Detroit's Evolving Blue Line - Why Jonathan Ericsson Should Not Be Considered A Constant

With the return of Kyle Quincey to the lineup on Monday, the Detroit Red Wings officially had seven healthy defensemen. Instead of making the tough decision, the Wings opted to dress all seven defensemen. After watching the team struggle offensively, the Wings will scratch a defenseman before Thursday's game against the Arizona Coyotes. Early indications seem to suggest that Alexey Marchenko will be that scratch, at least initially.

For me, that's very frustrating to see as Marchenko has been one of the bright spots for the Red Wings in the first half of the season. On Monday night, he was the lone bright spot on Detroit's blue line, scoring his first goal of the season while Niklas Kronwall, Brendan Smith, and others looked shaky at times. In fact, Blashill has openly stated that he believes the Wings allow less scoring chances when Marchenko is on the ice relative to the rest of his team's defensemen. The numbers back up Blashill's assertion.

Player 5v5 Scoring Chances Against/60 5v5 High Danger Scoring Chances Against/60
Alexey Marchenko 22.06 9.49
Brendan Smith 23.29 10.01
Mike Green 24.79 11.40
Jonathan Ericsson 26.27 10.99
Danny DeKeyser 26.31 10.23
Niklas Kronwall 26.40 11.47

Data from War-On-Ice

Given this information, who should be declared the healthy scratch? In my personal opinion, I believe that it is time for Jonathan Ericsson to take a seat.

Ericsson In The Defensive Zone

One of the statistics we can look at to evaluate how well a defenseman suppresses shots is the number of 5v5 shot attempts that occur against the team when the player is on the ice versus the team average. This statistic is known as 5v5 Corsi Against/60 RelTm. Ericsson has a CA60 RelTm of 7.04, meaning that when he is on the ice the Red Wings give up 7.04 more shot attempts than their team average. That ranks 131st out of 142 defensemen who have played at least 500 minutes at 5v5 (Source: Puckalytics).

Defenseman 5v5 CA60
Smith 47.03
Marchenko 47.09
Green 47.97
Kronwall 50.60
DeKeyser 53.36
Ericsson 54.68

Data from War-On-Ice

After watching film on Ericsson in his own zone, I noticed several alarming trends that led to him doing a poor job of shot suppression. Let's start with a clip.

There's two things that stick out to me in this clip. First, after a textbook faceoff win, Ericsson elects to dump the puck out up the boards without facing any pressure. Glendening won the faceoff clean, Kronwall picked off the winger, and Jurco flared out to receive the pass. Instead of looking to start the rush, Ericsson never picks his head up and elects to fire the puck out of the zone. While it may seem like a good thing that he was able to clear the zone, these kinds of unpressured, or unforced errors to borrow a tennis term, cannot happen. The puck changes possession in the neutral zone and allows the Kings to come right back and attack.

Within four seconds of the dump out, the puck is already back in the Red Wings zone. Ericsson steps up to retrieve the puck and this time as he's pressured, he elects to flip the puck on his backhand across the ice to his defense partner. First off, electively going to the backhand is a problem when he can safely chip the puck up the boards off of his forehand in the face of pressure. Second, once he goes to the backhand, attempting to thread a cross-ice pass through a defender is a very poor decision. This results in a very dangerous deflection scoring chance against Howard.

What's the overall point here? By relinquishing possession of the puck without facing pressure, Ericsson is in effect giving up the opportunity to generate a rush and in turn forces the team to quickly prepare for the Kings' transition game. These types of plays allow the opposition the opportunity to have more offensive possessions which can result in a higher number of shot attempts against. This is a big reason why Ericsson is one of the worst in the league this season.

Ericsson On The Breakout

Last year, Ryan Stimson put together a tracking project that looked at how players can "drive" shot attempts through passing. One of the stats he coined was "5v5 primary passes leading to shot attempts per 60 minutes". This statistic reflects how many times a player makes a pass that leads to a shot attempt without any other passes occurring. It's the last pass before a shot attempt. Here's a graph of Red Wings defensemen showing 5v5 primary passes leading to shot attempts per 60 minutes. Data is limited to the seven games that were tracked earlier in the season by Stimson's team.

As we see here, Ericsson ranks dead last in primary passes leading to shot attempts while Marchenko ranks first with more than double the number of passes per 60 minutes.

From a systems perspective, you caught a clear example of his poor zone exit in the first clip, but here's another clip from the same game where he elects to give the puck back to Los Angeles instead of passing to a teammate to start the rush.

Following the 2-on-1 (oddly enough that started off of an Ericsson giveaway in the offensive zone), Ericsson retrieves the puck. He takes not one, not two, but THREE looks up ice. When I freeze frame the breakout, count the guys in white.

Yep, that's all five white jerseys in the defensive zone and just one Kings player who's 15 feet away from the puck. Instead of looking to start the rush, Ericsson again attempts to chip the puck up the boards on his backhand. Take note of both the score and the time remaining. There is 5:17 remaining in the 3rd, down 3-2 and this lack of awareness results in the loss of an offensive rush opportunity. What makes this play even worse is that his initial clearing attempt fails and when he gets the puck back, he makes the exact same play!

I included this one for the comedy of errors. Ericsson makes three attempts at a breakout pass and all fail. The first, he hits the Devils forechecker, the second he throws too hot in the feet of Tomas Tatar, and the third he just caroms it around the boards hoping to clear the puck. It squelches the Red Wings' offense and makes it very difficult for the team to generate shot attempts.

Ericsson In The Offensive Zone

One of the ways we can evaluate a player is how they perform relative to their expectations. Steve Burtch has developed a statistic called "dCorsi", a metric that evaluates a player's observed performance vs. their expected performance based on a series of variables. While the statistic has its limitations, we can still use it in the context of our other metrics. When it comes to Ericsson's expected Corsi For/60 vs. his observed Corsi For/60, Ericsson has a dCorsiFor Impact of -45.2, which ranks 256th out of 260 eligible defensemen this season.

Defenseman dCF Impact dCA Impact dCorsiImpact
Ericsson -45.20 37.92 -83.12
Kronwall -25.70 4.68 -30.37
DeKeyser -25.37 28.06 -53.43
Green 1.59 -13.54 15.12
Marchenko 24.16 -21.15 45.31
Smith 42.23 -24.54 66.77

Data from War-On-Ice

As you can see, Marchenko and Smith have been the most impactful players relative to their expectations while Ericsson has by far been the least impactful. When it comes to impacting plays in the offensive zone, defensemen have a variety of ways to impact the game. Timely pinches, successful attempts to join the rush, and the ability to get their shots through to the net are all admired skills of the NHL's top defensemen. Reviewing the tape on Ericsson seems to suggest that he struggles with when to pinch vs. when not to pinch and as a result, this can sometimes derail an offensive play. Check out how an untimely pinch derails this offensive play.

As Ericsson pinches down, he actually ends up in the way of Henrik Zetterberg, preventing Zetterberg from making much of anything happen. There's not really much of a reason for Ericsson to pinch down here as he starts pinching well before Zetterberg comes out from behind the net. Here's another example of a poor pinch:

Ericsson's poor pinch here results in Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie having a 2-on-1. The reason the pinch is bad is because when Ericsson drops low, the puck hasn't even gotten to him. He's not physically engaged with any Washington forward and Ovechkin is able to cleanly pull away from Ericsson after he fails to keep the puck in. Additionally, and more importantly, all three Detroit forwards are below Ericsson, meaning that no one is covering up for Ericsson at his point. Thankfully for Ericsson, Larkin was able to stay with Ovechkin to prevent too dangerous of a chance, but the last thing you want to do is give the best goal scorer of this generation a rush chance.

Overall, I've shown you how Ericsson's poor breakout passes affect his Corsi For, Corsi Against, and his 5v5 Primary Passes Leading to Shot Attempts. I've shown you a few examples of how his poor pinches fail to sustain the Red Wings offense, resulting in Ericsson having the smallest impact on Detroit's offense. I don't mean to be harsh, but as Ericsson has aged, he's dropped off dramatically. The thing is, Ericsson wasn't always viewed this poorly from an advanced stats perspective. Check out his HERO chart from 2009-2012 which shows his impact on offense and defense.

Even his dCorsiImpact in 2010-2011 was 81.65, 2nd best on the team behind only Brian Rafalski and 31st out of 337 eligible defensemen. The problem is, this is what Ericsson looks like now:

Here's the real kicker - I think Blashill knows this too. Looking back at Monday's game vs. Los Angeles, Ericsson's last shift in the 3rd period ended with 4:45 remaining. Kronwall still went on for three more shifts with either Smith or Green. Blashill has stated that the decision to sit Marchenko will be evaluated on a game-by-game basis as he wants to use the lineup that gives them the best chance to win. If Blashill is truly committed to icing the lineup best prepared to win, it doesn't appear as if Ericsson should be a part of that anymore.

Who should be the Red Wings healthy scratch with all defensemen healthy?

Niklas Kronwall81
Jonathan Ericsson1181
Brendan Smith104
Alexey Marchenko18
Kyle Quincey32
Mike Green14
Danny DeKeyser3