Some NHL defencemen don’t deserve their big minutes

Yahoo Sports Canada

With training camps opening last week, we got to hear two different mind-bending quotes that defy all logic.

Both related to long-time players who are known quantities in this league, and the continued justification of their use in high-end situations.

First was Rasmus Ristolainen, one of the worst dollar-for-dollar blue-line values in the league, talking about the rumours that he had requested a trade out of Buffalo. Asked about his decision to vent to the media in his native Finland, he told the Buffalo press, “I was just explaining, personally, how I felt and when you have rough years like I’ve had here the past six years and you don’t win much, that’s what you want.”

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The other was from Mike Babcock, in revealing that he would at least start camp with a top pair of Morgan Rielly (great) and Cody Ceci (maybe the worst defender in the league). Of the latter player, acquired from Ottawa where he anchored the Senators blue line — that is, weighed down to the point it was never going to go anywhere — Babcock said, “We think there’s growth potential there for sure.”

Provorov, right, and Ceci, left, are both getting way more minutes than they deserve. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Provorov, right, and Ceci, left, are both getting way more minutes than they deserve. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

In both cases, we of course have long, long track records of these players proving time and again that they are not what everyone thinks they are. Imagine having a six-year NHL career, looking back and saying, “Well, I’ve had six rough years, I know I can be better.” At some point, how is a six-year period not representative of what a player is? What are the Sabres, or anyone else for that matter, going to be able to do to get more value out of him, besides shuffle him way down the lineup to the point where you basically have a third-pair power-play specialist who costs $5.4 million?

Ristolainen had 31 points in the final year of his ELC while getting north of 25(!!!) minutes a night, and that number got bigger in each of the following two years before falling back to 24:38 last season. He’s been great on the power play and absolutely abysmal at full strength for years, but this has not deterred any of Buffalo’s coaches in that time to actually throttle back his minutes.

The same is true of Ceci. He had one year where he scored 10 goals and that alone was enough to make everyone think this guy was the defenceman of the future. He went from playing 19 minutes a night to 22 or 23. He has been predictably below replacement level at 5-on-5 ever since.

Another guy who falls into this category, and who just signed a good-sized contract for the next six years, is Ivan Provorov. He went from about 22 minutes as a rookie to 24-plus and then more than 25 in the following two seasons, respectively.

Here, too, we’re dealing with a player who has shown a lot offensively on occasion (he had 17 goals in 2017-18 but only 13 in his other two seasons combined) and has been reliable defensively, but is otherwise such a drag on his team that you have to use him somewhat selectively. It’s a big bet that he’ll be worth anything close to the money he got without another goal-scoring binge, which might require a big runout at 5-on-5, which would probably not go well for the Flyers overall even if the goals do arrive.

Would it surprise you at all to learn Ristolainen, Provorov, and Ceci are first, second, and third in on-ice goals against in all situations over the last three seasons? Because Ristolainen at least drives offence, he’s “only” minus-52. Provorov and Ceci are worse: minus-80 and minus-124(???), respectively. And yet, they’re three of just 37 defencemen to play at least 5,000 minutes in that stretch.

This is an issue, then, of misappropriation of talent. Just because a guy has played big minutes doesn’t mean he should. Babcock putting Ceci in a position to play 22-plus minutes a night alongside Rielly is asking for trouble, but you gotta put a $4.5-million defenceman somewhere, and it can’t be “in the press box” even if it probably should.

Ralph Krueger seems like a smart guy and the long-overdue, broad acknowledgement that Ristolainen’s been bad for years might be enough to finally get him, mercifully, shuffled down the lineup. That effort would be helped by all the adds they’ve made on the blue line in recent months.

As for Provorov, well, Alain Vigneault has never seen an overrated, overpaid defenceman he didn’t want to overplay, so take that for what you will.

Now, I’ve seen people defend these guys, trying to justify their ongoing use in roles for which they simply do not fit. “Look how bad their teams were, look how much coaching turnover they’ve had, look how thin their rosters were.” But it seems logical to conclude that their teams were bad specifically because of the runout they received, and their play is generally the kind of thing that gets coaches fired (especially because those guys keep getting big minutes, and they have largely been as bad as just about any defenceman in the league would be in a similar role).

The NHL is still inefficient enough that guys get minutes allocated to them based on their salaries rather than their capabilities, and that will likely be the case with all of them again this season. And when things go sideways, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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