Terms like “defensive defenseman” or “shutdown defenseman” tend to evoke images of a staunch defender, tough, big, blocks shots, clears the net and is willing to sacrifice for the team. These players tend to be defined as specialists on one side of the puck. Their forte is to defend and they are elite at this skill.
At issue with this type of thought process is the separation of offense and defense in a free-flowing game. It is understandable where these differentiations emerge when we take into account other major sports in North America. In baseball, offense and defense are two separate entities. You can be an elite defender and have zero offensive capabilities because they both exist in a vacuum. One does not blend into the other. Football is the same with very little crossover outside of defensive turnovers that lead to touchdowns. Even basketball has defined offensive/defensive possessions with a 24-second shot clock.
Hockey doesn’t work in the same manner. Outside of special teams, the game operates in a continuous flow. In order to be an effective player, you must excel on both sides of the ice. If you are poor at one aspect, you must overcompensate by being dominant in the other one. Dominant goal-scorers only need to adequately defend in order to maintain a positive differential. At issue is what a dominant defender must be good at in order to make up for a lack of offense. The shutdown defenseman must be so good on the defensive end to offset their lack of offensive production.
It brings me back to the general perception of a shutdown defender. Their elite skill sets consists of blocking shots, clearing the crease and physicality that usually manifests itself in hard hitting. The problem is that these skills are refined when you don’t possess the puck. Players struggle to possess the puck when they can’t carry it or make simple outlet passes that start transition. If you win board battles, but can’t transition to offense under pressure, then you are back to defending.
Defense has been miscast as grunt work, but it is more about taking away time and space. Elite skating is required to allow you to manage tight gaps which prevent easy zone entries and allows defenders to angle skaters to spots they can’t generate offense. These skills are the same type of skills that translate to strong offensive performances that can get a player labeled as “soft” or “poor” defender.
Coaches and fans tend to punish those who take offensive risks because we remember the failed attempts, not the majority of successful ones. It is how P.K. Subban ended up on the bench for Team Canada at the 2014 Olympics even though he was the reigning Norris Trophy winner.
A player like Keith Yandle is flayed for these mistakes even though when we look at the big picture, his offensive contributions leave him at a positive differential. Those who aren’t in the defensive zone aren’t required to defend to the same extent as those who are.
While Yandle may be viewed as a defensive liability due to his offensive instincts, he is the only Rangers defenseman who has a positive expected goal differential through the first 20 games. The Rangers limit his exposure to the type of minutes that Ryan McDonagh plays, but he has consistently abused lower pairings while with the Rangers and has maintained a positive possession rating for the majority of the last 5-to-6 seasons even when used in more difficult scenarios when he was with the Coyotes.
Yandle consistently pushes the play in the right direction and doesn’t need to be an elite defender because of his offensive skillset.
A paradigm shift is required to push us away from defining how a player defends to how much he needs to defend and from defining a player without offensive skills as a stay-at-home shutdown defenseman to just a poor defenseman.
Keith Yandle is not a poor defenseman. He is a very good one.