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The League of Extraordinary Statisticians: The Defensive Forward

(Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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The League of Extraordinary Statisticians (LOES) is a weekly forum bringing together the top analytical minds in the hockey world to answer a variety of questions that straddle the line between stats analysis and something you might hear floating around section 304. They have agreed to answer these questions in a few paragraphs or less, and with minimal formulae. Because this is a forum, we'd encourage you to use the comments section to answer the questions yourselves, or to discuss or debate the answers given.

The LOES is not meant to represent the entire of the hockey stats community. There are a number of people that either were too busy or too difficult to contact for the purposes of the forum.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for the "defensive forward." Though the definition of what a defensive forward is is somewhat arbitrary, there is still a sense that she/he is important, an integral part of any team, and a person that is often quickly identified by fans, coaches, and teammates alike when a team is thinking of who is deserving of their "unsung hero" awards. Though I won't toss in my two cents on what the defensive forward is, I will say that the people who have spent a lot of time appreciating defensive forwards are some of the same people who know the value of a takeaway, a faceoff won, or the ability to reduce shots against when the opposition's best players are on the ice.

...and so we put it to the LOES to give us an idea of what they think defines a defensive forward. Or, as I put it to them: How do you define a "defensive forward" in today's NHL?

There's a difference between "defensive forward" and "two-way" forward. Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Richards, and Ryan Kesler are two-way forwards, but strict "defensive forwards" would be those who get tough zone starts against tough competition, and don't give up a lot of goals. It's really quite simple.

I'm sure a lot of people will want blocked shots, faceoff wins, and hits. Sure, those are nice. But the three most important should be those guys who are called on to stop the other team's best when starting in the defensive zone. This year, that has to include Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol, and Sammy Pahlsson.

- Geoff Detweiler, Broad Street Hockey

Any forward who limits opposition scoring, regardless of how he does it and whether or not it's his prime duty - and also taking quality of competition into account. So Parise and Datsyuk qualify as defensive forwards even though they're also offensive forwards.

Defensive forwards:
- Are used against top competition
- Allow fewer shots/scoring chances/goals than expected
- Don't take too many penalties in exchange
- Do this in any number of ways, not necessarily with hits, blocked shots and takeaways.
- Kill penalties
- Play in the final minutes of tie games or games with 1-goal leads
- Aren't protected from defensive zone starts

- Rob Vollman, Hockey Prospectus

Editor's Note: Rob has actually explored this question even deeper in his analysis on defensive contributions, which you can access here.

A forward whose primary focus is preventing goals.

- Chris Boersma, Hockey Numbers

My definition of a defensive forward is one who can be trusted when your team is not likely to have the puck. In practice, this means defensive zone faceoffs, quality opposition and penalty-killing. Obviously, scoring ability makes a defensive forward more useful because you can give him even more ice time; this is why the prototypical defensive forwards in the NHL are guys like Ryan Kesler and Mikko Koivu, who can also put the puck in the net but play the defensive game to perfection. There are others, like Jay McClement , who are pure shutdown guys with no offensive ability.

If you want an easy proxy for a good "defensive forward", take his even-strength ice time and add his short-handed ice time (preferably time 1.25 to compensate for the fact that there are only 4 players on the ice). The leaders in this category this season are Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, because the Ducks take so many penalties, although the next 4, Anze Kopitar, Travis Zajac, Jonathan Toews and McClement, fit the stereotype better. Two of these guys, Zajac and Toews, are great at faceoffs, another useful weapon in the defensive forward's arsenal.

- Tom Awad, Hockey Prospectus

A defensive forward is somebody who plays against the opposition's top scorers (high calibre of opposition), spends significant time killing penalties and is among his team's leaders when ranked by defensive zone starts - offensive ones. By that definition, Pavel Datsyuk is not much of a defensive forward, since he isn't much of a penalty-killer, so the Selke Trophy was decided incorrectly last year. His penalty-killing time has been in decline over the past couple years; his first Selke was deserved.

- Greg Ballentine, The Puck Stops Here at Kukla's Korner

I guess it depends on what you want from that forward; do you want a guy who's good in his own end, or a guy who prevents shots/chances/goals-against (because the two are not always interchangeable)? A forward who keeps continuous puck possession in the opposing end will, in turn, lower the amount of time the puck is in his end. A good offensive forward can provide defensive production, but if a defensive forward can't keep the puck past center ice he may end up being on for more shots than the offensively-gifted forward. So in my opinion a good "defensive forward" is one who keeps shots-against low and not tracking exactly how he does it because the only times it would really matter to have a good defensive-end forward is for high-leverage defensive-zone draws.

- Corey Pronman, Hockey Prospectus

As you might notice, we have an interesting couple of ideas speaking to each other; one includes the Keslers with the Malhotras, while the other sees the value of keeping them in separate categories. Part of this is simply due to semantics: can (or should) a defensive forward have a large volume of shots (read: 2.5+ per 60m) on goal? Now re-phrase the question, as Geoff suggests, to read: should a two-way forward have a large volume of shots on goal? Should a one-way (in a defensive manner) forward? Both players will have some of the same assignments on the ice, but one will receive more minutes and power-play opportunities. I think we can all agree that a two-way forward is a valuable thing, but not every team will have one as skilled as Kesler or Jonathan Toews; that's where a player like Malhotra or Samuel Pahlsson might come in.

One thing that I want to stress is that it is not sufficient to identify a defensive forward as a forward with a high +/-; in fact, this might cause you to overlook a defensive forward with a low +/- who has actually been doing a good job. With some of the suggestions above, you can see that there are special metrics to help us sort this out, including "quality of competition" (please also see this article), "zone starts", Tom Awad's "defensive GVT", and "Corsi numbers" (often the metric consulted when trying to determine shots-against numbers for players).* The difficulty in defining defensive forwards is reflected in the amount of work these statisticians have done to look beyond the "eye-test" and basic statistics.

For discussion, I think it still stands to be debated whether "defensive forward" is the correct designation for an entire group including Kesler and Pahlsson, or whether we should stick to "defensive forward" for the Pahlssons and "two-way forward" for the Keslers. Greg also points out the importance of recognizing that a player's effectiveness and role might change, and a Selke-winner by reputation (such as Datsyuk) might not even be a good two-way forward forever. Is Greg fair in suggesting that Datsyuk's lowered PK time is an indicator that maybe his defensive accolades are undeserved now? Also worth perhaps noticed that hits, in particular, were not emphasized as a necessary part of being a defensive forward. The question: is physicality necessary for a defensive forward, is it a matter of "fitting" the player's abilities (and, in some cases, body size), or does it gain little? Might it even be detrimental positionally?

* Many of these metrics are viewable at