The New York Rangers made a trade on the second day of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to bring over defenseman Nick Holden from the Colorado Avalanche for a fourth-round draft pick. With a clear need to revamp the defense (one that has still not been fully addressed), the acquisition of Holden seemed underwhelming, especially when it proved not to be a precursor to another significant move on the blue line.
Holden, however, has put up excellent numbers in his first season on Broadway. Through the end of March, he has tallied 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points—all career highs. The Rangers couldn’t have expected this type of offense from him. They seemingly made the move to add some more depth and hopefully some defensive steadiness at a low annual cap hit of $1.65 million.
Holden’s production, though, has slowed down in the second half of the season. His downturn in scoring has shed more light on the fact that he really has not been as steady defensively as the Rangers need him to be.
The 29-year-old blueliner’s increased goal scoring this year has a lot to do with his uncharacteristically high shooting percentage of 13.3 percent (Holden’s career mark is noticeably lower at 9.2 percent). At age 29, it’s safe to say that he is in his late prime and has not suddenly become a goal-scoring sniper on the back end. In other words, Holden has experienced a fair amount of luck offensively this season.
That was especially true in the first half of the season. In the 39 games prior to Jan. 1, Holden scored seven goals and added 13 assists. His shooting percentage was unsustainably high at 20.0%, as he picked up his seven goals with only 35 shots on net.
In the 39 games since the start of 2017, Holden’s scoring has slowed down somewhat, as he has only picked up four goals and 10 assists. His shooting percentage over this span has taken a predictable nosedive back toward a more realistic rate of 8.3 percent. This is a more accurate representation of the type of offensive player Holden really is, as the numbers are much more in line with his career averages.
With Holden’s scoring having come back down to earth, the spotlight shifts toward his defensive inefficiencies.
Holden Shaky on Defense
In spite of his surprising offensive output, Holden has not been a particularly steady defender for the Blueshirts for most of the year. It’s just more noticeable now that he is not scoring once every five shots on goal.
Both underlying metrics and the eye test—as long as one looks closely enough—validate his subpar defensive play.
Poor Possession Metrics
Taking a look at some of Holden’s possession metrics does not paint a good picture for him. The Rangers as a whole have been a poor possession team for most of the season, as they rely on their speed to create quick counterattacks and chances off the rush.
Holden, relative to his teammates, is even more of a possession liability. His overall Corsi-for percentage (CF%) during five-on-five play is a meager 47.3 percent. Adjusting that number to give a measure relative to his teammates yields a figure of -0.9 percent. This means that Holden is an additional possession liability on a team that already struggles in that area.
Dan Girardi has the worst such measure among Rangers defensemen with a ghastly -6.0 percent mark, while Ryan McDonagh has suffered largely as result of his pairing with Girardi to carry an unflattering -2.5 CF% relative to his teammates. Marc Staal is the last Rangers blueliner with a negative mark, at -1.8 percent.
The struggles of Staal and Girardi go to last season and beyond. Holden finds himself close to being in their company. When examining which defensive pairs have the worst Corsi-for percentages for the Rangers this season during five-on-five play, Holden joins Staal and Girardi as the constants in the eight worst pairs, and appears four different times—more than anyone else.
|Pair||Time on Ice (minutes)||CF%|
|Marc Staal & Brady Skjei||90.40||40.22|
|Kevin Klein & Nick Holden||143.62||43.12|
|Dan Girardi & Ryan McDonagh||757.25||43.28|
|Dan Girardi & Brady Skjei||76.00||44.52|
|Marc Staal & Ryan McDonagh||161.64||46.30|
|Marc Staal & Nick Holden||658.71||46.64|
|Dan Girardi & Nick Holden||64.71||48.25|
|Nick Holden & Ryan McDonagh||161.57||48.36|
On the flip side, when looking at the Rangers’ best defensive pairs in terms of five-on-five CF%, some different names appear more often, and Holden is conspicuously absent:
|Pair||Time on Ice (minutes)||CF%|
|Adam Clendening & Brady Skjei||214.32||60.86|
|Adam Clendening & Kevin Klein||51.29||56.60|
|Kevin Klein & Ryan McDonagh||105.98||52.76|
|Steven Kampfer & Brady Skjei||75.26||52.52|
|Ryan McDonagh & Brady Skjei||68.38||51.24|
The Eye Test
Holden’s defensive flaws are also noticeable via the age-old eye test, with some recent examples providing ample evidence.
Holden might have scored a goal and assisted on the Rangers’ late tying marker against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night, but he had a tough night defensively. In the first period, he was on the ice for several long shifts in the Rangers’ zone. On one shift, he appeared lost when Sidney Crosby, of all players, was left all alone in the slot for a prime scoring opportunity.
Just because no goal was scored on the play does not mean that it should be overlooked, as it’s evidence of a troubling trend.
Later in the same game, Holden committed a bad holding (no pun intended) penalty instead of taking a more direct path toward a puck that was not yet in full control by the onrushing Bryan Rust of Pittsburgh.
….what….what is this?? pic.twitter.com/zyurNGg3WP
— Brandon Cohen (@brandonco4) April 1, 2017
In the Rangers’ previous game in San Jose against the Sharks, Holden made a bad decision in the three-on-three overtime period by staying deep in the offensive zone for too long. When the Rangers lost possession of the puck, Holden was caught and took a holding-the-stick penalty while trying to prevent an outnumbered attack the other way. The Sharks scored the overtime winner on their ensuing four-on-three power play.
Holden has had unflattering moments like these throughout the year. These are just a few recent examples. Nevertheless, he seems to have earned head coach Alain Vigneault’s trust, as he has appeared in every game and averages the second-highest time on ice per game (20:38), behind only McDonagh (24:23).
Earlier in the season, Holden’s offensive production, albeit largely a result of good fortune, at least provided some justification for his consistent lineup spot. Now that his scoring has regressed back to normal, though, his spot in the lineup should be anything but guaranteed with the Rangers’ roster now fully healthy.
Note: Possession statistics obtained via Corsica.hockey and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.