Can Anton Volchenkov be a Top-4 Defenseman for the NJ Devils?

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The Devils have been paying Anton Volchenkov $4.25 million / year since the start of the 2010-2011 season. Can he earn his money moving forward as a Top-2 or even Top-4 defenseman with the team?

When Lou signed Anton Volchenkov to a 6 year contract prior to the 2010-2011 season, I think it’s pretty clear what role he intended A-Train to fill for this New Jersey Devils team. Volchenkov is a tough as nails, hard hitting, stay at home type of defenseman who is an outstanding shot blocker. All of these are great qualities in a defenseman, no doubt. I mean, there was certainly a lot to like about Volchenkov’s game during his time in Ottawa. When Volchenkov patrolled the blue-line, opposing players knew to keep their heads up or risk being knocked into next week with a vicious check. The Devils certainly were lacking this type of fear –inducing blue line presence for several years after the retirement of Scott Stevens. Colin White, a decent physical presence on the blue line, was never really the same player after suffering a scary eye injury just before the 2007-2008 season. Yes, the once storied New Jersey blue line had been somewhat of a war of attrition over the years leading up to the July 2010 free agency period. Compounding the situation even more, Paul Martin, arguably the Devils’ best defenseman at the time, left New Jersey for seemingly greener pastures at the start of free agency.

I certainly understand the why behind the Volchenkov signing. The Devils needed to restock the blue line, and Volchenkov was probably the biggest name available at the time. They certainly paid him like a top-two defenseman. In fact, his salary for 2012-2013 is greater than the salaries of Mark Fayne and Andy Greene combined. But what exactly were the Devils getting for their money? Were they getting the top-2 defenseman they paid for? Is there any hope he can produce moving forward at a top-2 or even top-4 level? To answer these questions, I looked at the player's history prior to signing in NJ. What sort of use did the Senators get from Volchenkov the few years prior to his signing? Perhaps this will give us a perspective on his two seasons already in the books in Newark and some perspective on expectations moving forward. Stay with me after the jump for the analysis.

John wrote an excellent piece early this playoff season about the fall of Anton Volchenkov. This was certainly a low point for the defenseman. In this article, John describes Volchenkov’s struggles, which were plentiful at the time. No doubt, he bottomed out during the 2011-2012 playoffs and most likely during that Florida series. Fortunately, he seemed to bounce back a little in the later rounds. Behind the Net only has statistics for the first 16 games of the playoffs, so I don’t have the results from the final two games of the Rangers series plus the 6 games in the Finals. Just based on memory, I think he probably had his best series of the playoffs against the Kings. The Devils as a team were generally beaten pretty handily in possession during the Finals, so anything that happened probably didn’t improve Volchenkov’s overall numbers.

Anyway, the 16 games on record are not quite the horror show at the time of John’s analysis in the Florida series, but they are still pretty bad. It’s tough to get a lot of value out of advanced stats in the playoffs because of the fact that the same matchups against the same players are generally occurring over and over again for up to 7 games at a time. There’s just really not much else to look at with a player like Volchenkov who doesn’t show up in the score sheet. One thing that is worth noting – Volchenkov started 57.8 % of the time in the offensive zone and only finished there 45.3 %. I don’t think anyone who watched the Devils during April and May would try to argue Volchenkov was good. His relative level of bad perhaps decreased as the playoffs went on.

Also, John discussed what Anton has to do when at his best to even come close to providing value for his massive contract. Basically, he needs to shut down the opposition, because he provides next to nothing offensively. So far, the best way to describe his performance is that he’s been different levels of disappointing in completing this task. This is not entirely his fault however. I think after looking a little deeper into his historical numbers Volchenkov stood no chance of ever providing value for this contract. The Devils overpaid, and I think they pretty much realized as such from the get-go, as shown by his usage right from the start in NJ. His time on ice splits and quality of competition tell a large part of the story.

In this chart are some of Volchenkov's post lockout statistics. After every column is a column titled "rank". This is a ranking of Volchenkov relative to the other defenders on his team. All data in this chart is from NHL.com, except for the SA On/60, which is from Behind the Net.

Volchenkov_stats_medium

Volchenkov was actually never higher than 3rd among Ottawa defensemen in total time on ice / game. So, every season in Ottawa, even when he was at his best, there were at least two other blue liners who were called on more. Volchenkov was also never higher than 3rd among regular defensemen in shifts / game. To me, this is telling. Although he faced the toughest competition for several of these seasons, Anton never spent the most time on ice. There were always at least 2 other defensemen on the team who played more minutes per game overall. Regardless, he averaged ~20 minutes per game overall with Ottawa.

With the Senators, Anton was between 2nd and 4th among defensemen in 5x5 TOI/gm every one of his 5 post-lockout seasons. Still, he averaged just 16:08 at evens (~16:30 if you eliminate ’05-’06) for Ottawa in these 5 seasons. His number for his first season in NJ was 15:57 per game at 5v5. This is not a big drop off in terms of actual minutes played. In fact, it’s pretty close to in-line with his career averages. But right from the start, Volchenkov occupied a lower position in the NJ pecking order than he held in Ottawa. In his two NJ seasons, Volchenkov ranked 6th /6 and 8th / 8 in even strength time on ice per game out of defensemen with 30+ games played. Yes, that is right, the most expensive man on the NJ blue line for two seasons spent the least time (avg) on ice at 5 v 5 every game.

The Devils probably expected to get a guy who could put up around 20 minutes a night, as Volchenkov did in Ottawa. Hopefully they were not expecting a player to really eat minutes at evens, as this was never Anton’s game. The way he got to his ~20 minutes of ice time a night was by logging a whopping almost 4:00 minutes of shorthanded ice time per game during his 5 years in Ottawa. Unless the Devils planned to deploy Anton in the same manner, they were destined from the start never to have a 20 min / game defenseman for their money.

This is exactly what happened in Volchenkov’s first season in NJ. Lemaire’s approach was to use a more even distribution on the penalty kill, with 5 players averaging between 2:08 (Anton) and 2:46 per game. This difference in SH TOI alone accounts for most of Volchenkov’s decline in minutes between his final year in Ottawa and first in NJ. Still, it is not encouraging that there were 4 other players more trusted on the penalty kill than Anton. In 2011-2012, DeBoer deployed Volchenkov as a penalty kill specialist, and he led the team with just over 3 minutes per game shorthanded on a record setting penalty kill unit.

He was always a top penalty killer with the Senators, and it was good to see him get back to that role this past season with the Devils. Penalty killing is one area where he can continue to contribute to the team. Penalty killing is a much more stay at home job description than anything else currently available on the Devils blue line. Volchenkov can block shots, push people around down low, and not have to worry about getting beaten up and down the ice in shorthanded situations.

While his PK time rose, Anton’s ES TOI also dropped to under 15 minutes per game in 2011-2012, its lowest number since 2005-2006. This drop off is a bit disturbing because the Devils blue-line was struggling at times this past season with depth due to injuries. AHL call up Matt Taormina actually averaged more time on ice per game at even strength than Volchenkov this past season. Additionally, Volchenkov has pretty much faced the weakest competition of any Devils regular on the blue line over the past two seasons. In Ottawa, he was generally facing the toughest competition on the team.

Now, granted Anton did end up way behind in advanced statistics several of these seasons in Ottawa. In fact in 2007-2008, both Volchenkov and his partner Chris Phillips got absolutely crushed in possession while facing the toughest competition the opponents had to offer on a nightly basis. This is not entirely surprising for a defenseman with little to offer offensively. If he is not going to provide much in terms of shots or offensive possession, the only way to avoid getting slaughtered in Corsi events is to prevent shots. The data for this metric only exists from 2007 onward, and Volchenkov’s numbers were up and down over the years. The two seasons he fared poorly in Corsi events, he also was among the worst on the Ottawa blue line in SA On/60. This is not at all surprising. The one season (2008-2009) where his possession numbers were decent, he also led the team in SA On/60.

Volchenkov led the NJ blue line in SA On/60 both seasons as a Devil. This is a promising statistic. What’s less promising is the fact that he is continually facing a much lower level of competition here in New Jersey than ever before in his career.. At least during the regular seasons he was serviceable doing so.

Volchenkov has always been a great shot-blocker. This is one area he almost always led the Ottawa team, and the same is true for New Jersey. This is an area that Volchenkov must contribute to be effective. His average of shots blocked per game has been on a slow decline for about 6 years now. His averages in NJ are much lower than any time in Ottawa, however he still led the Devils this past season. The Devils as a team just don’t block nearly as many shots as the Senators traditionally did with Volchenkov. So because of systematic differences, the actual raw totals are not that upsetting. But, this is one of the defenders strengths- one of the best skills he brings to the table and it’s not a vital part of the Devils defensive strategy. This factor alone also limits Volchenkov’s value to the team.

Also, in discussing Volchenkov’s ice time this past season, it’s worth mentioning the systematic change Pete DeBoer installed with the Devils when he took over as coach in 2011-2012. He brought a style where the defensemen are much more involved in the offensive zone. Under Jacques Lemaire, the defensemen often hung back, rarely joining the play in the offensive zone. Lemaire’s style of play is much more suitable for a guy like Volchenkov, who is not a great skater or particularly adept at offense. Obviously no one in the Devils organization could have known these changes would occur when Volchenkov was signed. Still, it seems like another factor stacked against his viability as a top player on the Devils blue line moving forward.

All of these analysis points don’t bode well for the Return On Investment on the Volchenkov contract. In fact, I think the ship has long sailed on the Devils ever getting close to value.

The thing is, I don’t think was ever possible with this player and this contract. The analysis shows that even in a perfect world where Volchenkov performed exactly as well as he did in Ottawa, he never could have really lived up to the contract he signed. He was never a top-2 guy in Ottawa in ice time overall. He only once in his career hit 17 minutes a game at evens. And, we haven’t even discussed his declining physical skills yet, which are certainly a factor for any player. It seems like any player whose best asset is his physicality is fighting an increasingly uphill battle with age. The wear and tear on a guy who plays the game like Volchenkov has to be much greater than a player like Andy Greene, for example, who doesn’t charge full speed into the path of every player and every flying puck in sight. At the same time, his physical style of play is the best thing Volchenkov has going for him. There's really no other way he can play the game and be the slightest bit effective.

Volchenkov always had shortcomings as a player. During his best years, it was easy to overlook these, however, because of his style of play. They also weren’t as noticeable as they are today. I’m not saying this conclusively by any means, it’s merely an opinion. Usually you don’t notice the best defensive defensemen when they are on their game. Ideally, very little eventful or memorable things happen at their expense. Despite being a very defensive defenseman, Volchenkov is always a very noticeable player for better or for worse because of his style of play. Unless his mistake led directly to a goal, it’s easily overshadowed by a more vivid memory of the time he blew a guy up with an electrifying hit or threw himself face first towards an oncoming slapshot to save a goal. But then the wheels completely came off the bus last playoff season and all of his shortcomings kind of appeared front and center all at once.

Moving forward, I just don’t expect Volchenkov to be nearly as bad as he was for that brief stretch during the playoffs. His main problems were his lack of speed and his positioning. He can easily fix his positioning, which was often very faulty during his worst moments. It improved a bit as the playoffs went on, and it’s a very correctable problem anyway. A couple video sessions with Scott Stevens and Volchenkov will be positioning like a boss. Lack of speed is more concerning, but Volchenkov was never a player who relied on his speed in the first place. In fact, during his prime, he still relied heavily on his positioning to make up for his average skating. I think in a lot of ways he was never quite as good as he appeared even at his best, nor is he quite as bad as he appeared of late.

For these reasons, I am cautiously optimistic that we can expect an A-Train more similar to the 2011-2012 regular season performer moving forward than the playoff nightmare variety. Regardless, and as much as I love Anton Volchenkov as a player, it may not matter. I just don’t see him cracking the top -4 in New Jersey pretty much ever unless the blue line is decimated with injuries. He may even struggle to crack the top six at times this upcoming season.

Lets say he can return to the level he perfomed at for much of the 2011-2012 season. This won't be good enough for the 2012-2013 Devils. The blue line is just too deep. Volchenkov is a guy who couldn't even get more ice time than Colin White in 2010-2011. Anssi Salmela and Matt Taormina got more even strength ice time on average than Volchenkov that season. Now, you have Fayne and Tallinder, Greene and Salvador, and Larsson and Zidlicky.

The discussion has changed from whether or not Volchenkov can play a top -4 role (no) to if Volchenkov is going to have a regular spot on the blueline. To do so, he needs prove he is a better option in some way than one of these six players. I could certainly see him used in games where the Devils want to establish a physical presence. Against opponents such as the Flyers and Rangers, he needs to do what he has done his whole career - hit , hit and hit some more, and certainly he will find his way into the lineup.


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