Normal-sized adult male and New York Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey signed a three-year, $6.6 million deal with the club last Wednesday—as first reported by Newsday's Arthur Staple—another key move by general manager Garth Snow in the first days of free agency to shore up the core of this team.
Hickey's signing also touched off another round of misinformed CAPS LOCK-laden online yelling about how a guy has to be at least 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds in order to play defense in the NHL.
Hilarious and inaccurate physical "requirements" aside, this repetitive groupthink among the watch-the-game crowd is flat-out wrong. Not every blueliner needs to be a physical specimen in the mold of Zdeno Chara, best known for clearing the crease and/or sending opposing wingers through the glass and into the second row.
To wit: John Scott is a pretty big dude, but we don't see NHL teams falling over themselves to lock him up long-term as a franchise cornerstone every July 1. Which is an inconvenient truth if your argument for player quality begins with height, ends with weight, and excludes skill altogether. (Please don't hurt us, Mr. Scott.)
The game of hockey has evolved to a point where puck possession on offense and shot suppression on defense are its key elements. General managers now understand that a defenseman who prevents zone entries and forces lower shot rates by the opposition is a valuable commodity, regardless of the player's size. And as is often the case, the best puck movers—and shot suppressors—are mobile defensemen, many of them "small."
To paraphrase that English dude who wrote all those plays back in the day: O brave new world, that has such average-sized blueliners in't!
Quantifying Hickey's impact
At $2.2 million per year over the next three years, Hickey is officially the second-biggest bargain on the Isles in terms of ability for the money. (The biggest bargain, obviously, is perennial Hart Trophy candidate John Tavares, since he'll be able to command roughly a billion dollars more in his next contract than his current $5.5 million cap hit.) But back to Hickey: his raw numbers show that he's basically Bob's Discount Furniture-level cheap with respect to the suddenly cap-ceiling-conscious Islanders.
And we can prove it.
Below are two charts depicting opponents' shot rates against the Islanders at even strength over the last three seasons, which is when Hickey joined the team. The chart on the left shows the rate of shots against the Isles (relative to league average) when Hickey is on the ice; the chart on the right shows the shot rates by the opposition (relative to the league average) when Hickey is off the ice. Blue dots are good; green dots are neutral; red dots are bad:
What stands out between the two charts is that when Hickey is off the ice, opposing teams are recording shot attempts at a markedly higher rate against the Isles than when Hickey is on the ice. This allows us to see how Hickey's presence helps the Islanders prevent shots by the other team. And preventing shots, ohbytheway, is the fundamental responsibility of a defenseman.
In the first chart, opponents' rates of 0.912 and 1.06 from the points and 1.01 from the home plate area are respectable numbers. All three of those rates, however, increase in the second chart—especially in the now-entirely red scoring chance area—which shows us that without Hickey on the ice, the Islanders have consistently given up shot attempts at higher rates throughout the defensive zone.
It's right there in black and white—er- blue and red: when Hickey is in the game, the Islanders are better defensively, especially in front of the net, which is where a player's size is often thought to be his biggest asset in terms of preventing scoring chances. Basically, the Isles give up shot attempts at a lower rate when the "weak, undersized" Hickey is on the ice, and they give up shot attempts at a higher rate when this "small, non-physical" D-man is off the ice. We're not making this up.
Here's another chart, this time showing the shot rate differential against Hickey in comparison to the per-60-minute league average. Again, blue is good and red is bad:
Hickey's numbers are impressive, and not just for a so-called "little guy." Opposing teams are generating shot attempts against him at below league-average rates: -1.62 and -1.14 from the points, and -0.886 from the slot area. Those rates are indicative of a defenseman who's able to break up zone entries and shut down passing lanes; if the offense can't get pucks to the net, the defense is doing its job.
Nature abhors a vacuum; let's put Hickey's numbers in context
OK, what about the Islanders' other blueliners? Maybe they're all really good at suppressing shots, meaning Hickey isn't necessarily special in his ability to do so. Fine. We accept your skepticism. Understand it, even.
Below are the even-strength shot rate differential charts for the rest of the Isles' key defensemen over the same time period (2013-15) who are currently under contract. We've also included their respective cap hits, because numbers are fun:
Johnny Boychuk ($6M)
Calvin de Haan ($1.967M)
Travis Hamonic ($3.857M)
Nick Leddy, $5.5M
Brian Strait, $775K
With the exception of de Haan—another sometimes victim of the misguided "he's not big or strong enough" argument—Hickey is the best Islanders defenseman in terms of preventing shots across all three areas of the defensive zone. He's basically Leddy from a shot suppression standpoint, but better in front of the net.
What we're saying is...
Apparently Hickey's size doesn't negatively affect his ability to prevent shots from the front of the cage. Or anywhere, for that matter. Correct us if we're wrong, but that type of shot suppression skill is one that every NHL team would love to have in a blueliner, especially one who sees most of his ice time as part of the third pairing.
When compared to other big-name D-men in free agency this year, Hickey is an absolute steal. The career shot suppression rates of the newly rich Andrej Sekera ($5.5M cap hit), defensive specialist Paul Martin ($4.85M), noted crease-clearer Barret Jackman ($2M), and Stanley-Cup-pedigree-having-but-still-a-free-agent-althought-not-for-much-longer Johnny Oduya ($3.5M) aren't as good as Hickey's.
(In case you're interested, here are the War-On-Ice numbers for Sekera, Martin, Jackman, and Oduya; filter on the starting season to include the data for their full careers.)
All this to say: Hickey is a solid signing.
He's a plus-possession player with a lifetime 52.8 Corsi for percentage. He's an above-average shot suppressor, as we showed you earlier. He's a defenseman who's undervalued from a salary cap standpoint, but does his job in the puck possession-centric NHL very well, even though he's not the size of an NFL pass-rush specialist. And now he's patrolling the blue line for the Islanders at reasonable salary for the next three years.
If there is something not to like about any of those things, we are at a loss to understand what that is.
Shot rate charts and possession figures are courtesy of the incomparable and ever-so-helpful War-On-Ice.com. Salary information is courtesy of GeneralFanager.com, which is also a pretty cool internet website.