One of the more common terms that comes up as a need for the New Jersey Devils is a "puck moving defenseman." A decade ago, the Devils had a fearsome blueline with Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, and Brian Rafalski leading the way. In this past decade, those three have left for varying reasons and while the Devils have had good defenses since then, the desire for a "puck moving defenseman" has grown. Even to the point where Devils fans online will just write "PMD" and other fans will know exactly what they mean.
Well, I want to ask this basic question: what exactly is a puck moving defenseman anyway?
By definition, I would think this would be a defenseman who is adept at moving the puck up the ice to forwards to begin the attack. How does one measure who is and who isn't good at it, though?
Assists are given to those who set up goal scoring plays. While that may fit as one degree of measurement, I don't think it tells us very much. As indicated by some of the reaction of his re-signing, Andy Greene is not thought of as a good puck moving defenseman. Yet, as per Hockey Reference, his 37 assists in 2008-09 were the fourth highest total among Devils defensemen behind Paul Martin (who didn't get this reputation) and Brian Rafalski (who does). Sure, Greene didn't come close to that last season, but goal scoring eluded the team as a whole like no other past New Jersey teams. Just because the plays don't finish doesn't mean the puck wasn't moved well by a defender.
How about on-ice Corsi at even strength? Corsi is given if a player is on the ice when someone on their team attempts a shot. The Devils didn't score many goals in 2010-11, but they often had the better of puck possession - especially under Jacques Lemaire. According to Behind the Net, Henrik Tallinder should be given the title of PMD as he led the team with a 9.3 on-ice Corsi rate. Plus, Tallinder's 9.3 on-ice Corsi rate was the 24th highest in the league among defensemen who played at least 20 games. Tallinder played more than enough minutes last season that this cannot be a fluke or solely the result of Tallinder playing with some good players. Yet, I can't fully discount either being a factor. After all, a perfectly good mover of the puck may be sandbagged with a teammate who drags them down or doesn't have a good line in front of them to pass it to. They can get punished despite of their actual talent. It's for these same reasons that I don't want to just look at on-ice/off-ice differential in shots for per 60 minutes and conclude someone's role.
Perhaps it's something you only see? After all, not every pass leads to anything of substance or is even measured by any available means to determine what's good and what's bad. It is most definitely a skill, though, and that can be seen on the ice. Let's consider the Devils' fourth overall pick of 2011, Adam Larsson, for example. Kirk Luedeke of 2011 Bruins Draft Watch loved his vision and puck moving skills. Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus highlighted his abilities when it came to passing the puck. Other scouts raved about his vision and decision making in similar ways. Clearly, this is evidence that a skillset appropriate for a puck moving defenseman can be identified through scouting. If it can be done for a prospect, then it can be done for a currently active NHL player on, say, a breakout or a first pass.
However, this approach can be rife with confirmation bias. You may see a defenseman have a few bad games (e.g. turnovers, bad reads, etc.) and conclude the wrong thing about his game. You may see that same defenseman have a few great games (e.g. making nearly every pass, finding his guys all over the rink, etc.) and conclude he's better than he actually is. It's because of this I prefer stats since it takes a lot of the "I've seen him good/bad" opinion out of a proper evaluation. It cuts down on the amount of scouting that is needed to form a proper opinion on the player, be they a prospect or a currently active NHL player. At the same time, I respect what it can do in theory.
Ultimately, I would have to think it's a combination of all of this. You may need to see the player demonstrate that they can make good first passes out of a zone and lead a successful breakout play, for example. Yet, to confirm whether they are a good "PMD" is to see whether their team gets shots on net at a higher rate when they're on the ice, whether their team has the better of possession, and whether they get any assists to go with it. Ability without some means of production doesn't really mean much for the team. It's a lot better than reputation, where players get a label (or the lack of one) for one reason or another and they never lose it despite whether they deserve it.
Of course, perhaps I'm mistaken. So I put the question to you over the next two days. What exactly is a puck moving defenseman in your opinion? What traits should such a player have? How do you know whether the player is a good PMD as opposed to a bad one? Do the Devils have any such players? Should we be saying that the Devils need an offensive defenseman as opposed to a puck moving defenseman - as they are not the same thing? Let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for reading.