Hockey is won in the trenches, everyone knows that. The 'trenches' in hockey are the tough areas - at the blueline, along the boards, right out in front of the net. You want a guy - forget that, you want a MAN - who can protect these areas and makes sure that any opposing forward who arrives in them pays a price. So you get a defensive defenseman, a man who makes life hard on the other team for 19 or 20 minutes a night, a man who'll stop pucks with his face and handles the puck like he's handling it with his face. Off the glass and out. Along the way he'll take some penalties, and along the way he'll score a goal or two a season, maybe four or five if it's a lucky year, and his teammates will mob him with joyous and somewhat dubious smiles.
The stats community has come to the conclusion that this sort of defenseman, besides when he is exceptional, usually doesn't help a team. In fact, if your team has one of these guys and you are reading this blog, he is probably the guy you can't stand. His errors lead to goals, and his positive contributions are impossible to measure. His Corsi is usually bad, perhaps the worst on the team, and you think to yourself, 'If we could only get rid of this guy, we'd have a better squad'. Well, have no fear. My contention is that the game is aging these sorts of players out. It's happening slowly. General managers still love them and sign them for way too many years, but that's going to have to come to an end soon, I think, because I'm not sure where these guys are going to come from in the future. There's a lot of guys wandering around 3rd pairings with these sorts of skill sets, but I don't see how many of them make the jump.
To test this contention, I used hockey-reference's amazing Season Finder feature to look up these players' careers. Now, I think it's quite difficult to pinpoint what these players are - it's sort of what Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it. I used 4 criteria for my initial set of players:
A: More than 500 NHL games played
B: No greater than .25 points per game for his career
C: Penalty Minutes .75 per game or above for his career
D: Must've been a top 4 defenseman for multiple seasons (roughly 19-20 minutes per game)
Through an exhaustive search, I found these defensemen who fit those criteria above:
Bryan Allen, Mike Komisarek, Andrew Ference, Robyn Regehr, Willie Mitchell, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Hal Gill, Brooks Orpik, Barret Jackman, Cory Sarich, Ladislav Smid, Tim Gleason, Rostislav Klesla
These players collectively average .19 points per game (so approximately 16 points per 82 games) and .98 PIMs per season, or 80 penalty minutes.
I generated a second set of players for whom these things are mostly true and added a new criterion that could also be fuzzy, namely E: Usually loathed by his Corsiati fanbase and generated these players who also fit the profile, although most of them either were too good early on or were always back-pairing D:
Chris Phillips, Doug Murray, Nicklas Grossmann, Matt Greene, Mark Stuart, Scott Hannan, Jan Hejda, Eric Brewer, John Erskine, Andrew Alberts, Brad Stuart
One thing the above list reveals is a staggering number of 1st round picks. Allen, Komisarek, Regehr, Volchenkov, Orpik, Jackman, Gleason, and Klesla were all taken in the first round. From our second list, Hannan, Brewer, Stuart, and Phillips were also first round selections. Was this still the Lindros bogeyman hovering over the league? If you recall, when Eric Lindros showed up in the league, every team was terrified of him and needed to get enormous defensemen who could handle defense against him and the huge forwards that would surely come after. And indeed, most of these guys were drafted in the days when obstruction was still a perfectly cromulent form of defense, and cross-checking at the front of the net was expected. Has that alteration in junior hockey changed the way some of these players might've developed?
I feel that these players fall into three categories - Degraded 'Two-Way' Defensemen, Eternal Defensive D, and The Rest.
First Category: Degraded 'Two-Way' Defenseman
A player like Brad Stuart started out his career with offense. He was supposed to be the next Scott Stevens when he was drafted. He came into the league and put up 36 points in his first season. He had .55 points per game in the 2005-06 season. But if you look at Stuart's last five seasons, he's fallen under the .25 points per game threshold. We see this with Eric Brewer and Chris Phillips too - they were once over the .25 points per game threshold but fell below it in recent seasons. Paul Mara is another example of a guy whose offense simply died in his late 20s and he became a third pairing physical guy. I lack the ability to sift through career arcs, but my suspicion would be that a lot of these guys had really good shots and weren't horrible with the puck in the offensive zone and so received PP time early in their careers, but that once their puck skills diminished or it was revealed they were no good at offense, they were taken out of any offensive role.
Players that fit in this category now: Braydon Coburn, Kyle Quincey, with Dmitri Kulikov and Zach Bogosian being longshots.
Second Category: Born Defensive D
These are players who were drafted high because they were supposed to be good on defense. Their offense didn't develop yet. Maybe it never will.
Players that fit this category now: Erik Gudbranson, Luke Schenn, Jared Cowen, perhaps Dylan McIlrath, perhaps Griffin Reinhart, perhaps Matthew Dumba.
Third category: The Rest
Here are the defensemen 28 or under who fit the criteria this year: Brenden Dillon, Clayton Stoner, Mark Fraser, Robert Bortuzzo, Mike Weber, Roman Polak, Dmitri Kulikov, Eric Gryba, Nate Prosser, Zach Bogosian, Brett Bellemore, Dalton Prout. Which of these players will become top 4 D? Kulikov and Bogosian have had better offensive seasons, but they may become Degraded Two-Way guys. Stoner, Bortuzzo, Fraser, Weber, Gryba, Prosser, Bellemore, and Prout are all 3rd pairing guys or 7th D at the moment, and it's hard to see any of them graduating to top 4 duty (although Buffalo is so atrocious that Weber could). That leaves Polak, Dillon, and the aformentioned Ladislav Smid to carry the torch. Maybe Gudbranson and Schenn will move into someone's top 4 - certainly Schenn's been there in years past, though it doesn't appear that he is improving at hockey. It sure feels like teams just cannot find these players anymore, and that much like the enforcer who can play a regular shift in the late 90s, this player is slowly disappearing from the NHL - it's just difficult to find a player who is big, skates well, hits well, and is good enough at defensive coverage to play 20 minutes a night (and who doesn't provide offense). His replacement is the Anton Stralman, Mark Fayne sort of player who doesn't hit and doesn't put up much offense but who can defend 1 on 1 without taking penalties and moves the puck adequately out of his own zone. Regardless, just consider this when free agency rolls around the next few years and some of the guys on the first two lists are still being given chances and the non-hitter signs for well below what you'd expect - most of the general managers in the game developed their hockey intellects when obstruction and cross-checking was still du jour, and it's hard for them to wrap their minds around the notion that it's gone.