Judging the quality of play of a shutdown defenseman in the NHL is always difficult because a lot of people still are not sure how to judge them yet. Regular boxcar stats like plus-minus are obviously terrible for this but advanced stats can also be misleading because one defenseman might appear to be better than another because he has played well on a poor team. Thus, there are a lot of questions regarding how good Carolina's main shutdown defenseman, Tim Gleason, is.
Some say that he is a good defenseman but not a "top shutdown defenseman" whatever that means. Others have said that he is one of the more underrated players in the league and could be a top pairing defensemen on some teams. There are also others who believe that he turns the puck over a lot and shouldn't be playing as many minutes as he does. Everyone definitely has their own feelings about Gleason as a player but something I think a lot of fans do not realize is how difficult of a role he plays on this team.
Gleason is a shutdown defenseman. We all know that, but something that you may have not known is that only seven defensemen who played 40 or more games last year started a lower percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone than him. Gleason was also given the toughest assigments on the Hurricanes in terms of who he was matched up against. He also has primary duties on the PK, where he plays well over two minutes per game. Gleason is basically the defense corps' version of Brandon Sutter in the sense that he plays somewhat of an unheralded role.
There is no doubt that Gleason is a workhorse and is a very good shutdown defenseman but he also needs help because of how difficult the minutes he plays are. After the jump, we will look at some ways that the Hurricanes could be able to help out Gleason and possibly make his job easier.
When thinking of ways to take some pressure off Gleason, the first thing that comes to mind is to pair him with a defensemanm who has experience playing in similar situations. This is easier said than done because whoever is chosen to play alongside Gleason is going to have to take on all of the tough matchups and zone starts that he regularly plays with. You can't just pick any random defenseman to play in this role and assume everything will be okay because that isn't how things work. With the way that the Hurricanes defense is currently constructed, what would work best is to pair Gleason with someone who has experience playing tough minutes, or spread the toughs among the defense corps and pair Gleason with a more offensive-minded player like Joni Pitkanen or Justin Faulk.
Each strategy has its own drawbacks. If the Canes want to continue to shower Gleason with defensive zone starts and constantly rely on him to shutdown the opposing team's top competition, they are going to need another defenseman capable of doing that with him. Whether or not they have one on the roster right now is debatable. That was the nice thing about having Bryan Allen on the team. His game might be extremely one-dimensional but he was able to get the job done when given tough minutes. Alas, he is in Anaheim now.
Pitkanen, Faulk and Harrison don't need to be protected but I have my doubts about any of them being able to take on the kind of minutes that Gleason played last season. However, all three of those players have experience playing the secondary minutes, so having the toughs spread around in the top four with Gleason playing a slightly bigger role with one of them is not out of the question. The only problem with this is that the team could be misusing Gleason a bit, but without another shutdown option, this might be the way to go.
Jim Rutherford's plan as of right now is to pair up Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo with the reasoning being that the two had played together in previous years. Despite that, this still seems like a horrible idea. Corvo's game is not suited for a shutdown role and he has never been very successful when being paired with Gleason. History speaks for itself here.
Corsi Rel. QOC
This chart shows Gleason's playing situation, his corsi relative rating at even strength and his most frequent defense partner. You can see that he was much better at controlling possession when his most frequent partner wasn't Corvo. It probably isn't fair to jump to the conclusion that Corvo brought Gleason down but it does make you raise some eyebrows. This does show that Gleason tended to play better when he was paired with a more defensively responsible partner. Both Hedican and Allen are known as stay-at-home defenders than anything else and Gleason played better territorially when he was with them.
Gleason's corsi WOWY from David Johnson's Hockey Analysis site paints a bit of a different picture but the overall idea is still the same. Gleason and Corvo were not the best combination and probably shouldn't play together next season.
Gleason w/o Corvo
Corvo w/o Gleason
Data from 2007-12
Now, this chart makes it seem like Gleason was the one dragging down Corvo but there are a few things that you have to remember here. First of all, this is from 2007-12, which means that some of this data comes from when Corvo was with Ottawa, Washington and Boston. Corvo spent over half of his ice-time in Carolina alongside Gleason but he was used in a more offensive role with the Bruins, so the playing situations here aren't equal. Gleason usually played the toughs no matter who he was paired with because Carolina never had any other option the last five years. Also, another thing you will notice is that Gleason allowed fewer shots when he was playing with someone other than Corvo but couldn't create much offense. Corvo, meanwhile, was able to thrive in more offensive situations. The two can be effective defensemen when given certain roles but as a unit, they are brutal.
The bottom line here is that while Gleason is a very good defenseman, he isn't going to be able to carry a huge workload by himself next season unless he becomes Nick Lidstrom within the next couple of months. With Allen gone, the Hurricanes might need to resort to Plan B with Gleason, which is to pair him with a slightly more offensive-minded player like Faulk or Pitkanen and spread out the tough minutes among the top-four. It's risky because it's going to put more weight on Faulk's shoulders but with no other shutdown option, it might be what Carolina has to do.
We are going to have to wait until training camp to find out what defenseman will step into that role but over the next few weeks, I'm going to go through the team's current options and weigh their strengths and weaknesses.