The first day of Summer is technically June 21st. Also, the weather yesterday made me wonder if it was a Green Bay Packers bye week. That all said, I want to get the ‘Summer Ramblings’ column back up and running right with the start of the month of June.
For those who are new readers to the Roundtable this was a weekly column I started up last season as a means to keep the hockey discussion moving along throughout the off-season. I’ll be posting every Monday on any various topic that comes to mind (there is a reason I call it ramblings). Along the way I hope to discuss bits and pieces from the last season but -best of all- the build process going into the next season. It’s a way to keep thinking and discussing Nashville Predators/Milwaukee Admirals/Cincinnati Cyclones while re-signings, the 2015 NHL Draft, and free agent frenzy are off in the distance.
What better topic to start up with than the Admirals defense? Well, the goaltending sure but I’ve beaten that topic to death (I’ve talked with someone who looked like Dana White about having Juuse Saros vs. Magnus Hellberg at UFC 189 for their spot in Milwaukee – I’m trying to make it happen as a Middleweight bout – Hellberg has the reach and, more importantly, previous fight experience… I digress).
In all seriousness, away from the goaltending, I feel the defensive aspect of the Admirals was an issue last season that needs solving going into the 2015-16 season. It wasn’t entirely about the players performance on defense but having the appropriate personnel for the system.
Thomas Willis had a great write up on the Admirals adapting to the new philosophies that Peter Laviolette was trying to implement up in Nashville. His approach to the game is aggressive and attacking which is highlighted by the defense jumping up into the action. The Predators defensive nucleus is quite possibly the strongest, top to bottom, in the entire NHL. While that system can work with the Predators it wasn’t something that necessarily translated for the Admirals last season.
“Halfway through the season, we did flip a few things because we realized we didn’t have the same defensive corps as the Nashville Predators,” Dean Evason said. “That’s a huge strong point for their hockey club and it wasn’t so much for us. We had a lot of young people on our backend, so we had to tweak the new system a bit – not so much to protect them – but to put them into a position to succeed. We weren’t as quite as aggressive as Nashville was with their defense getting up into the neutral zone and beyond.”
Did the coaching staff put the defense in a position to succeed? Perhaps a more interesting question is whether or not altering the defensive approach to Laviolette’s system while the forwards continue on in that system breaks the system entirely. Evason was certainly in the right to change-up the attacking approach of the defensemen with the personnel but, if that changes, the system itself is wounded at best.
This change in philosophy to how defensemen act on the ice means giving the personnel itself a huge re-think. There needs to be better all-around skaters on the blue line that are capable of leaping up into the rush and being able to recover defensively at good pace. Is that Joe Piskula, Johan Alm, or Jonathan Diaby? Nope. If anything I think defensemen like Garrett Noonan or Jimmy Oligny have that skating ability that allows for Laviolette’s system to run its course. With that exact thought in mind it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Predators went out of their way to bring in a smooth skating offensive minded defenseman such as Kristian Näkyvä. Unless he makes the Predators roster out of camp (unlikely) he should be a big addition to the Admirals next season. Why? Let’s look at some numbers.
The AHL’s website goes as far back as the 2005-06 season for team-by-team statistics (regular season only). Let’s use that as the baseline to see how season-by-season Admirals defensemen have produced offensively:
171 points (43 goals, 128 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Kevin Klein, 42 points (10 goals, 32 assists)
151 points (37 goals, 114 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Sheldon Brookbank, 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists)
159 points (45 goals, 114 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Janne Niskala, 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists)
173 points (36 goals, 137 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Cody Franson, 52 points (11 goals, 41 assists)
180 points (41 goals, 139 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Robert Dietrich, 43 points (6 goals, 37 assists)
189 points (45 goals, 144 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Roman Josi, 40 points (6 goals, 34 assists)
142 points (28 goals, 114 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Victor Bartley, 39 points (9 goals, 30 assists)
135 points (38 goals, 97 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Mattias Ekholm, 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists)
140 points (32 goals, 108 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Anthony Bitetto, 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists)
127 points (16 goals, 111 assists)
Top Scoring Defenseman: Taylor Aronson, 32 points (3 goals, 29 assists)
I know that there are plenty of factors to this but the drop off in offensive production from the Admirals blue line is staggering. In some ways I wonder how much of that comes down to the evolution of the game itself. While there are other factors when it comes to scoring, looking at you forwards, I think the numbers the last four seasons show a big down turn in offensive ability – with the exclamation point coming this most recent campaign.
What should be done to help the defense contribute to offense? Is the downturn in offense from the defense a reflection of the game changing or of Nashville drafting and developing poorly?