Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Best Shutdown Defenseman You've Never Heard Of: Mike Weaver

Over the last little while, I've been getting more and more interested in the statistical side of the game. I still don't think it has nearly close to the value as in baseball (might do another post on this later), but a lot of the work being done out there is pretty interesting and noteworthy. One thing in particular I've been drawn to are the player usage charts put out by Rob Vollman of ESPN and Hockey Prospectus. As great and as interesting as stats are, nothing in hockey is ever going to replace watching players with your own two eyes; it goes without saying that the dressing room, make-up, and character (of both a team and it's individual players), are paramount to success in a sport where everybody's actions have such an effect on one another. However, statistics might be able to turn us on to something we may have missed, either due to our own biases, not seeing a player enough, the fact we can only pay attention to so many things at once, or any variety of other reasons. The possibility that statistics might uncover a tiny sliver of benefit that can be leveraged to a team's advantage is reason enough to at least keep tabs on them, in my mind at least.

On the surface, Mike Weaver looks like an extremely unremarkable player. I don't think I've ever heard his name mentioned on the highlights. I'm pretty heavily into fantasy hockey, I've never seen his name in boxscores. His size is definitely a minus against him, he's only listed at 5'9" and 180 lbs. He never put up any numbers of note in college, was never drafted, and has never scored more than three goals or 16 points in an entire NHL season. I honestly didn't even know his name before I saw his name in these charts, but upon further examination, Mike Weaver might be one of the most underrated shutdown defensemen in the game right now.

Last season, Weaver faced top lines and spent a large percentage of draws he was on the ice for in the defensive zone, his "quality of competition" was also amongst the Panther's highest for defensemen — both signs that coach Kevin Dineen leaned on him heavily in a shutdown role. He can fill in on any pairing; he has played with Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov, providing an excellent defensive conscience for more offensively-inclined players. He handles all the heavy even-strength minutes, and is leaned on heavily as a penalty-killing ace by Florida's coaching staff.

A prototypical shutdown d-man or a defensive d-man brings about images of a rugged, tough, body-banger like Brooks Orpik or Matt Greene. Weaver doesn't exactly match this stereotype. And while these numbers and stuff are nice, I'll always prefer to watch a player and develop my own "scouting report" on him rather than simply looking at underlying numbers and making a definite conclusion on a player's value. Thusly, as tedious as it sounds, I set out to watch games and shifts of Weaver in action.

I've collected most of his shifts from the Panthers/Flyers game in Philly from February 7, which can be viewed in the embedded clip below. (I might go back and collect shifts from a home game to get a better visual idea of how he is deployed by Coach Dineen at home.)

A few things stand out at me when watching Weaver:

1) His head is always up. Particularly important for a small guy, he's the smallest guy on the ice most of the time playing against big, top lines, but I can't remember him ever getting hit going back for a puck in his own end in the games I watched.
2) He's always ready to make a play. Some players are ready to make plays before the puck gets on their stick, and some players need that extra 0.5 a second once the puck hits their stick to recompose themselves. This ends up making a difference in games, Theo Peckham is a great example of the latter. Oftentimes the puck finds itself on Peckham's stick and he acts as if he wasn't even expecting it, and then enters into a state of semi-panic, which then lends itself to what we call "bad decision-making."
3) He has an innate sense of angles and spacing, he simply knows where to go on the ice. It could be better said as "hockey sense." His gap control and subtle use of his stick, to maintain proper spacing between an oncoming player is particularly notable. He isn't going to hit a lot (he knocks Timonen straight on his ass at 0:54 seconds though), but he engages his body to work the angles to his advantage in defensive zone play.
4) He has a very high panic threshold. This ties back into #1 and #2, if Weaver has the puck on his stick and wants to make a play, but it isn't looking like a great option, he'll recompose himself and go to plan B immediately, may it be going to his d-partner (usually a tape-to-tape) or using his skating to buy himself a few extra seconds and open up different lanes for passing. He is very patient with the puck. It's easy to notice this in the clip as the Flyers were running a seriously conservative counter-attacking kind of forecheck, but Weaver rarely bit. At the very start of the video, he takes time to regroup twice instead of panicking to make a play as some d-men might; he finds a way to break the trap open with patience and the puck eventually finds Jack Skille for a goal.

Now that I've made him sound like a first team all-star, it's pretty obvious there are limitations to his game. He's never going to provide an ounce of offensive value to your team, he only takes 30-50 shots on goal per year. His skating is probably league-average or below in terms of power output or top gear (his edges and pivoting are great though); his skating lacks a dynamic quality that would allow him to recover in any way if he got caught up ice. In fact, there's zero dynamic quality to any facet of his game really, he's never going to break a game open for you. But the common theme with him here is that at the end of the night, he's making a rare amount of mistakes, and he's keeping play towards the other end of the ice and away from his own — which is about all you can ask for from players labelled as a "defensive defenseman."

Another catch is that Mike Weaver is turning 35 this year and his contract runs out next season when he's going to be 36, so he's not really an option for the Oilers at that stage — maybe in a 6/7 role, which I would happily welcome, but age is going to kick in at some point. With that being said, the Oilers did trade for a 36-year-old in Andy Sutton two seasons ago, so it could be an option after all. I just thought I'd share my thought process on a new "type" of defenseman I've been turned on to. Quietly effective, dependable, and drives the play in the right direction night-in, night-out — can't ask for much more. Mike Weaver is a player that every team in the NHL wishes they had.

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