Trying to assess defensemen is difficult enough for most people (myself included) when they are in the NHL. Part of that is down to the lack of any kind of “defensive” common stats. If we want to assess a forward as a player, we have more obvious common stats to use: points and shots, and any other stat derived from them. But for defense? What people commonly use now is just flipping those same stats. Does a team give up fewer goals, shots, shot attempts, and expected goals when the defenseman is on the ice than when he isn’t? If yes, there is a good chance they’re doing something right on the ice to limit offense against.
But it is hard for us to quantify and measure exactly what it is they’re doing to achieve those results. Because when a defenseman does something very good, it just leads to the absence of something happening.
Which is the better defensive play, having a good stick to deflect a shot attempt so it misses the net? Or blocking the cross ice pass from leading to the shot attempt from happening at all? Or having good positioning to discourage the puck carrier from even trying that pass so they have to settle for a safer, less dangerous play? Or being able to stop the other team from transitioning into the offensive zone in the first place? These issues are especially difficult when you have to isolate the defenseman’s direct impact from those of his teammates on the ice, and the system the coaching uses.
But even beyond that, we obviously want defensemen to be good defensively, but they can also have an impact on the offense. An NHL game is won by one team outscoring the other, which you achieve by having the best balance of producing offense and preventing the other team from producing offense. If you look at the list of the previous Norris trophy winners given to the “best defensemen” in the NHL, you will see they are almost always AT LEAST among the top point producing defensemen.
For prospects, there are two additional problems. First, there just aren’t any defensive stats available for pretty much any league that they play in. Second, it is much harder to project future defensive ability. Some prospects are able to learn and develop their defense in bigger leaps by the time they make the NHL — see Timothy Liljegren for a good example of that. Others don’t, and it’s not very easy or obvious to know why. Others seem like they are already very strong defensively in their junior leagues, but do not wind up being that good at it in the NHL.
Because of the absense of any defensive metrics for prospects, there are two ways to get a good idea how good a defenseman prospect is. First, by watching him a lot yourself and then trying to project his skills, strengths and flaws into the future and potential NHL impact. Second, by focusing mostly on their offensive production to know if they are at least capable at that part of the game. If they have projectable offense but questionable defense, you can take the offensive side being good and believe in your development team’s ability to improve the defense.
This was a long introduction to bring me to Kevin Korchinski. He is a defenseman in the WHL who very much profiles as more of an offensive defenseman, with some defensive weaknesses... right now. There is a fair amount of debate about his projection as a result, and all those issues I mentioned in this introduction are at the heart of it. On the one hand, he has very obvious offensive utility that projects very easily to the NHL. On the other, some really question his defense both now and in the future.
So where does that leave him as a prospect, and specifically as a potential Leafs’ pick?
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 185 lbs
Birth date: June 21st, 2004
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 25th
- Will Scouch: 14th
- Scott Wheeler: 17th
- Elite Prospects: 16th
- Dobber Prospects: 14th
- Smaht Scouting: 13th
Kevin Korchinski has always been a highly regarded prospect. He was drafted to the WHL 10th overall in 2019, the third highest defenseman taken. At 14 years old he was 5’7” and 131 lbs, so he’s done some growing since then. He was coming off a season where he had 47 points in 31 games in an U15 league, so he’s always had the offensive skills. He jumped from there to an U18 league as a 15 year old, then jumped again right to the WHL last year in the pandemic-shortened season.
This year, he played the full year as one of the top defensemen on one of the WHL’s top teams — as of writing this, they just advanced to the WHL finals. He has a combined 10 goals and 71 assists in 86 games between the regular season and playoffs. Among all draft year defensemen in the WHL, he finished second in even strength primary points, and second in powerplay primary points. He just produced a lot of points, all while playing under 20 minutes a night on a very deep team, where other top defensive prospects got top minutes on special teams and even strength.
Defensively, all we know statistically is that Korchinski was only on the ice for 34 even strength goals against. His relative on ice goal differential (just a fancier version of +/- so take this for what it’s worth) is +9.22%. So that may lead you to believe that there is at least a chance he does something right on defense, right?
Well... we’ll get to that.
THE GOOD: DRIVING OFFENSE & MOVING THE PUCK
As you’d imagine from a defenseman who produces 71 assists in 86 games, the guy is preeeetty good at making plays and setting up offensive chances. What makes Korchinski exciting is how he moves the puck. Here, we can look at some manually tracked data to illustrate it:
So what we see is a lot of big, dark blue bars that show he is very good in the WHL at passing to the slot, exiting the defensive zone with possession, entering the offensive zone with possession, making plays across the ice, and driving the puck from the outside to the middle. These are all the kinds of passing that have a higher degree of difficulty, but also help generate more dangerous scoring chances. What isn’t measured there, but what I saw when I watched his games, is that he likes his stretch passes and is pretty good at it too, which is also good at generating high quality rush chances.
This makes him a beast on transitions. One of the best things about Korchinski is his ability to start a breakout, and finish a zone entry — sometimes in the same rush.
LHD Kevin Korchinski is averaging 5.9 breakouts at even strength per game this season, most on the Seattle Thunderbirds by a wide margin. Below are some recent examples.— Ben Misfeldt (@BBMHockey) March 16, 2022
Notice how quick he is at assessing and making the play without sacrificing poise.
Stats from @InStatHockey pic.twitter.com/Mnns7rKgso
He doesn’t settle for the safe and easy passes. He plays more of a high-risk, high-reward style. At the junior level, that leads to high-reward the majority of the time and it is what helps him rack up the points and generate such sterling data. Where every defensive system in hockey at any league and level aims to keep the puck and puck carrier to the outside, Korchinski is able to break through that consistently and effectively. He can spot more difficult passing lanes and hit them more often than his peers. He can hold onto the puck for just a bit longer until a teammate is open in a more dangerous area, without turning it over. He can pass with good accuracy from his forehand and backhand, giving him more unpredictability and versatility.
But it isn’t just handling the puck or the actual act of passing that helps Korchinski. He is a good skater, especially when it comes to his agility and making quick and sudden cuts. He can keep defenders off balance with little fakes, and good positioning of his feet. That helps him deke and maneuver around a defender to have a more open passing lane. It helps him hold onto the puck for even longer without being under pressure. It helps create odd-man chances where other defenders have to either close on him or play between him and his passing options.
This helps him both on offensive transitions — getting the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone — and when he’s in the offensive zone quarterbacking his team’s possession. That makes him an effective powerplay quarterback as well. He is much more of a facilitator than a goal scorer. He lacks the huge shot from the point, but is no less impactful from it. When he shoots, it is often for a tip or a rebound rather than to score. So while he was third in the WHL for draft eligible defensemen in total shots on goal (143 in 67 games), he is far behind in goals — but far ahead in primary assists.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t shoot. When he shoots to score, he has a good wrist shot that he can get off quick, and has good weight and accuracy. Him getting more physically mature, adding more muscle to his pretty lanky frame, and refining his mechanics will all help make it even better.
THE FLAWS: ‘BIG MISTAKES’ & OFF-PUCK CONSISTENCY
The first ‘flaw’ is not really a huge one of concern, but it will be something that will be at the centre of the debate over just how good you project Korchinski to be in the NHL. Because he is such a high volume passer, because he handles the puck so much, and because he attempts so many high-risk, high-reward plays, he is going to turn the puck over. A lot. Even if the percentage of his high-risk attempts work out at a high rate, the volume means you will see him turn it over more often than just about any other defenseman. And that’s going to drive some people crazy.
The big question is how it will project to the NHL, because he won’t be able to get away with the same kinds and levels of high-risk plays. As he gets older and more experienced, he can learn to be more selective with his play. But there will be growing pains, and even once he’s in the NHL it will likely still be something that drives people crazy.
Now for the bigger potential issue...
As you could see in that tracking data from Mitch Brown above, Korchinski’s defense in the WHL nets out as average. How he gets there is a bit of a roller coaster. The issue with Korchinski is not really due to a lack of tools, or a lack of effort. It’s more a lack of consistency. He has mental lapses, positional lapses, misreads, and poor execution or poor mechanics.
He does have his good moments. Like these...
Korchinski is #14 in the dark jerseys in both examples. Here, he whiffs on intercepting a saucer pass but picks him up at the blueline, and stays glued to him towards the goal line. He sticks close and is able to poke the puck away with his stick to turn it over.
Here, Korchinski is the defenseman behind the net chasing down the puck carrier in white. He first lifts his stick a bit from the outside, then maneuvers to get good positioning on him on the inside. He lifts the stick from the other side and this time gets it away and to his teammate for the breakout.
...he also has a lot of bad examples where he gets walked, leaves his man unguarded in high danger areas, and bungles his checks.
In some cases, his defensive issues come from areas that can be easily worked on. While he’s 6’2”, he’s still pretty lanky at 185 lbs. By the time he makes the NHL he will have time to spend time in the gym to add muscle, especially to his legs and core, and will very likely be over 200 lbs. That strength will help him a lot defensively. He can be more explosive with his skating to stay ahead of plays, clear the net better, and be more dominant along the boards in tight quarters.
In other cases, his issues may be more worrying. There are some things that you just can’t teach. Being able to read and anticipate a play before it happen, knowing where to position yourself on the ice. Those are things can sometimes be taught, but maintaining it at a high level to be an elite defender takes more than X’s and O’s on a whiteboard.
From a Future Considerations game report on December 31st, 2021:
Defensively, there are some concerns. He tends to either defend with his stick or his body, rather than leading with his stick and following up with his body. He needs to work to connect these two. He can tend to play up too high when defending the rush, resulting in players sliding behind him and him having to turn early and chase. This results in a lack of angling out in his defending. His speed and reach bail him out now, but won’t at the next level. He’s not a physical player, resulting on his skill more.
Here is a full profile from the same Mitch Brown that provided the tracking data, published on EP Rinkside on May 20th:
First, Korchinski’s defensive skating exposes him to needless risk and limits his recovery ability. He steps to the outside too early, letting defenders cut across and gain the middle. Barely loaded and poorly timed pivots force him to reach when he’s beat, and he’s not consistently angling attackers outside.
Second, Korchinski tends to wander. It’s visible off the rush, where he gets caught defending nothing or too far along the perimeter regularly. In zone, he’s late to eliminate off-puck threats.
Finally, there are Korchinski’s defensive problem-solving skills. In short, projectable defenders eliminate time and space, even in small-area 2-on-1s or complex defensive situations. Korchinski either just backs up or sprawls on the ice. It’s ugly.
It’s never a great sign for a potential first round pick — who is a defenseman — have any part of his defense described as “it’s ugly”. However, Mitch also adds the important caveat that you don’t need to get Korchinski to turn into an elite defensive defenseman in the NHL for him to work as an impact player. His offense is going to do that, but his defense needs to at least get to roughly average overall in order to play him enough minutes, including difficult minutes, so his offense can have a bigger impact.
This is the big debate about Korchinski, and it is rooted in the same questions and debates I outlined in the introduction about defensemen and how we view them both in the NHL and as prospects. Thankfully, we as Leafs fans already have a good amount of experience debating and thinking about. We called it the Jake Gardiner Question.
OVERALL ASSESSMENT: THE JAKE GARDINER QUESTION
Okay, technically there are two of them. But the singular just sounds more impactful there so shut up, I’m taking a creative liberty there.
But the two questions are what was asked about Jake Gardiner through his whole career, and the same will likely be asked around Korchinski until he improves those two flaws enough that most people, even his detractors, don’t care as much anymore. They are:
(1) How good does a defenseman have to be at defense, if their offense and play driving is good enough to the point that they don’t have to play defensively that much?
(2) How much can you stomach turnovers from your defenseman when he tries so many high risk plays, and makes such a high volume of passing or play making attempts because he just always has the puck? Having the puck is a good thing. Making high risk plays can be a good thing, as long as they have the high-reward payoff more often than not.
The answer is pretty clear, they’ll never wind up getting any Norris nominations with below average defending, but you can still be a top pairing defenseman with that profile. That is, as long as your offense and play driving remains at such a high level. On the one hand, the fact that Korchinski shows good instincts and physical execution of plays on the offensive side does lend weight to the idea that he can still learn to do the same on the defensive side. On the other hand, it doesn’t guarantee that he will.
In part because of these two flaws, I have Korchinski as a borderline guy to either be in the “guys who will be ranked out of the Leafs’ range but I hope falls” camp, or the “guy who may be ranked and available in the Leafs range”. Bob’s mid-season ranking had him 25th — exactly where the Leafs pick. But while his production has been consistent all season, his combination of size, offensive potential and the fact he has been part of a deep playoff run with Seattle makes me think he could get a good bump in Bob’s rankings. Of the three others I profiled this week in the first camp, I see Korchinski as the most likely to fall to the Leafs even if I would bet against it.
For me, once you get to the late first round where the Leafs pick, you can live with the risk Korchinski offers considering the potential upside he also has. If he had that kind of upside and no big flaws, he’d be a top 10 lock. But for me, I bet on the upside. If he does figure out how to be selective and play decent defense in the NHL, he is a lock as a second pairing guy and PP1 quarterback with a chance of being a legitimate first pairing guy. For a late first rounder? That’s a swing I take.
Would you take Korchinski if he falls to the Leafs?
This poll is closed
BRING ME THE SECOND COMING OF JAKE GARDINER
Maybe, it depends on who else is available
Hell no, I do not want to live through Big Mistakes again