Rating Calgary’s Defensemen



Measuring a player’s defensive abilities and contributions is very difficult, as we discussed in the recent Babchuk vs Regehr series but perhaps there are a few things to be learned from catch-all statistics, like Hockey-Reference’s point shares, Tom Awad’s GVT, Alan Ryder’s Player Contributions and the WhatIfSports engine, and how they defensively rank Calgary’s current blue line of Anton Babchuk, Chris Butler, Cory Sarich, Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano and Scott Hannan since the lock-out.

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Hockey-Reference Point Shares

Justin’s approach over at Hockey-Reference establishes Jay Bouwmeester as Calgary’s strongest defensemen, consistently leading the group every season except for a close 2nd in 2005-06 to Scott Hannan and to Mark Giordano in 2009-10.

According to this system the weak link is Chris Butler, dead last in each of his three seasons, except for besting Mark Giordano in 2009-10 – another defenseman portrayed as a weak link if not for a big 2009-10 season.

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Scott Hannan and Cory Sarich are perhaps properly classified as consistent middle-of-the-pack defensively, but Anton Babchuk is erroneously thrown in that basket as well.

Vollman’s Folly (Hockey-Reference distributed by ice-time)

The approach developed last week tried to distribute the defensive contributions more equitably based on ice-time, and at the very least it makes for a less chaotic graph.

Beyond correctly placing Anton Babchuk at the bottom, what makes this approach unique is that Scott Hannan stands out as the elite defenseman – though he is still trending down from that level just as most other approaches suggest.

Cory Sarich is next, bested only by Jay Bouwmeester in 2009-10, followed by Mark Giordano – who is again seen as a weak link until 2009-10, while Chris Butler and Anton Babchuk bring up the rear with almost identical measurements over the past three seasons.

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Tom Awad’s GVT (Goals Versus Threshold)

Tom Awad’s GVT system is probably the most common catch-all measurement around, and it has Jay Bouwmeester on top in 2010-11, but sees him as someone who has made a consistent improvement from the worst of the bunch back in 2007-08, rather than someone who has been on top all along.

GVT also sees Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan as comparable players finishing in the top three every season but once (and unfortunately misplaces Anton Babchuk in this basket), but is the only system that gives Sarich the slight edge.   The general consensus on Hannan’s gradual decline from the elite level is perhaps best shown with GVT.

After that, Mark Giordano’s 2009-10 season again looks like a fluke year from an otherwise weak defensive link, besting only Chris Butler last season.

Alan Ryder’s Player Contributions

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Alan Ryder’s Player Contributions is similar to Tom Awad’s GVT, and just as established, but uses a far more detailed and complex formula. 

PC ranks Jay Bouwmeester as the best defenseman of the bunch two years running, but agrees with GVT that it required climbing up from a couple of weak defensive seasons after a great 2006-07.

Add one more vote for Scott Hannan over Cory Sarich – PC sees him as the better defensively all six seasons, the best over-all until 2009-10, and remaining a top-three option. 

Two things make PC’s perspective unique – Cory Sarich is seen as a weak link in 2009-10, and near the bottom of a tight pack in 2010-11, and while PC agrees that Mark Giordano was a weak link until 2009-10, it felt that it was no fluke, and he remained a sound, top-two defensive option in 2010-11 – quite comparable to Scott Hannan.

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As for Anton Babchuk, he’s seen as middle-of-the-pack defensively and trending up, while Chris Butler is seen as the weak link.


I don’t know who generates the defensive values for the WhatIfSports simulator, nor what method they use, but it’s the only system that has Chris Butler in the mix – as the best of the bunch in 2008-09 and a top-three option in 2010-11.

Before we get too excited with WhatIfSports, it falls into the same “Anton Babchuk is awesome” trap, consistently placing the defensively-challenged Russian atop the group in recent seasons.

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WhatifSports also seems to agree with the assessment that Mark Giordano had a fluke year in 2009-10, but didn’t previously see him as a weak link (though it certainly does now). 

Cory Sarich was considered the worst of the bunch for four seasons before moving up to match Scott Hannan, who appears to be steady barring a bad 2007-08 season (his first in Colorado).

And what of Jay Bouwmeester?  WhatIfSports is on their own with him – he’s been ranked 2nd last in the group these past two seasons.

Strat-o-Matic Hockey

There’s another hockey simulator that I played as a child called Strat-o-Matic.  Defensively it divides players into four broad categories from 4 (Best) to 1 (Worst), using its own secret approach.

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Strat-o-Matic sees a sharp divide in Calgary’s blue line.  Jay Bouwmeester, Scott Hannan and Cory Sarich are all consistently rated a 4 year after year – though Sarich was only a 3 in 2008-09, and Hannan got a rare 5 in 2009-10.

Mark Giordano, Chris Butler and Anton Babchuk are all consistently rated a below-average 2, with Butler getting only a terrible 1 in 2009-10.

The Consensus

These five different systems achieve a general consensus on several points going into this 2011-12 season, as follows (any systems with exceptions are in parentheses):

• Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan are comparable players defensively (PC)
• Scott Hannan has the edge over Cory Sarich (GVT)
• Over-all, Scott Hannan is trending down defensively (WIS)
• For several years Anton Babchuk has also been at (or above) Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan’s level (VF)
• Mark Giordano had a fluke 2009-10 season defensively (VF, PC)
• Mark Giordano is otherwise one of the weaker players defensively (PC, WIS).
• Jay Bouwmeester had a great 2006-07 season defensively (VF)
• Chris Butler is generally the worst of the bunch defensively (WIS)

We could add a point that Jay Bouwmeester is generally their best defensive defenseman, but there isn’t enough consensus on that point.  The new system gives a slight edge to Hannan, GVT placed Bouwmeester no better than 3rd until last season, and WhatIfSports had him as the 2nd worst defenseman three of the past four seasons.

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I’m pleased that the new system we developed last week was the only one to correctly classify Anton Babchuk as playing at a defensive level below Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan while still agreeing with the masses on the less controversial points above. 

The "Vollman" system is also less prone to exaggerating strong seasons like Jay Bouwmeester’s 2006-07 or Mark Giordano’s 2009-10.

Two questions for you to answer in the comments:
1. Which system did you like/dislike the most?
2. Which of the eight consensus points do you disagree with most strongly?


  • Sobueno

    Maybe I’m way off here, but this seems to confirm my eralier assertions that JBo makes Butler look better than he is (ala Hamrlik with Phaneuf back in the day), that losing Regehr really would hurt this team and that Hannan is much closer to Sarich than he is to Regehr.

    We’re lucky to have Kipper.

  • There are a few mysteries based on Calgary’s play this year, for sure.

    – If Chris Butler was a 3rd-liner at best, how come he’s an effective 1st-line shutdown guy this year?
    – If Cory Sarich is as good as Scott Hannan, how come he’s a 3rd-liner who doesn’t even kill penalties?
    – If Scott Hannan is solid and Mark Giordano weak, how come Hannan struggled without Gio?

  • Sworkhard

    I like Alan Ryder’s Player Contributions the best. To me it most matches reality and really reflects what we’ve seen from the players on the ice.

    Personally, I think Butler has been riding luck (he’s been very fortunate that some of his glaring defensive zone turnovers haven’t ended up in the back of the net) and good chemistry with Bouwmeester and that is why he appears to be an effective shutdown guy. I’ll be very surprised if he remains as good of an option next year. I’d like to see his numbers playing without Bouwmeester. I’ll be surprised if they are what you’d expect if he’s really a #2 defensive option. I expect Butler to regress to a top 4, but not top 2 defensive guy next year, barring an actual improvement in his play under pressure(which is possible).

    edit: Further evidence of this is that while Bouwmeester’s PDO is 1002, Butlers is 1014, tied with Babchuck for first among defense men. Definitely some luck involved in Butler’s appearances as a shutdown guy.

    To me, these rankings in general are ES rankings. Sarich is pretty solid at ES. He doesn’t have the ability to play big minutes in general though, and I think that’s why he’s not on special teams much. When Sarich is on the PK though, he’s done a decent job at it (hasn’t been scored on yet, but he plays less than a minute per game on the pk)

    This is of course assuming that these are rankings of how well the defense men play when they play, and not on how much they play.

  • Vintage Flame

    One thing I would like to see is this comparison be sent out to all GM’s before the trade deadline with hopes that it increases Sarich’s trade value.

    Like wolf said, these various models show the tendency that it’s Bouwmeester that makes Butler look anything close to decent, which is not the case. Is he one they cut bait on given how well Brodie and Smith have looked this season?

    Getting back to Sarich, I’m not advocating his trade because I don’t like him or anything, rather I think with his improved play, he might garner a good return for a team looking for a vet presence to make a run. I still think he no longer fits in the long term plan of this team.

    Hannan’s numbers surprised me. I actually thought he was a lot weaker than what this showed, though that might also be indicative of the downward trends.

    Gio is the biggest surprise. Can we really call his 2010 season a “Fluke” I know he had a rough rough start to the season and the injury certainly didn’t help his case, but are we ready to call it a fluke already?

    • wawful

      I think Gio’s suprise but not in a good way has more or less been touched on but mainly overlooked by FN. His injury is probably one reason but his performance was not up to par prior to the injury. At points of a game his skills are undeniable but something is missing. VF, who was his defensive pairing in 2010 & last year? Was it Regehr? I think because JBO & Butler are playing top minutes & they dont hit anybody, Hannan is great value but no where near the physical presence he used to be, Gio is playing outside his strengths & regular game that have us all deeming him our future captain. We have had some real nice defensive suprises in Brodie, Smith & Wilson but none of them could be considered that hammering defensive presence guys like Regehr & Phaneuf gave opposing dangling forwards something to think about. This small but critical aspect of our defensive makeup seems to domino into possession times, as opposing forwards are more comfortable with carrying the puck over the blueline versus shooting in and chasing.

      This is only going to get worse as games become more playoff like in February & March.
      What Feaster needs to get I dont think will be available until the off season. But we need a reknowned hitting 3-4 dman. Brodie & Gio are phenominal puck carrying transition Dmen. JBO is redundent but we cant afford to move him unless we get a very good return. I dont see a quick fix to this situation without moving a big piece, but Feaster needs to target some dmen that fits this profile & see what it would take to get a deal done.

  • wawful

    We expect a result: Babchuk sucks.

    Our criteria for ranking player evaluation systems is whether or not they agree with us that Babchuk sucks.

    Devil’s Advocate:

    What if Babchuk doesn’t really suck and we just think he does?

    Even if Babchuk really does suck, he could suck in a way that would fool a good system but not fool a specific bad system. What we really need is a larger sample size. Take a look at all of these systems over a larger period of time with a larger number of players across the league and then look at correlations between their conclusions and as many metrics as possible. i.e. Counting stats, contract renewals, salary, etc.. Saying that a system is good just because it says Babchuk sucks doesn’t “do it” for me.

  • Of the group I’m going with GVT since it’s the only one that I have any actual knowledge of. Since I have no idea what the criteria are for the other ones, I don’t have any information to base my decision on. Agreeing with half a dozen conclusions isn’t enough, given that it could be entirely coincidental.

  • I am not familiar enough with the systems or their inputs to choose which one I feel is most accurate. I do however have a few observations on the Flames defenseman;

    The consistent low rating of Butler matches what I see when I watch games live or television. He is positionally weak and loses 1 on 1 puck battles which is key for a dman.Bou has had to play a lot of minutes and provide extra coverage for Butler.

    Flames dman overall lack physicality with Sarich, Gio, and Hannan (in order)being the only ones with a physical edge to their game.From that aspect we miss Regehr and will soon miss Sarich when we see our defense become increasingly soft from a physical perspective.

    Real nice surprises in Brodie who is playing a lot of minutes for a 21 year old and has good updise, and Smith.

  • Thanks for the responses guys.

    I wasn’t expecting anyone to be familiar with the systems, but rather to see if any of the results made sense to the casual fan (bordering on the stats-averse).

    Once that was established I was going to dive deeper in a way that would hopefully please those of you asking for that kind of thing.

    – These rankings are over-all, not just even-strength
    – They’re over-all contribution, so obviously those who play more have more opportunity to contribute

    Vintage Flame:
    – Vollman’s Folly and Player Contributions both see Mark Giordano as having largely sustained the significant defensive improvement he made in 2009-10

  • PrairieStew

    I’ll say it again – Jay Bouwmeester is playing out of position, this year and last. He’d be far better on the left side, than having to adjust to the right side and cover for a guy who’d be better off on the third pair. If you are going to play him on the right – give him Gio as a partner and play the both of them 26 minutes a game.

    Babchuk plays soft for a big man and occasionally gives the puck away. When sheltered he has put up decent numbers and last year at least blocked shots at a rate comparable to our best in Giordano. I am in the camp that he is not as bad as most say.

    Gio has not had to face the big boys too much, so it surprises me his middling rating.

    Declining performance of Sarich and Hannan not surprising.

    Can this be the last mention of Regehr. Buffalo has been a trainwreck this year, and defensively at least , the Flames have not been that bad; so as sad as it was to see him go, we’ve moved on.