Is Niklas Kronwall In An Accelerated Decline?

Ever since the great Nick Lidstrom retired following the 2011-2012 season, Niklas Kronwall has assumed the responsibility of being Detroit's #1 defenseman and assistant captain. Many were initially concerned that Kronwall wasn't a true #1 defensemen, however since assuming his new role, he is 11th amongst all NHL defensemen in ice time and 12th in points. Now, the 34-year old is entering his 12th NHL season and will once again be counted on to be the #1 defenseman. Will Kronwall be able to handle this large responsibility again or is he showing signs of slowing down?

Kronwall's Season In Review

I'll start you off by showing you a quick player comparison between two defensemen from the 2014-2015 season:

Player 5v5 Points/60 5v5 CF% 5v5 Individual Corsi For 5v5 Corsi Competition% 5v5 ZSO%
Player A 0.7 53.17 202 49.77% 53.56%
Player B 0.7 49.93 114 50.12% 51.22%

From that table it looks like Player A produced the same amount of points per 60 minutes of 5v5 play while individually taking more shot attempts, being on the ice for a greater percentage of shots for by his team, all while playing against a similar level of competition and starting a similar amount of shifts in the defensive zone. Player B is Niklas Kronwall. Player A? That's Kyle Quincey. No, I'm not kidding. At 5v5, Kronwall was actually slightly worse than Kyle Quincey in terms of driving possession and generating individual shot attempts. In fact, using Manny Elk's Similarity Score Calculator available on War-On-Ice, Niklas Kronwall's 10 closest 5v5 comparables for his past season are shown below.

Ummm...what? That's not exactly the best company to be in, let alone for a defenseman that's expected to be the Red Wings #1 guy. So what's going on here? Well first and foremost, as Kronwall has assumed more responsibility, he has been far more reluctant to jump into the play on offense. Check out how his 5v5 points/60 and 5v5 individual shot attempts/60 minutes have trended since 2007-2008

As you can see, Kronwall's role in the offense at 5v5 has steadily trended downwards to a career low 5.28 shot attempts/60 minutes at 5v5. In fact, of the 204 defensemen who played at least 500 minutes at 5v5 this past season, Kronwall's 5.28 shot attempts/60 minutes ranked 197th, just ahead of Cam Fowler, Jon Merrill, Tobias Enstrom, Nikita Zadorov, Brett Bellemore, Nate Guenin, and Josh Gorges. In case you were wondering, that's not good.

Kronwall has been forced to play a lot with Detroit's lack of defensive depth the past three seasons, logging almost 5000 minutes over the past two seasons, good for 15th amongst all defensemen in the NHL in that same time frame. However, of the 14 defensemen ranked ahead of him, only two were older than him. I think it's time that Detroit recognizes that Kronwall is slowing down dramatically and it's time to utilize his remaining skills appropriately.

Niklas Kronwall - Brian Rafalski 2.0?

I think a very close comparison to Niklas Kronwall is former Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski in terms of their offensive prowess. Kronwall is one of the best passers from the blue line, evidenced by the Passing Project completed by Ryan Stimson and colleagues.

This graph shows that Kronwall ranks in the 80th percentile or better when it comes to passes that led to successful zone entries and passes that led to shot attempts. It's clear that the man is very talented offensively, similar to Rafalski. However, as Rafalski wound down his career, he still found a way to remain productive offensively. Granted, Rafalski was paired with Lidstrom, but what I want to point out is how Rafalski was utilized in his final three seasons.

As you can see, Rafalski was heavily utilized at even strength and on the powerplay, making up more than 95% of his minutes each game. The reason I point this out is because Rafalski was 34 in 2008-2009, the same age that Kronwall will be entering the 2015-2016 season. Over the last three seasons, Kronwall has played almost 100 more minutes than any other Red Wings defenseman on the penalty kill. It might be time for coach Jeff Blashill to start utilizing Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey, Alexey Marchenko, and Jonathan Ericsson more on the penalty kill to give Kronwall a bit of a break.

Mike Green's Arrival

The other thing that will help reduce the burden on Kronwall is the addition of Mike Green. Many analysts feel that Mike Green is largely overrated, but the fact remains that he is one of the most dynamic offensive defensemen in the game. Of the 221 defensemen to play at least 1000 minutes at 5v5 the past three seasons, Green ranks 10th in 5v5 points/60 minutes and 14th in individual scoring chances. The guy is still gifted, even if he is no longer putting up 70-80 points a season. I firmly believe that the Wings will be able to deploy Green and DeKeyser as the top pair, saving Kronwall some much needed wear and tear.

Many point to the 2015 playoffs where Green was exposed against the New York Rangers. Many believe that Green can't function as a top-pairing defenseman because he is a defensive liability. I'd like to argue that we can't say that definitively. Sure, Green is not the most capable 1-on-1 defensemen, but if Blashill continues former coach Mike Babcock's defensive system, Green will be more protected than he was in Washington. For comparison's sake, a Washington game averaged 108.2 shot attempts at 5v5 per 60 minutes, almost 10 more than Detroit. The lower event system in Detroit should put Green in fewer tough situations and allow him to utilize his dynamic offensive skills to take some of the pressure off of Kronwall.

Ultimately, I think the Wings need to be smart with Kronwall. He's shown that his offensive game is declining rapidly but he is still more than capable of being a solid top-4 defenseman. He is an incredible passer that drives good zone entries and his passes lead to shot attempts, but he's playing so many tough shorthanded minutes. It's time that the Wings lean on other penalty killers, similar to how they relieved Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg of those responsibilities. Additionally, the signing of Mike Green should provide the Wings with another offensively capable defenseman that can help drive possession. I don't think we've seen the end of Niklas Kronwall, but the Wings need to be cautious about accelerating his decline.

Is Niklas Kronwall still a top pairing defenseman?