Colin White is a Pretty Good #3 Defensive Defenseman: An Analysis

It's time to take a closer look at the big man from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia: Colin White (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

I feel bad for defensive players in general.  Goaltenders can pull off outstanding and important saves that catch everyone's eye.  Offensive players can set up scoring chances, create chances of their own, and, of course, score goals that gets everyone's attention in the arena.  Energy guys and goons are fan favorites for being physical. Defensive players often get the short end of the stick since their main job is to prevent opportunities from happening, to get "stops" on the opposition, and often times that's all about being in the right position and being patient rather than throwing an impressive hit or stealing the puck away.

Basically, if no one notices that you made a mistake, then some may see you as "invisible" in the game in spite of the work you put in.  If you make a mistake, then some people will remember you as the Guy Who Makes Mistakes and will want you dumped as soon as possible.    It goes double for defensemen since they're generally not going to be getting forward and taking part on offense regularly; there's a reason why they are defensive defensemen.  At least Jay Pandolfo can rush up ice and make people falsely believe he can make something happen on a counter-attack.

This leads me to Colin White.  He's been a New Jersey Devil for his entire career; but I get the sense that he's persona non grata among some Devils fans.   Sure, no one will ever confuse him for being a point machine, but he's been a steady defenseman in the past decade.  Yet, you make one point about something positive about White and immediately someone's got to bring up how he's not good anymore.

Well, let's look at the past 3 seasons then.  Let's see how White measures up within his own team and the league in those three seasons, see where he rates.   Instead of relying on confirmation bias like "Oh, I always see him making errors," let's see whether the opposition is pounding the Devils whenever he's on the ice. Let's see what level of competition White has seen.   I can only do the last 3 seasons since that's what Behind the Net has, but it's a lot better than sticking to stupid.

What is Colin White's Role?

Before jumping into his performance, let's establish what role he was on the team.  Here's White's average time on ice and even strength time on ice for the last three seasons, along with his rank on the team (which is in parentheses) from NHL.com.  I've also added his quality of competition (with team rankings) and net zone starts (defensive starts minus offensive starts, and without team rankings) at 5-on-5 hockey from Behind the Net. This will provide context to the minutes White's played.

Colin White ES TOI Avg. TOI 5-on-5 Qual Comp Net Zone Starts
07-08 Season 16:15 (2) 19:40 (3) 0.088 (1) -2
08-09 Season 15:50 (5) 19:01 (4) 0.028 (t-2) 24
09-10 Season 17:32 (5) 20:04 (5) 0.036 (1) 118

 

Incidentally, for the ice time rankings, I've ignored players who joined the Devils late in the season: Bryce Salvador in 2007-08, Niclas Havelid in 2008-09. They played so few games that I didn't want their high ice time averages bringing down those who were with the team all season.  Also, in 2009-10, two of the people ahead of White in both ice time categories was Johnny Oduya, who was injured early and then later traded in February, and Paul Martin, who missed a large chunk of the season with an arm injury. 

Speaking of, in 07-08, only Bryce Salvador, he of 8 games with the Devils, had a higher quality of competition, which included his time in St. Louis.  In 08-09, only Paul Martin had a higher quality of competition, and White was tied with Oduya. 

Nevertheless, White's ice time is consistent for a second-pairing defenseman.  It's about 19-20 minutes, he's not leading the team at either even strength or overall (which makes sense as White isn't on a PP unit).  When you consider quality of competition and his zone starts, it's clearer that his job has been difficult.  He has faced strong relative competition among his teammates, and with each passing season, he's been starting far more in his own zone than in the attacking zone (last season was highlighted here).

To me, it's clear that Colin White is a second-pairing defenseman who faces difficult competition, which is consistent with being a defensive defenseman.  And, now, a difficult question:

If White was really affected by the eye injury or if he was regressing as a player, then why would Brent Sutter increase White's defensive zone starts whilst facing strong competition while lessening his time?  Why would Jacques Lemaire then come in and really utilize him as a defensive stopper and increase his ice time?  

Hold on to your answers, for now. Let's see how White stacked up with his performance in each of those seasons.

How Has Colin White Performed?

It's always been a difficult question to properly analyze how someone has done on defense.  Personally, I believe the main job of a defenseman is to prevent the opposition from attacking.   There isn't an end-all, be-all stat for defense (yet), but for now we can utilize on-ice and off-ice stats for shots and goals against.   Behind the Net calculates those values as a per-60 minute rate.   I will be using those for comparison purposes.   I am defining impact on shots against per 60 (SA/60) and goals against per 60 (GA/60) as the difference between off-ice numbers and on-ice numbers, so the higher the number, the better.   I will be using the 5-on-5 situational values since players will play a majority of their game in those situations.

I've also ranked Colin White's values across the league.  Since White's minutes and role has been established, I am comparing him with defensemen who have played a similar amount of ice time.   Therefore, all rankings are among defensemen who have played at least 20 games and had a TOI/60 value of 15 or better.   In 2007-08, 108 defensemen fit that criteria.  In 2008-09, 123 defensemen accomplished both.  In 2009-10, 132 defensemen fit the bill.   If you've done both, chances are that you're one of the top 3 or 4 defensemen on your team; so I think it's fair for White to be compared among his peers.

Here's Colin White's numbers from each season:

Colin White On-Ice SA/60 On-Ice GA/60 SA/60  Impact GA/60 Impact     5-on-5    Qual Comp
07-08 Season 26.6 (t-62) 2.10 (27) -4.5 (106) -0.3 (80) 0.088
08-09 Season 25.0 (19) 2.45 (53) 2.2 (20) -0.51 (103) 0.028
09-10 Season 24.8 (21) 2.32 (t-44) -0.1 (64) -0.42 (108) 0.036

 

I've included the 5-on-5 quality of competition too, but unranked since it's just for context.  So this is how White has stood up in terms of the two key components of a defense: shots against and goals against.   White's has yet to have a good season in terms of on-ice impact on GA/60. That's not so good.  I think that's mitigated by his consistently above average on-ice GA/60, though, as well as the reality that he's faced tough competition in each of these three seasons.   White has had an inconsistent impact on SA/60, going from next-to-next-to-worst to very-good-and-just-behind-Paul-Martin to above-average-and-having-a-slightly-negative-impact.  But again, this inconsistency is mitigated by his solid on-ice SA/60 as well as level of competition.

What is good is that his on-ice SA/60 has fallen from season to season, even though he's started in his own zone more often in each of these three seasons. To me, that's more impressive than his excellent on-ice impact on SA/60 in 2008-09.

Still, the summary is simple: when White steps on the ice, the rate of goals against increased; however, his actual on-ice stats for both shots and goals against rate has remained solidly low relative to most of the rest of the league. I wouldn't say that White is great, I think some of these numbers are influenced by the fact that he comes on after the first pairing (Martin-Oduya, Greene-Salvador) and generally tough situations.   Short of White playing fantastically great all season long, the shots against and goals against are likely to increase for most defensemen. Overall, I would conclude that White has played well relative to his peers, but that's really it.

Without numbers from before the lockout as well as the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, I can't really compare pre-eye injury White with post-eye injury White.  I don't know how one can solidly conclude whether White was playing better before; that if it never happened, then he'd be even better.  Maybe he would have been, maybe he didn't, but based on the available information, White's definitely not a waste of a roster spot.

Conclusions

Through this closer look at Colin White's performance in the last three seasons, I hope it should be clearer as to what we can reasonably expect and demand from this defenseman.  

He's an 18-20 minute-per-night defenseman because he's been given those kind of minutes in the last 3 seasons. White has not averaged more ice time than the top pairing since he wasn't actually on it.

White has been and will continue to be a defensive defenseman who plays against tough competition and tends to start in his own zone, which makes for even more difficult situations.  This has been justified by his increased proportion of zone starts in his zone from season to season and his relative quality of competition to the rest of his team. Both are in some level of control by the team's head coach, so White's been given this confidence from two different coaches in the last 3 seasons.

Partially because of his talent and partially because of the situations he faced from night-to-night, White did not have a positive impact on goals against per 60 or a consistent impact on shots against per 60, ranging from terrible to exemplary to above-average.   That said, White did enjoy solid on-ice SA/60 and GA/60 values, so even a negative impact didn't lead to White being a sieve among his peers in the league.

Colin White's only hit the 20 point plateau once, in the 2000-01 season. He's not going to develop an offensive game, he's not going to become a solid puck mover like Andy Greene or the now-departed Paul Martin, he's not going to develop a sweet move that will make all the fans go "Oooh" every night, and he's not even a stud defender.  (Aside: He's also not a penalty machine, as I shown last summer, do note he only put up 46 PIM last season.) I feel it is justifiable to say that White is a solid #3 defenseman.  He'll take on the opposition's best players and generally come out well, as he has done in recent seasons.

In the coming season, he may not even face the toughest competition given the arrival of defensive defenseman Anton Volchenkov, but the Devils definitely have someone who can do the job when Volchenkov comes off - also justifiable based on the last 3 seasons.  We can quibble about whether this is all worth $3 million, but the notion that White is a third-pairing defender now or that he should be moved is, to me, silly.  He's good, but not great.  Above-average if you want to be pickier, but he's definitely not dead weight on the ice.

Your Take

Now that you have read my whole take on Colin White, I want to know what you think.  What's your take on Colin White?  Do you think he's doing to the job he's capable of doing?  If you don't agree with the notion that White's not bad, then why do you think White is bad?  Do you even agree with the methodology; did I get something wrong? Please leave all your answers and other Colin White-related thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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