A thought occurred to me a while back: does it make sense to consider defencemen "defencemen" anymore? Granted, they do take on a lot of defensive responsibility, and a number of them do it well. But we are in a time when the NHL has a wealth of elite skill at all positions, and a significant chunk of its audience holds a lot of stock in #fancystats. This is a modern NHL, and yet a term is commonplace all over the NHL and its sphere of influence that pigeonholes a large subset of players into the role and skillset that gave the position its name before the NHL itself even existed. It paints a bias on coaching and analysis, and creates what I find to be a major semantics issue as well.
I'll start by tackling the latter, the semantics issue. The word "defence" carries a lot of different meanings in the context of the NHL. It can be used in the sense of the actual position "defenceman", rather obviously. It can be used in the sense of "defensive depth" to describe how many defencemen a team has and how many quality players the team has at that position. There are "defensive prospects", players drafted at the defenceman position. It can be used to refer to a team's defensive system (a la trap defence), or an individual player's defensive ability. But there are issues with this. If you draft a defenceman known for lights out point production, but who has noticeable holes in his defensive game, what word do you use to describe him? Technically, he's a defensive prospect because he plays the defenceman position, but on the other hand, he's not a defensive prospect because he's not a defensive player. Now imagine a player who fits the above description, like the Washington Capitals' Mike Green, Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson, or the Columbus Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson, is signed or acquired by another team. You can very well expect someone to report that the team in question is adding to its defensive depth, but the same with my hypothetical prospect example, it's not really giving the team any defensive depth, because none of those examples given are fully effective on the defensive side, and all of them are, or have been, top producers offensively. And defensive prospect/depth doesn't end at ill-defining a subset of players, but also leaves out another subset entirely. Say a team adds a player like the Pittsburgh Penguins' Brandon Sutter in the draft. He'll be described as a forward prospect, but not as a defensive prospect. If he plays like Sutter, than he's probably not a lights out scorer, but leans more towards a shut-down style, so why not define him as defensive? Imagine a team adds a player like Sutter or the Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards. They'll be described as adding to a team's forward depth, but not to their defensive depth, because even though they're defensive, they're not defencemen. This side of it is important to mention, because you hear about defensive or forward depth/prospects, but not much about specifically offensive depth/prospects. The commonly-used nomenclature has forward and defence as mutually-exclusive, and forward and offence as synonymous with each other. Not too long ago, I read a quote that's come up quite a bit when talking about analytics. It's from current Arizona Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett, and I'm almost willing to bet you've read or heard it too:
"We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen [sic]. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.
"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."
If that second defenceman, the one who "...couldn't defend a lick" was the one Tippett found to be the more valuable of the two, perhaps people shouldn't be using the word "defenceman", which explicitly suggests a defensive leaning, to describe players of his ilk.
Now for the meat of my premise: bias. Alex Ovechkin is widely-accepted to be a one-trick pony. He scores goals like it's going out of style, but very frequently shuns his defensive assignments. There has been humourous .GIFs made equating his defensive play with an XBox controller getting unplugged. And yet, while you will see some criticism of this aspect of Ovechkin, he is ultimately given quite a bit of leeway because he's such an outstanding sniper. Contrast that with Erik Karlsson of the Senators, who as you all may know, scored 78 points in 2011/12 and won the Norris Trophy. Looking at him, with his sleek build and slick suit with the trophy won by the likes of Rod Langway and Ray Bourque, people mentioned how other d-men like the St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo deserved it more, even though the next highest scoring defenceman was 25(!) points behind. Incidently, that second-place guy is Winnipeg's own Dustin Byfuglien. Despite the analytics crowd time and again throwing up charts, graphs, and numbers clearly painting Big Buff as a defenceman who, for all his lapses, is an standout scorer, possession man, and is actually better at it all from his preferred place on the point than at the forward position he occupied when his Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, he was moved, permanently I might add, back to that position just before the Winnipeg Jets' mid-season coaching change. Meanwhile, the Jets' Mark Stuart is revered as one of the Jets' best defencemen, despite analytics suggesting otherwise, because he plays more "responsibly", even though Byfuglien is far better as a player and as a defenceman than Stuart. This highlights my main beef with the term defenceman. Karlsson was one of the most dominant defencemen of the season, blowing the established upper echelon out of the water with his skill, and was decried as undeserving because it apparently didn't make up for too-frequent risk taking and not-frequent-enough risk aversion. Byfuglien plainly prefers the blueline, and is quite a bit better at it, but is moved to forward because he roves too much. These players are judged negatively, and even punished, for playing beyond the bounds of their traditional office. And yet you never see this with forwards. It's not just Ovechkin getting a pass for his lazy defence, but Mike Richards still being viewed as a quality defensive forward despite the decline of his once-great scoring ability. Why? Because forward and offence aren't actually the same thing. And since Bobby Orr, defenceman and defence are just as identical. It's simply stupid to suggest that a player should stop playing the way he plays best. In exceptional circumstances where it helps the team, like Steve Yzerman toning down his production in favour of responsible defensive play, resulting in three Stanley Cups, 20 years as captain, and a postseason appearance streak that lasts well after his retirement, I can let it slide. There is no justifying, however, forcing a player to stop doing what he does best because his title says he does something else better.
My revolutionary idea, dismissed as "asinine" by the select few with which I've shared it, is in actuality a modest one. Stop calling defencemen "defencemen" and start using a more neutral term. Soccer calls their defenders "fullbacks". "The point", the offensive zone blueline that d-men gravitate towards on power plays, gets its name from the word used to describe one of the on-ice defencemen before the current term came into use. "Blueliner", a popular synonym that refers to the blue line that defencemen start neutral zone faceoffs on, and the above-mentioned point, is heard almost as much as "defenceman". What makes any of these terms an improvement? They describe a distinct position (because they are different from forwards), without presuming the role, abilities, and style of play of the players it defines. With "defenceman", they are described and analyzed by the fans watching them, the bloggers and TV hosts breaking down their strengths and weaknesses, the coaches sending them on the ice for a shift, and the GMs offering them a paycheck, by how much they deviate from what they're supposed to be doing, that is, defending because it's their title. My theory is that with the selection of alternate terms I propose to replace "defenceman" as the official term, those fans, bloggers, TV hosts, coaches, and managers can look at them based on what the player does well, and how well he does it. I want the same standards to apply to blueliners as they do to for
wards, whose title doesn't label them as specifically scorers or specifically defenders. It's not to absolve players of their defensive lapses, but to simply remove the double standards surrounding them.
So there's my big idea. Drop a comment if you've got an opinion or a different term to use. I fully expect people to disagree with me, but I hope you will at least appreciate the thought I've put into the idea before dismissing it entirely.
P.S. Thank you for reading and providing feedback, and thank you to SBNation/Arctic Ice Hockey for the fanposts feature.