Hampus Lindholm: The NHL’s Most Underrated Defenseman

After finishing third in the league defensively, the Anaheim Ducks were sure to lose a talented defenseman to the Vegas Golden Knights via the expansion draft. However, thanks to general manager Bob Murray, who made a deal with Vegas to protect up-and-coming defenseman Josh Manson, the Ducks’ young defense, who were a large part of why the team made it to this year’s Western Conference Finals, was kept mostly intact.

Though they lost promising 21-year-old Shea Theodore, which could hurt in the future, the Ducks also unloaded aging Clayton Stoner. Stoner hadn’t played since November of the past 2016-17 season after undergoing abdominal surgery, and he only had one year left on his contract.

So, even though the move lost the Ducks a young, promising player and an experienced player to give guidance to their defense, which is largely filled with players under 25 years old, the damage could have been much worse. Both Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen, who are key parts of the defense, had been left exposed in order for the Ducks to protect Kevin Bieksa, whose no-movement clause forced the Ducks to protect him, Cam Fowler, who had been nearing an agreement on a contract extension and Hampus Lindholm.

Hampus Lindholm
Hampus Lindholm (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

Protecting Lindholm had been a priority for the Ducks. Even though he isn’t considered to be one of the NHL’s top defensemen, the value he brings to the Ducks is unparalleled.

A Game of Fancy Stats

In the modern NHL, there is a debate on advanced stats and how accurate they are at determining the success of a player or team. When analyzing forwards, it’s easy to determine their worth by a single glance at their scoring stats. But analyzing defensemen is more difficult. The league seems to value offensively-minded defensemen (more on that later) probably because it’s easier to say that if a player scores a lot, no matter their position, they’re having a positive impact on their team. But, Lindholm’s value to the Ducks doesn’t come from offensive production.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Possession stats are among those advanced stats that are hotly debated. For instance, the Los Angeles Kings have consistently been at the top of the NHL in terms of possession percentage, but for the part two seasons, much to the glee of Ducks fans, the 2014 Stanley Cup Champions have missed the postseason. However, possession stats are one of the better ways to determine how well a defenseman is performing, and Lindholm has the best possession numbers on the Ducks.

Corsi percentages are an interesting way to determine if a defenseman is successful. After all, it’s hard for the opposing team to score if you have the puck most of the time. This past season, Lindholm had a 53.3 Corsi percentage. Josh Manson had a 53 percent, leading people to believe that if paired together, their possession numbers would be unstoppable. The next closest defenseman, not including Stoner who only played 14 games, was Fowler with 49.7 percent.

Earlier this off-season, Sportsnet published a story on how well defensemen handle the neutral zone. In the story, there is a chart (see below) which plots possession exit percentage, which shows how many of a player’s exit attempts resulted in leaving the defensive zone with possession of the puck and carry-in percentage, which shows how many times a defenseman allowed the puck carrier to enter into their zone.

From ‘The modern day defenceman’s role as a neutral zone play driver’ via (Sportsnet / The Hockey Writers)

As you can see, Lindholm is firmly in the top right quadrant, which is humorously labeled as “Keeping up with Karlsson.” According to Sportsnet, his carry-in percentage was 34.29 and his break-up percentage was 21.43, making him the best defenseman at guarding the blue line. Those numbers were the better than the man the NHL dubs the best defenseman in the league, Erik Karlsson.

The NHL’s Offensive Defenseman

However, unlike Karlsson, Lindholm will probably never gain the national attention he deserves, especially judging from the 2015-16 Norris Trophy voting. During that season, Lindholm had put up a 57 Corsi percentage coupled with his career-best offensive production. It was the only time he had been nominated thus far in his short career, and he finished tied for 17th with only three votes, while Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty took home the trophy. In fact, Lindholm has rarely even been considered the best defenseman on the Ducks. Despite frequent trade rumors, that title is often given to Fowler.

Hampus Lindholm (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The reason is simple; Lindholm simply doesn’t put up the gaudy offensive numbers to gain national attention. Two times during the past three years (with the exception of Doughty’s victory), the Norris has been given to the defenseman with the most amount of points of the nominees. During that 2015-16 season when he was nominated, Lindholm finished with the least amount of points and assists of 24 nominees for the Norris. He had finished with a measly 28 points and 18 assists, which again, was a career-high for the 23-year-old.

The modern NHL defenseman is often more recognized by his offensive production than his defensive prowess. Take Karlsson for example. He has been prided for his offensive skill, and after this past season, he was given his fourth Norris Trophy nomination. For reference, the most points Lindholm has ever tallied is 34; Karlsson has only gotten below that twice, once in 2009-10 when he was 19 and once in 2012-13 when he only played 17 games.

Norris Finalists, Ottawa Senators, Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson  (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s not to say that Karlsson doesn’t deserve each nomination he has received. After all, he’s also firmly in the top right quadrant, of which he gave his name for, of the Sportsnet chart. There’s a reason that when listing the NHL’s best defenseman, Karlsson is always near the top if not at the top.

Ducks fans understand the impact that Lindholm has on the Ducks. It just might take a while for the rest of the hockey world to catch up.