On February 3rd the Red Wings were forced to make a decision regarding their glut of young-ish defensemen. Brendan Smith was set to return from Injured Reserve and one of Alexey Marchenko, Nick Jensen, Xavier Ouellet or Ryan Sproul would need to be moved. Given the strong play of Ouellet and Jensen, coupled with the fact that Marchenko hadn’t seen the ice in nearly two weeks, it was pretty clear that he or Sproul would be stuck as the odd man out. As you probably have heard, the Wings waived Marchenko who was then scooped up by the Leafs. Go figure.
So what exactly did Ken Holland give away for free in Marchenko? And what does this mean for our beleaguered blueline moving forward? Let’s be clear; the Wings’ poor roster management made such a loss inevitable. No GM was going to offer up even a late-round pick for someone like Marchenko or Ouellet when they knew they’d have a shot at picking them up for free at some point. But why was it Marchenko who was given away? Nick Jensen’s passed through waivers two years in a row – who’s to say 19 NHL games would change that? Ryan Sproul’s been riding the bench for a while, just as Alexey was. Why was it Marchenko, and what did Ken Holland give away for free this time?
Marchenko’s Shot Metrics
Suffice to say, Marchenko was not a major issue for the Wings in this regard. Out of the 9 defensemen who have played at least 100 5v5 minutes this year for the Wings, Marchenko ranks high in mostly every category. This season, it’s hard to say he hasn’t been one of the best defensemen on the team.
In fact, relative to the rest of the team, these metrics suggest he’s been the best on the team. At least as far as shot attempts and expected goals go. Sure, he hasn’t played very tough competition but he hasn’t been given a whole lot of help from teammates either. He’s light-years ahead of Sproul and handily beats Ouellet in nearly every category. At $1.45M, there are plenty of worse options that you can find around the league.
Where do the Wings give up shots with and without Marchenko though?
And here’s without:
Blue means that they give up fewer unblocked shot attempts from these areas, red mean that they give up more in these areas.
So it appears as though with Marchenko on the ice the Wings give up a lot of unblocked shots from the point and the top of the left circle but very few in front of the net. The large, dark blue spot in front of the net with Marchenko on the ice is far more important the lack of red at the points with him off. Main takeaway here: the Wings are a far more effective defensive unit with Marchenko than they are without him. At the cost of a few more shots from the point, the Wings almost always cleared the crease with Marchenko out there. I’d take that trade-off any day.
Compare that to someone like Ryan Sproul, who gives away many high-percentage shots and Marchenko again compares favorably to his competition.
I’m starting to think that the Wings chose the wrong defenseman to be their roster crunch casualty. With Sproul, the Red Wings give up a ton of shots from dangerous areas of the ice. Without him, they’re very responsible defensively.
Marchenko’s Passing Metrics
And how much did Marchenko contribute to the shots the Wings took with his passing? Something that’s considered a strength of Marchenko’s is his ability to make a good first pass. Using some of the Passing Project’s data from this year and last, we can get a look into how good Marchenko actually is in this area.
Here are Marchenko’s stats last year, out of a sample of 232 tracked defensemen.
And for what it’s worth, this year Marchenko ranks 55th out of 169 tracked defensemen in Stretch Pass Assists, 27th in Odd Man Assists, 82nd in Total Shot Assists, 54th in Expected Primary Assists and 91st in Entry Contributions. Of course there are a lot of defensemen who haven’t been tracked in both years, but this would suggest that Marchenko is a pretty good passer. I don’t have stats in this area for the other young defensemen on this team, but he was pretty comparable to Danny DeKeyser last year in each of these areas.
Some Zone Starts and Finishes
While Zone Starts and Finishes do not account for everything in a game, most shifts start on the fly, this is another area where it seems like Marchenko excels compared to the rest of the Wings. ZSR measures the proportion of non-neutral zone starts a player has in the offensive zone. Or put another way, the Offensive Zone Starts divided by Offensive Zone Starts + Defensive Zone Starts. Zone Finish Ratio is similar, except it tracks Zone Finishes, not Zone Starts.
According to Corsica.Hockey, despite starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, 54% which is 2nd-most on the team this year, Marchenko finishes nearly 52% of his shifts in the offensive zone, 4th-most on the team. Ryan Sproul starts almost 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone but finishes only 47% of his shifts there. What’s this mean? You could say it indicates that with Marchenko on the ice, the Red Wings push play in the right direction. With Sproul on the ice, they’re finishing shifts back in the defensive end. Again, keep in mind that most shifts start on the fly and thus are not included here, but this is another framework through which you can view this comparison.
What’s All This Mean?
While Marchenko is not a game-changing defenseman, his shot metrics were better than even Nick Jensen and Xavier Ouellet this year. And while he does contribute more offense than Marchenko, Ryan Sproul seemed to be the far better choice to stick on the waiver wire. He’s a bit flashier, younger and you could argue has a higher offensive upside but he’s not nearly as good in every other phase of the game. And I would probably counter by pointing out that neither Sproul or Marchenko is going to be doing much more developing in their careers.
Out of all Red Wings defensemen this year, Marchenko was one of the best no matter which angle you look at the question. Expected Goals, Corsi, Zone Starts and Finishes, and Passing data all point to this.
It was inevitable that the Wings would lose a defenseman this year to waivers, which is probably why Ken Holland wasn’t able to get anything back for Marchenko; teams knew one of these guys was going to be cut loose at some point. However, I think it’s clear that Marchenko was the wrong choice to waive.
Ryan Sproul, while he does have a big frame and a booming right-handed shot, does not appear to be an NHL-caliber defenseman at this point in his career. There are things he does well, but unfortunately it doesn’t appear to all come together on the ice. You could argue that the Wings figured Sproul’s “flashier” reputation would make him harder to sneak through waivers compared to the steady Marchenko. However, the difference in the quality of each player is substantial. Would you rather have a flashy player who is a net-negative for your team, or an unassuming player who’s by some metrics one of your biggest contributors?
The best approach in this situation would have been to never let the roster situation get here in the first place. Perhaps that means they shouldn’t have given DeKeyser and Ericsson long-term contracts, traded one of these young defensemen when they had the chance, etc. But given the crappy spot they were in; needing to waive a defenseman in order to squeeze everyone onto the roster, there were other, better options on the table.