.04 1.42 0.00 2 1.29
Ryan Getzlaf Anaheim 4.86 1.33 0.00 6 1.38
Josh Gorges Montreal 3.24 1.58 0.00 1 1.39
Michael Peca Columbus 3.95 0.00 6.16 1 1.48
Marian Hossa Detroit 3.13 1.74 0.00 1 1.48
Blake Wheeler Boston 3.78 1.87 0.00 0 1.50
Niclas Wallin Carolina 3.44 1.18 2.77 0 1.50
Rod Brind'Amour Carolina 4.64 1.60 0.00 3 1.53
Matt Bradley Washington 2.33 0.70 5.02 0 1.57
Tim Gleason Carolina 3.57 1.64 0.00 4 1.58
Patrice Bergeron Boston 16.46 1.56 0.00 3 1.62
Daniel Sedin Vancouver 2.28 1.73 0.00 3 1.67
Daniel Cleary Detroit 4.40 0.00 7.91 1 1.67
(Minimum of four games and at least one minute of penalty-killing per game)
REG: Regular-Season SDP, read it like a Goals Against Average
ESGAA: Even-strength Goals Against Average
SHGAA: Short-handed Goals Against Average
PEN: Minor penalties taken
SDP: Adjusting the ESGAA by adding 0.2 even-strength goals
for each minor penalty, then averaging it with SHGAA in a 4-to-1 ratio.
Boston is blessed with five of the top 20 players most effectively shutting down their opponents. Note that an SDP may actually have a poor plus-minus rating, like Stephane Yelle, who is -1 despite allowing only a single goal against while on the ice. The top shut-down player so far is defensemen Steve Montador, who was acquired by Boston in an off-season trade for the fourth player on the list, Anaheim’s Petteri Nokelainen. With this many SDPs, the Bruins may have the right ingredients to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they might face the Anaheim Ducks, who have three of the top 10 SDP. Much has been said about Getzlaf's brilliant offensive play, but he's shutting them down in his own zone, too!
The small sample size may be skewing the results in favor of players who got either hot or lucky for a few games. Fortunately in the playoffs we have an additional advantage over the regular season in identifying the most effective SDP. By finding out which offensive players are being shut down, we can look to the opposing team to find out who has been keeping them quiet. Who has been “shut down” in this year's playoffs? Here is a list of everyone who scored at least 0.75 points per game in the regular season, and came up at least one point short of the same scoring pace in the postseason (adjusting regular season scoring down one-sixth for the overall reduced scoring in the playoffs).
Player Team GP G A PTS DIFF
Jeff Carter Philadelphia 6 1 0 1 -4.1
Pavel Datsyuk Detroit 6 1 2 3 -3.0
Patrik Elias New Jersey 7 1 2 3 -2.9
Mark Recchi Boston 6 0 1 1 -2.8
Teemu Selanne Anaheim 8 2 1 3 -2.5
Mike Cammalleri Calgary 6 1 2 3 -2.1
Mike Green Washington 9 1 5 6 -2.0
Patrick Marleau San Jose 6 2 1 3 -1.7
Jarome Iginla Calgary 6 3 1 4 -1.4
Devin Setoguchi San Jose 6 1 2 3 -1.0
What can we say about this list, other than Datsyuk and Carter must have somehow heard who I picked in the first and second round of my playoff draft this year? Many of these players had an SDP keying in on them throughout the early part of the playoffs, especially at even strength, for none but the last two have more than a single point at even-strength. The speedy young Nokelainen, for example, played no small role in shutting down San Jose Sharks scrorers like Marleau and Setoguchi.
Stanley Cup champions can be made with several different formulas, but SDPs are always a key part of the equation. You may not see a veteran, shot-blocking defensive center like Stephane Yelle, or a fast young neutralizer like Petteri Nokelainen in the box score, but they're as integral a component to their respective teams as their flashy, high-scoring teammates.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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