Have we gone too far in worrying about handedness in defencemen?

At the World Championships in Denmark this year, the Russian team had only one right-shooting defender. Worse than that, they had only one right-shooting forward, and he was hurt at the start of the tournament. This led to an interesting situation where the one and only righty got used to excess on the power play, and he had to do two things: pull the trigger on the point shots and roll in and play from a little deeper in.

This all helped make him the fourth-highest scoring defender at the tournament with eight assists in 8 games. He finished behind only Charlie McAvoy, Markus Nutivaara and Colton Parayko. He was the fourth-highest scorer on his own team, and led the rest of the Russian defenders by a long margin.

A great philosopher once said: If there are ten thousand spoons one knife really stands out.--Alanis Morrisette as interpreted by AT Fulemin

In this weird situation, where Nikita Gusev was the only righty up front, Nikita Zaitsev was the king of the defenders by a margin beyond his legitimate skill advantage over the group, just by virtue of his right shot.

Beyond the desire to have a defender play his natural side on the power play, there is a lot of easily intuited value to playing everyone on the natural side all the time. The most often cited examples are carrying the puck up ice in a way that allows the player to protect it better and being in a good position to either shoot or pass effectively.

We don’t seem to have as big an issue with forwards playing opposite to the “natural side”. Some forwards have made a career out of either playing their offside or by moving to the offside to get a shooting angle they prefer. Zach Hyman and Josh Leivo on the Leafs both shoot right, and both are usually left wingers. All of Tyler Ennis, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen and Carl Grundstrom will play either wing, though not necessarily equally well.

That said, two of the Leafs best forwards at moving the puck up-ice, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, do it up the right side, even if they both like to shoot from the left side a fair amount. Marner, more so.

Obviously the defenders play a more static role in the offensive zone, so you can always tell a defender’s position by his shooting location.

Well, almost always. And yes, I know he sometimes played right, but no one shoots like him. Except Ron Hainsey, that is, who does occasionally switch over to his natural side, and only shoots from the blueline.  Hainsey does shoot more from the left side than can be explained by the brief time he was on the ice with Zaitsev.

Rules or more like guidelines, really?

The idea that defenders must only ever play on their natural side for always and evermore has gone from a thing talked about occasionally by Leafs fans as they wondered if Morgan Rielly would do better on his natural side to an assumption that the only way onto the roster is to fill a spot on the appropriate side. Mike Babcock has stated his preference for defenders to play on their natural side, and fans have made it a hard and fast rule.

This is complicated by the existence of the top four defenders in terms of ice time last season being Jake Gardiner (L), Morgan Rielly (L), Zaitsev (R) and Hainsey (L). And by likely value in the coming season (eventually): Travis Dermott (L) in for Hainsey.  Not many people would suggest you play Dermott on the third pair forever just because he’s inconveniently handed.

So how do you decide when to make the exceptions? One thing about Hainsey and Marincin is that by virtue of their long-bomb style of play, they don’t really gain a whole lot by being on their strong side to shoot those bombs. Neither shoot much anyway. So that leads to questions of the importance of handedness in defending and carrying the puck up the ice. Hainsey is not your puck-carrying man, but Marincin, possibly by virtue of his very good zone entry denial gets the transition going a bit more.  Neither of these players are Morgan Rielly, who carries the puck in a fair amount for a defender. So, it’s fair to wonder if handedness matters as much for the guys least likely to carry the puck.

It affects passing, of course, and digging the puck out behind the net and a whole host of other things, but how much should we care?

Handedness matters, but how much?

There’s been one study that I’m aware of that tried to measure the effect of playing a defender on his offside. The method used has a weakness, as noted in the article. They wanted to look at players who swapped sides, and they wanted to exclude players who were on the ice with the same partner before and after. Most of the data, therefore, involves players who changed teams.

To try to account for that, the study used relative Corsi before and after to judge the change. We know that relative Corsi isn’t all that great at stripping out team effects. It’s better than raw Corsi, but that’s it. So we can’t be sure how much of the difference measured is caused by other factors than the player switching sides.

The other issue not discussed in the piece is the very concept of using Corsi as the measure of a defender’s value. It’s very likely that Expected Goals stats or WAR stats, or the components of them, could be used to run this analysis again and come up with results that are both a better measure of the defender’s value, and account for the team effects more effectively as well.

That said, the study found a significant advantage to shot differentials to playing on the natural side. Of course, there is no way to control for type of defender in an analysis like this. So you get a result framed as: On average a player has to be x amount better than the correct-handed alternative to be worth playing on his offside. The study conclusion expressed it this way:

It turns out that an unsuitably handed defenseman must have a CorsiRel that is greater than or equal to 6.83 Corsi events / 60 better than a suitably handed alternative in order to be the better option to pair with a partner-less defenseman on the roster.

Another way to say this is that if you have an equal pair of defenders to pick from, pick the one with the correct handedness. That makes for a great rhetorical device, but life rarely hands you such a simple choice.

At the same time everyone has become convinced of the handedness concept, there has also been increasingly a desire for teams to “just play the best players”. I don’t think either credo is worthy of being an absolute rule. And unless you want to qualify the hell out of the word best, they often work against each other. You can have situations, it seems, where playing a worse defender to get a righty on the ice is worth doing. Just as you might have situations where you take the wrong-handedness hit to get the better player more ice time.

But for fans, it seems, the very first thing they think about is handedness, and this leads to the astonishing effect of Rasmus Sandin being a disappointing draft choice because he’s a lefty. Ew. There’s so many of those, who wants him? Or Jake Gardiner being fantasy traded every day in part because the Leafs need a righty. (As do many other teams, and the only one on offer right now has a very high price tag.)

Handedness should be one of the things considered, but not the only thing, or the first thing. How much weight you should put on it is an open question, but remember this: there is no infinite supply, so if a better lefty like Dermott wanders along, maybe you grab him and you use him.

Try this: How many lefty defenders can you name who you think would be an improvement over Ron Hainsey, and would you turn them down?

Or this: If the Leafs had traded for that fabled 1RD last year, would you have wanted Hainsey on his offside over Roman Polak?

Or this: Is Hainsey on his offside better than Connor Carrick? Is Hainsey on his left side better than Andreas Borgman or Calle Rosen?

Here’s a much more interesting one: Is Dermott on his offside better than Carrick on the right? Or how about: Is Rielly on his offside better than Zaitsev, Carrick, or anyone else on the roster?

Handedness should not be the determining criteria for defenders. How good they are, how appropriate they are for the job open (the Leafs frequently pair a shooter with a more defensive partner), how much better (or worse) they’ll get as they play, what special teams skills they have, and quite a few other things all have to be considered.

And I think a team would be very wise to wonder how much handedness matters for a defender who isn’t carrying the puck much, or if a player as offensively focused as Rielly should be the last one you move over.

Perfect handedness balance is the ideal; the situation the Russians were in at Worlds was not great, and if it had been a more meaningful tournament, they might have done something about it. Somewhere in the middle is where reality sits for a lot of teams. And the likelihood is very strong the Leafs will have more lefty defender minutes than righty defender minutes again this season.