Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Kyle Wellwood: Defensive Superstar?

Kyle Wellwood led the NHL in only one statistic this season.

Way back in November, Jonathan Willis over at Hockey or Die published a blog entry with the title “Kyle Wellwood: Why is He Still in the NHL?” As a dedicated Wellwood apologist, I took exception to the post, which argued that when Wellwood is not contributing offensively, he’s not contributing anything. Throughout the season, Canucks fans clamored for a replacement for Wellwood, arguing that he was not an effective third-line centre as he was not providing scoring and he wasn’t a checker. When no trade came at the deadline for a replacement, most fans resigned themselves to the fact that Wellwood was a placeholder until Cody Hodgson enters the NHL next season. The common theme in all of these arguments is that Kyle Wellwood is not an effective defensive player. I disagree.

When you look at Kyle Wellwood, he certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of two-way, defensively-responsibly centre that we’re used to. When Ryan Kesler, one of the best defensive forwards in the game, is the standard, it’s hard to compare. Wellwood is relatively short for a hockey player, only 5’10”. He’s got a round face that looks like it still carries some baby fat: in other words, soft. He uses one of the shortest sticks in the NHL, a far cry from Willie Mitchell’s league maximum. He only recorded 30 hits this season and blocked a paltry 18 shots. And he’s certainly no Pavel Datsyuk: he recorded 30 takeaways, matched by his 30 giveaways. So how can I say that he’s an effective defensive player?

Simply put, fewer goals were scored against when Kyle Wellwood was on the ice than any other player in the NHL. That statistic that he leads the NHL in? It’s the ratio of goals against to total time on ice: a goal against was recorded every 43:17 that Kyle Wellwood was on the ice to lead the entire NHL in that category*. What’s more, Wellwood was the only Canuck in the top 20 in that category. To break it down, Wellwood was on the ice for a total of 1,039:58 minutes this season. In that entire time, only 24 goals were scored against the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks had 218 goals against: only 11% of those were scored while Wellwood was on the ice. When Kyle Wellwood was on the ice, the other team simply didn’t score very often.

Let’s repeat that: his ratio of one goal against per 43:17 time on ice led the entire NHL.

How does something like this happen? As established, Wellwood doesn’t throw many checks, block many shots, or record many takeaways. He does, however, win a lot of faceoffs. Wellwood was second on the Canucks with a 53.8 winning percentage on faceoffs, good for 18th in the NHL. In the playoffs, he’s improved that percentage to 60.4%, leading the Canucks in the category and placing him at 3rd in the NHL behind Eric Belanger and Manny Malhotra.

More importantly, he is also incredibly smart. His former AHL coach, Doug Shedden, went so far as to call him a genius. Prior to joining the Canucks, he seemed to use all of his intelligence at the offensive end of the ice, recording 42 points in 48 games in 2006-2007 for the Maple Leafs. Now, asked to be more defensively responsible for the Canucks, he uses that intelligence to anticipate the play. Wellwood always seems to be in the right place at the right time to intercept a pass, or clear away a rebound. And when he gets the puck on his stick in the defensive zone? It’s almost guaranteed to get past the blueline, even if he has to carry it out himself. There’s no panic in Wellwood’s game and, though he’s small, he doesn’t get knocked off the puck easily.

Kyle Wellwood finished the year at +6; despite his relative lack of offensive production, he was not the defensive liability he was made out to be. And, in the playoffs, he’s taken his game to another level, already scoring 7 points in 11 games and has seen his time on ice steadily increase throughout the series against the Blackhawks. That’s why it was interesting, but not necessarily surprising, to see Wellwood out on the ice for the dying minutes of game 5, defending the Canucks lead. He’s certainly an unusual third-line centre (as we at PiTB always say, "Wellwood is Weird"), but he’s also an effective one. And while I, like many Canucks fans, am eager to see Cody Hodgson in a Canucks uniform, I’m hopeful that it isn’t at the expense of Wellwood.

Mike Gillis has shown that he is not averse to multiple centres on the Canucks, signing Wellwood, Sundin, Demitra, and Johnson last season with Sedin and Kesler already on the roster. His first two draft picks in the first round? Centres. Alain Vigneault has not been reluctant to play his centres out of position, notably placing Ryan Kesler on the wing with Sundin and Demitra last season. Personally, I would rather keep the underrated Kyle Wellwood as the third line centre and place Cody Hodgson, if he makes the team out of training camp, on his wing.

To answer Jonathan Willis, the reason Kyle Wellwood is still in the NHL is because he’s a defensively responsible, effective third-line centre. While it’s certainly an unexpected role, it seems to fit him perfectly.

*Source: The Hockey News, May 10, 2010

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  2. Very well stated.But I hope the Canucks don't sign him.Not because I'm a Canucks fan but because I'm a Kyle Wellwood fan.I hope he can go somewhere where he is appreciated.He needs to go to a team with less Swedish and American superstars.A team that hopefully has some balls.

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