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Last week during a post-practice media session, Colorado Avalanche Head Coach Patrick Roy raised many eyebrows when he was asked about the play of Tyson Barrie and responded with a speech about how the contributions of rugged defenseman Brad Stuart have played a key role in team’s recent surge of success.
“This is a guy that we don’t talk about enough,” Roy said. “To me he has been outstanding, a warrior for us on the ice, finishing checks, a really good addition to this team. A lot of people are talking about Jarome (Iginla), Tyson (Barrie), E.J., whoever, but this guy has been playing really well for us. I can’t imagine losing E.J. and not having him in our lineup. He’s playing against top lines every night and I feel like he’s bringing some consistency in his game that helps our team. He’s been a true warrior for our team and I’m very impressed with him. He’s a true pro and he shows the example to our guys…”
This praise came as a bit of a shock to diehard fans and people around the NHL as the Stuart acquisition this past summer from the San Jose Sharks and subsequent two-year extension in the pre-season were widely panned and Stuart’s play this season seemed to back his detractors.
Despite his coach heaping such lofty acclaim on him, Stuart still remains just fourth on the Avalanche in even-strength time on ice at just over 16 minutes per game and overall time-on-ice at slightly over 20 minutes per game.
Seeing the discrepancy in Roy’s praise versus how often a player he likes so much is actually playing, the next natural step was to dig a little deeper into more advanced statistics.
Using the Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic, or “HERO” chart, which automatically adjustments for Corsi quality of teammates, Corsi quality of competition and zone starts, tells the story of a player barely hanging onto the very fringes of NHL ability.
Furthermore, Stuart ranks dead last outside of Buffalo (who is on pace to be historically bad this season) in NHL defensemen in Corsi For Percentage at just 39.5% at even strength, meaning when Stuart is on the ice in 5v5 situations, shots are directed at the Avalanche net 60.5% of the time. This is an astronomical number that has been a leading cause of the Avs’ persistent shot total woes this season.
With Stuart on the ice for 16 minutes of even-strength time every game and 60% of the shots taken in that time are being directed towards the Avalanche net, that sets the Avs up to be fighting an uphill battle every single night.
Unfortunately, these numbers don’t tell the story of the man in the locker room, an area where the team actively looked to upgrade in the summer by adding older players with a history of success in the name of leadership. Here, Roy goes to bat for his player once again as he points to the improved play of Stuart’s defensive partner, Nick Holden, as an example of the difference Stuart can make.
“I think he’s been helping Holden a lot,” Roy said. “The last month Nick has been playing a lot better and a big part of it has been the way Brad has been playing. He’s talking to him and helping him a lot and I think it’s a great addition for this team.”
While the value of leadership has been much-discussed, it’s in no way quantifiable and we’re forced to accept Roy’s assessment. What we can see, however, is that Stuart’s response in the form of his best game in an Avalanche uniform on Saturday night versus the Calgary Flames suggests the player heard the coach’s comments and wanted to step up and prove his coach correct. It should be noted, though, that Calgary is the 3rd worst even-strength team in terms of shots in the NHL, ahead of only Buffalo and Colorado.
That said, if the Stuart from Saturday night would become the norm, he would easily be worth the money the team has committed to him over the next two seasons and the Avalanche defense would be in a significantly improved situation. Unfortunately, one game is a minuscule sample size when compared to the body of work he’s put up the rest of this season.
All of this leads one to ask…is Patrick Roy instilling confidence in what has been one of the NHL’s worst defenders this year a motivational ploy as the team continues to hang around in the playoff race or is he pumping up his defender to shield him from the increasingly loud criticism being aimed in his direction?