Morrissey proving to be dependable D-man

One of the areas of the game I look at when evaluating defensive play is puck management. When a player has the puck on his stick, what does he do with it? How successful is he with it? Is he leaning on skills that best suit his squad’s system or relying on the types of plays he’s most comfortable executing?

Factored in is just how often a player with puck possession is actually a danger to his team.

Turnovers, or giveaways, can be a confusing statistic. Reviewing the NHL’s leaders in the category this season, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate (league’s top blue-liner), Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, leads the league by a huge margin. Part of the reason for that is the NHL doesn’t measure turnovers in a meaningful way.

For starters, the way giveaways are recorded is inconsistent at best. But more than that, the total number of turnovers isn’t a good indicator of a struggling defenceman. What matters most is the percentage of plays a player makes that end in a turnover. More often than not, the player with the puck on his stick the most will register the most turnovers. Take Doughty, for instance. We know he’s among the most skilled and safest puck-handlers and passers in the NHL, finishing with the highest pass success rate among all defencemen over the past three seasons.

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One of the areas of the game I look at when evaluating defensive play is puck management. When a player has the puck on his stick, what does he do with it? How successful is he with it? Is he leaning on skills that best suit his squad’s system or relying on the types of plays he’s most comfortable executing?

Factored in is just how often a player with puck possession is actually a danger to his team.

Turnovers, or giveaways, can be a confusing statistic. Reviewing the NHL’s leaders in the category this season, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate (league’s top blue-liner), Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, leads the league by a huge margin. Part of the reason for that is the NHL doesn’t measure turnovers in a meaningful way.

For starters, the way giveaways are recorded is inconsistent at best. But more than that, the total number of turnovers isn’t a good indicator of a struggling defenceman. What matters most is the percentage of plays a player makes that end in a turnover. More often than not, the player with the puck on his stick the most will register the most turnovers. Take Doughty, for instance. We know he’s among the most skilled and safest puck-handlers and passers in the NHL, finishing with the highest pass success rate among all defencemen over the past three seasons.

More than just the rates of turnovers, it’s important to adjust for team structure as well. Some teams take more risks due to the style they play. For example, if a team compels its forwards to cheat up the ice when the puck is in the defensive zone — always going for long stretch passes — their defencemen will have higher turnover rates as a whole. So, one can’t simply compare to the league average. The Toronto Maple Leafs are an example of a team with high turnover rates for that reason.

We can also break down turnovers by zone, and, in most cases, it’s the defensive and neutral zones where turnovers carry the highest risk.

The Winnipeg Jets’ defence as a group ranks 20th this season with a turnover rate of 16.6 per cent, yet the team is above the league average in the offensive and defensive zones. So, the club’s danger zone is clearly the neutral zone.

It’s worth looking at who does what successfully on the Jets’ defence.

Looking at Winnipeg’s defencemen and their turnover rate by zone, a name that pops out to me is Josh Morrissey, a top-pairing guy who has been a bit risky with the puck in the offensive zone.

But that is a risk worth taking when plays with the lowest success rates are the ones that create goals.

However, it isn’t in the O-zone where he stands out.

While the Jets’ defence as a whole turn the puck over 11.3 per cent of the time they play it in the neutral zone (26th in the league), Morrissey turns it over just 7.4 per cent of the time — one of the best marks in the league.

His defensive-zone play with the puck is similarly responsible. He has a 9.8 per cent turnover rate, lower than the combined Jets’ defence number (13.4 per cent), which is 10th best in the NHL.

Combine that with the fact Morrissey is second only to his defensive partner, Jacob Trouba, on the Jets in transition plays that move the puck up the ice at five-on-five, and it’s evident why Morrissey has stood out this season.

Morrissey’s success in managing the puck starts with his defensive work at his own blue line. He has the second-highest zone entry denial rate on the Jets at 46.1 per cent, behind only Dustin Byfuglien.

While Morrissey is the more aggressive neutral-zone defender, Trouba goes back to retrieve the dump-ins. So, the result is Morrissey has the fewest dump-in recoveries on the team; however, of those he does recover, he turns 79.6 per cent of them into a controlled exit — a team high.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise because Morrissey leads the Central Division team in controlled exit percentage, with just 14.9 per cent of his exits coming via dump outs — five percentage points lower than Trouba, the next-best defenceman in that category. Morrissey also has the third-highest clearance rate on the team (71.4 per cent) when he’s forced to dump the puck out.

These small areas of the game combine to make Morrissey, arguably, the Jets’ most dependable defenceman to date this season, which demonstrates the manner in which the organization developed him as a defensive player first — and allowing the offence to come later — was absolutely the right move.

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Read full biography