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Flames boast the NHL’s best shutdown defensive pair

(Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Hockey analytics could be redefining the type of player the NHL views as a shutdown defender.

For a player to be considered a “shutdown” defender, he has to be in the top three defensemen on his team in both competition faced and zone starts.

Zone Starts, or rather Offensive Zone Start %, measures the percentage of time when a player starts in the offensive zone. A Zone Start ignores starts in the neutral zone, and begins when a player starts his shift in a zone (beginning with a faceoff). An Offensive Zone Start % is the number of offensive zone starts, divided by the total number of zone starts (both offensive and defensive).

To be considered part of a “shutdown pair,” both players have to be in the top three for these two categories, and they must have played 50 percent or more of their minutes together. This eliminates a team like Boston, for example, from having a qualifying shutdown pair at this time because of the injury to Zdeno Chara.

Some players traditionally thought of as good shutdown defenders – like the Caps’ Brooks Orpik and Detroit’s Niklas Kromwall – are actually struggling this season. On the flip side, players like Calgary Flames’ T.J. Brodie and Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, who don’t fit the typical shutdown mold, are thriving.

The numbers below are for the 2014-15 season and reflect five-on-five play only. While this allows for noise in the data, it suits the purpose of identifying current shutdown pairs in the NHL. A player must have played 100-plus minutes this season to be eligible.

Overall, 17 teams have a pair that meets the criteria. Here is a look at a player usage chart (invented by Rob Vollman) for the qualifying players.

The best shutdown pair

The Calgary Flames’ Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is the best shutdown pair in the NHL. Among the 34 players listed, Giordano and Brodie both rank high in relative Fenwick Percentage, meaning their team has more unblocked shot attempts go in their favor when they are on the ice as opposed to when they are on the bench. Relative shot suppression should not be understated, as it’s of the utmost importance to a team’s success. Honorable mention goes to San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun.

The worst shutdown pair

Remember over the summer when the Capitals signed Brooks Orpik to provide “grit” and to shut down the other team’s top forwards? Well, that’s not going well so far, as he and John Carlson are the NHL’s worst shutdown pair in 2014-15. Of the 36 defensemen, Orpik is 35th and Carlson is 33rd in terms of relative shot suppression. Caps fans can take comfort in the fact that this pairing was broken up in the team’s most recent game on Tuesday against the Flames. But that is probably little consolation given that every Caps defender except for Mike Green has seen a drop in possession when paired with Orpik.

The biggest surprise

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is only 17 of the 30 teams have a pair that they are deploying as a true shutdown pair at this point in 2014. While it’s still early, and some teams like the aforementioned Bruins don’t have a qualifying pair because of injury, it’s still noteworthy that just 57 percent of NHL teams are truly using a shutdown pair.

It will be interesting to watch if more teams change their thinking on the type of player that is best suited for the shutdown role, as well as the fact that players we typically think of as being shutdown defenders, might not be as well-suited for the role as we thought.

Pat Holden writes about hockey and baseball on various sites, including Brooks Laichyear. If you prefer your fancy stats in 140 characters or less, follow him on Twitter.