The Hurricanes have a couple of decisions to make regarding their current defense corps and no, I am not talking about them making a trade. This issue is a little more immediate, as Joni Pitkanen will be returning to the lineup soon and the Hurricanes are going to have to figure out who will sit to make room for him in the lineup. The team started the year with seven defensemen on the roster with Joe Corvo, Jamie McBain and Bobby Sanguinetti rotating as the healthy scratches. Some might say that it will be an easy decision to sit one of those three when Pitkanen returns but it won't be that simple. Injuries have allowed these three to get into the lineup almost every night and they have been playing well, so deciding which one will sit out in favor of Pitkanen might be a tough call.
Corvo has stepped up to top-four minutes the last few weeks so there is no way he will be sitting out while Bobby Sanguinetti has been steaidly improving with every game so it might be hard to sit him right now. Then there's Jamie McBain, who is a long-time defense partner of Pitkanen and also coming off a couple of very good games. Pitkanen will be an upgrade over anyone he replaces with how great his performance has been this year, but finding the right spot for him in the lineup could be a challenge.
This is where taking an analytical approach would help. Out of all the defensemen on the roster, who is the most replaceable and should sit after Pitkanen's comes back? We will answer those questions after the jump.
Carolina's defense corps has been mangilied a lot this season and while a lot of the criticism is deserved, they do have some good players in this group and the future certainly looks bright with Justin Faulk leading the way. McBain and Sanguinetti are also considered two of their more promising young blue-liners but which one of the two should play once the Canes return to having seven defensemen? Right now, McBain probably has an edge over Sanguinetti for a few reasons. First of all, McBain has played with Pitkanen before and the coaching staff seems to like that pairing despite not performing great together in the past. Secondly, and probably most importantly, McBain has been on-ice for fewer 5v5 goals per 20 minutes than any other Carolina blue-liner while Sanguinetti has been on-ice for nearly one 5v5 goal for every 20 mintues he plays. Those two factors alone make this decision look like a no-brianer in favor of McBain, but things are a little more complicated than that.
McBain being on-ice for only four 5v5 goals against all season is very impressive, but would anyone believe that he has actually been on-ice for more opposing shots than Sanguinetti? Well, it's true. McBain's plus/minus has received a boost thanks to the opponents shooting at less than three percent when he is on the ice while they are clicking at nearly 10% when they are facing Sanguinetti. Sanguinetti's made some bad mistakes which have resulted in goals but it's hard to deny that McBain has gotten a bit lucky since a lot of his mistakes haven't ended up in the back of the net. That could push some people in favor of Sanguinetti but there are other factors which should be looked at, one of which being how these two perform against different levels of competition.
Both McBain and Sanguientti are generally used as third-pairing defensemen and are kept away from opposing team's top-lines. This doesn't always happen, though because it's hard for coaches to be consistent with their matchups on the road and there are a lot of times where they'll find their third-pairing stuck on the ice against the opponents best players. It's happened with the Hurricanes quite a bit this year, and one of the reasons why Justin Faulk and Tim Gleason are used on different defense pairings now. It really helps decrease the chances of the Canes getting exposed to a tough matchup on the road.
How often has Carolina's third pairing been exposed to these matchups and how have their players performed agianst them? Using Timeonice.com's recently updated head-to-head tool along with the scoring chance data that I've been tracking all season, I took at look at this for all of Carolina's defensemen. The chart below shows the percentage of games that each Carolina defensemen played the majority of their ice time against a certain line from the opposing team along with their 5v5 scoring chance differential against first lines. This will give us a better idea of who each player has been matched up against on a regular basis. I also included each player's net defensive zone start rate to show which ones are getting the really tough assignments.
Net Def. Zone Starts
Both McBain and Sanguinetti have been kept away from the best forwards of the opposing team for the most part, but Sanguinetti has been receiving much more protection. He hasn't played against the opposing team's top line for the majority of any games this season, is usually matched up against depth forwards and has started a ton of his shifts in the offensive zone. Meanwhile, McBain has played a few games against first lines and opposing team's top-sixes and hasn't been awful against them. He's getting protected, but not as much as Sanguinetti and the fact that Sanguinetti has been receiving so much protection kind of explains why has been on-ice for fewer shots. He is starting over 60% of his 5v5 shifts near the opposing team's net against their third & fourth lines, so he is going to be better at controlling possession unless he is a complete turnstile (which he hasn't been, just for the record).
To add some more context to this, here's a graph showing what percentage of each player's ice time has been spent against the opposing team's top line. It's pretty clear to see what each defenseman's limitations are.
Sanguinetti has spent less than 20% of his overall ice time against opposing team's top-lines, which ranks him way lower than any other defenseman that is currently on the roster. McBain has seen tougher competition before and brings some versatility to the table, which makes it a pretty easy decision to play him over Sanguinetti once Pitkanen returns.
That being said, I like what I've seen from Sanguientti in the last few games and I think he can be a solid third-pairing defenseman at the NHL level. The problem here is that the Hurricanes have too many third-pairing guys on their roster right now so there isn't much room for him to play unless they want to roll seven defensemen. It took him a little time to adjust to the NHL but I think Sanguinetti has settle in nicely, there just aren't enough minutes to go around in the defense corps when everyone's healthy.
This is why Sanguinetti hasn't been receiving much powerplay time even though he would be a good fit there. It's also why I think a decision needs to be made about him. He is a useful NHL player but the Canes may not have enough room to play him every night, or at all if they bring in another defenseman. There's room for him in the NHL, just not in Carolina's defense corps if they are fully healthy, which is why he's the logical choice for being the healthy scratch once Pitkanen is healthy.