Greg Zanon and the Holy Wars

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Greg Zanon of the Minnesota Wild is a member of the group of hockey players that are arguably the most difficult to evaluate: the defensive defenseman.  He’s also the focal point of one of this summer’s little brush fires between those who subscribe to advanced statistics, and those who do not.

On the one hand is this post at The Puck Stops Here.  It makes use of Corsi numbers and quality of competition, and through those two metrics determines that Zanon is “a defensive specialist who does not have tremendous value to his team.”

On the other hand is this post from Bryan Reynolds of Hockey Wilderness.  Reynold’s, rather reluctantly I suspect, wades back into the debate about advanced statistics, going to the wall to defend what Zanon brings to the table.  He’s not an advanced statistics guy, and doesn’t try to make his argument on that front; instead he points to what he feels Zanon does for the Wild.

Is Greg Zanon a useful player for Minnesota?  Speaking as a proponent of advanced statistics, my answer is yes.

The Puck Stops Here makes the point that Zanon has an awful Corsi rating, but while that post adds some disclaimers and mentions zone starts it fails to properly examine the context of Zanon’s ice-time.  I’m going to endeavour to do that now.  One note – all data below comes courtesy of Gabriel Desjardins’ excellent Behind the Net website, and all data is for 5-on-5 play unless otherwise noted.

Among defensemen with more than 40 games played, only three started more than 60% of their shifts in the defensive zone.  Mattias Ohlund was one of them, and the other two were (occasional) defense partners Greg Zanon and Clayton Stoner.  Stoner just narrowly edges out Zanon (62.9 to 62.7) for the worst zone start among NHL defenseman.  To say Zanon started a lot in his own end is to understate the case significantly.

Then there’s team data.  Every player in the league is to some degree a slave to their teammates, and team performance has a big impact on individual performance.  On that note, no team in the league was worse at generating shots than the Minnesota Wild – at 25.2 shots per 60 minutes of even-strength hockey, they generate roughly five fewer shots per game than the 15th-ranked club.  They were also quite bad at shot prevention, ranking 27th of 30 teams while allowing 31.5 shots against every 60 minutes.

Then there’s Quality of Competition.  Desjardins’ offers three different measures for quality of competition: one based on plus/minus, one based on Corsi, and one based on relative (team-adjusted) Corsi.  He ranks second or third in each category – which means that he was likely facing a mix of top/second pairing level opposition.  That makes sense, given that we know he split time with Marek Zidlicky, Clayton Stoner, and to a lesser extent Brent Burns, and that he played the second-most minutes per game at even-strength for the Wild.

So, yes, Zanon has a pretty lousy Corsi rating – which means that he’s on the ice for lots more shot attempts in his own end than in the offensive zone.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  When a defenseman of any calibre starts an unhealthy amount of time in his own end on a team that consistently gets outshot while playing against high-level opposition, he’s going to get killed on the shot clock.

I’m not arguing that Zanon is a number two defenseman on a good NHL team.  I don’t think he is.  I personally don’t think he was even the second-best defenseman on the Wild last season (I’d have him fourth, behind Burns and Schultz and Zidlicky) but that is how the coach used him.  He played an incredibly disciplined game under the circumstances (he took penalties half as frequently as Stoner or Ohlund, who played similar minutes) and given the minutes and situations he played I’d also argue he did superbly on the shot clock – for a number five defenseman, which is probably what he is at even-strength on a contending team.