Advanced Stats: Ease Up On MDZ

With the hubbub surrounding the Marc Staal and Michael Sauer injuries, more focus is directed on the play of the team’s healthy defenders. If the Blueshirts hope to make a mark this year and in the postseason they’ll need steady play from their blue line crew.

Rangers’ fans can remain confident with Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh while Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka offer the benefit of experience. Of course the later pair is best suited as third-pair defensemen. Tim Erixon is what he is; a 20 year-old rookie with upside but one who is bound to make mistakes. If anyone in that group is going to step up and bridge the gap, I just don’t see it.

That leaves 21 year-old Michael Del Zotto. Del Zotto burst onto the scene as a 19 year-old rookie two seasons ago. He finished his freshman campaign with nine goals and 38 points including 22 on the power play. For a kid so young to produce so much on offense, it looked like the sky was the limit for the guy Rangers fans like to refer to as MDZ.

Unfortunately MDZ stumbled severely last year. He posted just 11 points in 47 games and was eventually sent down to the Rangers AHL affiliate in Hartford. If anyone has the ability to step up their play to help offset the loss of the Rangers’ best defenseman, it appears MDZ is the best candidate.

After last season, Rangers fans are understandably hesitant to rely on MDZ. I’ve read many, many comments from fans who believe the Rangers should trade the young defenseman while he still may have value and before he’s passed on the depth chart by guys like Dylan McIlrath or even Pavel Valentenko. But it’s way, way too early to give up on MDZ.

Any rational hockey observer will tell you the development of a defenseman is not a linear process. That means there are plenty of ups and downs along the way. They would also say defense is the toughest position in the game for a young player to master. There is a lot of responsibility entrusted to blue liners and it is difficult for inexperienced players to step right in and play at a high level.

To prove this point I analyzed the performances of the last 10 Norris Trophy winners (Nicklas Lidstrom, Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Rob Blake, Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Paul Coffey) during their age 20 to 25 seasons using Hockey Prospectus’ GVT metric. That coincides with MDZ’s performance and age last season and shows how some of the best defensemen in the NHL have progressed from that same point in their respective careers.

Player

GVT at Age 20

GVT at Age 21

GVT at Age 22

GVT at Age 23

GVT at Age 24

GVT at Age 25

Lidstrom

0.0

15.4

6.6

14.7

12.1

21.4

Keith

0.0

0.0

4.8

6.6

13.1

14.5

Chara

0.2

2.8

-1.0

0.5

12.3

15.7

Niedermayer

11.1

10.4

10.4

8.8

17.6

15.7

Pronger

3.8

4.2

12.7

18.8

17.3

26.0

MacInnis

7.0

11.3

14.3

18.9

18.0

18.1

Blake

-0.1

8.1

0.4

10.5

11.8

1.1

Leetch

15.3

9.8

17.6

23.5

5.6

22.6

Chelios

0.0

0.2

16.5

7.8

10.6

14.9

Coffey

17.5

20.9

27.6

28.5

31.1

13.7

Total:

54.8

83.1

109.9

138.6

149.5

163.7

% Increase:

-

51.6%

32.3%

26.1%

7.9%

9.

Even though we say the progression of an individual defenseman is not linear the table and charts shows that when considering a group of blue liners they do progress in a linear fashion. Only one of the ten Norris Trophy winners, Coffey, posted a lower GVT in his age 25 season than he did at age 20 but that’s due to Coffey missing more than 20 games in 1986-1987. Prior to that season, Coffey’s GVT had increased each year.

Understand several of the above defensemen either saw limited NHL action or none in their age 20 and 21 seasons. However that doesn’t diminish the point that the table and charts demonstrate defensemen show marked improvement in their performances as they reach their mid-20’s.

None of this is to say MDZ will one day win a Norris trophy or two. What it does say is maybe it’s a little too early for Rangers’ fans to give up on a talented young player given this evidence. Perhaps if patience is exercised the Rangers will be rewarded by MDZ achieving a career arc similar to the ones above.




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