Tim Gleason's status as the team's main shutdown defenseman is one thing that has remained constant for the Hurricanes in recent seasons. He is taxed with a big workload every year and is usually praised for doing most of the grunt work on the Hurricanes blue-line because he is arguably the most physical player on the team and is always among the league leaders in blocked shots. While there's nothing wrong with that, it does have some negative implications. Playing such a rough style of hockey can take a toll on a player's body over time and limit how effective they are as they get older. We have seen this happen to many players before, as once solid shutdown defensemen like Robyn Regehr, Douglas Murray and Greg Zanon have seen their performance decline after they turned 30. Is Gleason in danger of going down the same path?
His performance last year was a pretty concerning to say the very least. Gleason was on the ice for more 5v5 goals against than he was in the last five seasons and he was also on the ice for 18 power play goals against on top of that. To make mater worse, Gleason's Corsi Rel. of -11.5 was his worst showing in six seasons and he was on the ice for more scoring chances against at even strength than anyone else on the Canes defense corps. What all of this numerical mumbo jumbo means is that Gleason wasn't exactly shutting anyone down because the Hurricanes were trapped in their own zone whenever he was out there.
This is something that simply can not happen again if Gleason is going to stay in the top-four, but there are indications that he was not at 100% last year. He missed time with a lower-body injury and reportedly played part of the season with a broken foot. It's uncertain when or how long he was playing with said injury, but it would explain a lot of his struggles and why he looked less mobile than usual last year. Although, Gleason's issues with keeping play out of his own zone aren't limited to last season.
Stats taken from Hockey Analysis
In five of the last six seasons, the Hurricanes have been outshot more with Gleason on the ice than they were when he was not. Last year being one of his worst seasons during that time. Although, one thing that is worth pointing out is that Gleason received the tough matchups in all but one of these seasons and was forced to start a lot of his even strength shifts in the shadow of his own goaltender, which probably impacted how many shots against that he was on the ice for.
It is always tough to judge the play of a shutdown defenseman because a lot of them are given heavy assignments and end up with brutal underlying numbers as a result. So using raw shot data can be misleading when grading their performance but there are ways to take context into account with these numbers. I've posted Carolina's zone-start adjusted Corsi & scoring chance numbers in the past and while that's one way to do it, Toronto Maple Leafs blogger Steve Burtch has taken thing to another level by introducing a new stat to evaluate defensive play titled "Shutdown Index."
An explanation of the stat and how it's developed can be found here, but the gist of it is that it compares the expected defensive performance to their actual results and comes up with a score based on that. Stats taken into account are 5v5 ice time, each player's Corsi against, the opponent's Corsi for, the player's team Corsi without him on the ice and his defensive zone start percentage to take context into account. Mind you, this is a stat that judges only defensive performance rather than a defenseman's ability to drive the play forward so we're looking at just one side of the rink here.
How this is relevant to Hurricanes fans is that Gleason ranks as one of the "20 Worst Shutdown Defensemen" in the NHL over the last six years according to this index. Meaning that he has performed below expectations and has struggled to keep play out of his own end even when taking usage into account. His numbers are comparable to the likes of Bryce Savlador and Scott Hannan, who are both known as stay-at-home defensemen but they are near the end of their respective careers and aren't nearly as good as they used to be. (Also making an apperance on the chart is Jamie McBain, but we don't have to worry about that anymore.)
I don't like using one stat as a way to sum up a player's abilities, but when you consider this along with the fact that the Hurricanes have been worse territorially with Gleason on the ice, it's hard to justify using him as the team's main shutdown defenseman next season. Unless he dramatically improves or plays more like he did in 2011-12 (his best NHL season), the Hurricanes might be in trouble if he is the main guy playing the toughs. Do they have any other options, though? Oddly enough, they do.
Something you may notice in the first chart is that Gleason didn't rank first in quality of competition faced among defensemen last season. Instead, it was Justin Faulk was the one playing those matchups and while Gleason was his defense partner for a portion of the season, they spent a good chunk of the year apart so it's possible that Faulk can replace Gleason as the team's main shutdown guy. In fact, I would argue and say he did just that last season.
As I said in my review of the team's defense corps, Faulk got basically all of the tough matchups last season and while he ended up being a negative possession player, his performance was not bad when taking his usage into account and he was on another level before getting hurt. The issue now is finding someone to play with Faulk on the top pairing, especially if Joni Pitkanen ends up missing all of the season. It may not be a popular decision, but if no one else is brought in, Andrej Sekera could be the guy. Going by Burtch's Shutdown Index, Sekera is the best defensive defenseman on the current roster and he played the toughs in Buffalo so he could be a decent option on the top pairing if that's where he ends up.
Carolina's defense corps is in rough shape right now so the most they can do is make the most out of what they have and using Sekera & Faulk as a shutdown pair might be what they have to do with this current group of defensemen. I suspect that Gleason will continue to get big minutes, though and hopefully for Carolina's sake his performance is better than what it was last year.