Friday, March 15, 2013

Shift Stalker: Andrej Sekera


Time for another Shift Stalker. As I mentioned in a previous post, I remain curious about the statistical advances in the game. By proxy, I spend a fair amount of time reading blogs and papers and findings related to this side of hockey. Earlier this year when I was scrolling through player usage charts from the 2011/12 season, Sekera was a notable standout on the Sabres chart. He's not exactly a well-known commodity around the NHL, and Sabres fans know him as skilled but inconsistent if anything else. The charts showed that last year, despite the inconsistency cries, Sekera was consistently used against top lines and was depended on by Lindy Ruff to go out during defensive zone draws a fair amount. Despite this defensively-slanted deployment, with Sekera on the ice, the Sabres were still able to drive the play and maintain a larger share of possession than the other team.

Sekera is a pretty nondescript player to a typical fan, especially one in the Western Conference — I can't say I've ever really noticed him when I've seen him on TV. He has decent, but not great, size at 6' and 200 lbs - a classic stocky Eastern European build - and has never put up remarkable stats in the least with a career high of 29 points during the 2010/11 season, although he did put up 55 points in 51 games in the OHL. This season, he's averaging the fourth-most ice time on the Sabres, the same as last year; but after Ehrhoff, Leopold, Myers and Sekera are all within one minute of ice time. Sekera isn't really a powerplay specialist with those low offensive totals, he averages around 30 seconds per night on the powerplay. He isn't really a penalty kill specialist either; he plays on it, but he's actually sixth on his team amongst defensemen for shorthanded minutes per game.

So if Sekera is neither a powerplay nor penalty kill specialist, or even really depended on during special teams at all, what does that make him? An even-strength specialist? Seeing as 70% of the game is played at even-strength, this might not be a bad thing.

Some, coaches included, might think Sekera is a man without a country, but he's second in ES TOI/game on the Sabres, behind only Ehrhoff. The deployment numbers could be a bit iffy (because of the mid-season coaching change), but Behind the Net shows Ehrhoff's offensive zone start percentage at 54.9% vs. Sekera's 49.3%. This could explain part of Ehrhoff's team-leading ES TOI/game as a function of his offensive ability and his coach using offensive zone faceoffs to exploit said abilities, not necessarily his shutdown defensive abilities.

I came across an interesting article in Hockey Prospectus about an introduction to "zone exits" - a new stat that is being tracked by bloggers in order to learn more and guage which teams and players are successful at breakouts. The data and findings are very preliminary, the sample size is small at about 200 total games, but I was surprised to see Sekera's name again amongst the leaders in zone exit success percentage.

Side note: in my opinion, one of the most interesting tidbits from the article was a quote from Coyotes' coach Dave Tippett:
I'll give you an example. We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shutdown defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can't move the puck. Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn't defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he's making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he's only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."
To me, it sort of shows why Tippett is such a great coach and acts as an interesting look into his approach.

I had been curious about Sekera for a while due to his standing on the player usage charts, and his appearance on this zone exit list prompted that curiosity even further. With that, I decided to watch a few Sabres games myself to see if what's actually happening on the ice matches up to all these stats. As always, I prefer to watch games rather than looking at spreadsheets and tables, because the game is actually played on the ice. The statistics may be able to point us towards an undervalued asset or commodity, it's up to our eyes to evaluate that.

I watched two games, a home game from March 12th versus the Rangers, and an away game from March 5th at the Hurricanes. The "advanced stats" say Sekera regularly faces top competition, so I wanted to double check. I used timeonice.com and matched the shifts for Brad Richards to Sekera as well as the shifts for Eric and Jordan Staal for the 'Canes game, and it looks like Sekera does face difficult competition typically.
Raw Shifts
Raw shifts of the two games for your own viewing sans context/analysis/time to actually read this entire thing can be found here and here. For the Rangers and Hurricanes games respectively.

Tools
The first thing in watching Sekera on the ice is that he is a terrific, and very mobile, skater. The most notable aspect of his skating is that his pivots and turns are buttery smooth, which is probably more important for defensemen than straightaway speed. This allows Sekera to manouver around out there and change directions quickly, adding another dimension to his decision-making output. His style of play is very relaxed — he largely depends on his excellent skating to get him from point A to B or recover from taking a gamble (which he will do from time to time). Not a very physical player at all, Sekera isn't going to go around throwing thunderous bodychecks like Mark Fistric or try to bury you in the corner or in front of the net like Shane O'Brien. He depends a lot on his stick and skating, along with his instinctual decision-making abilities, in order to use his above-average puck skills to advance the puck.

Zone Exits
Sticking with the zone exits idea, this was something I looked for in Sekera's game specifically, and he is notably proficient at it. As can be noted in the clip below, Sekera handles defensive coverage responsibilities and forechecking pressure with his head up and is always looking to advance the puck as soon as he gets it (preferably for a pass), but he isn't averse to chipping it out. His passing skills aren't zipped right on the tape like a guy like Ryan Whitney, but his breakout attempts to forwards are receivable enough and executed quickly enough to allow them to be received. Sekera maintains a sense of calmness in the defensive zone; even with oncoming pressure, he keeps his head up and feet moving, and most importantly, his brain going. The ability to handle the puck with his head up, and use his agility to alter passing angles and options, allows Sekera to be a dependable breakout option and a key part in reducing the time spent in the Sabres' zone.


The skillset that allows him to be a good "zone exiter" also allows Sekera to make quick, heady plays in the defensive zone when he is in trouble and can't break it out immediately, as shown below. He is especially good at sensing the direction of immediate and oncoming pressure and reversing the puck calmly and quickly to his partner or a quieter part of the ice in order to maintain posesssion and open up space for the rest of his teammates.


Defending on the Rush
Playing defense in the NHL isn't easy, and it's not easy when you're 6' and have a 6'4 Eric Staal barrelling down the wing on you at full speed. The pace on the rush can be frantic and nonstop, oftentimes leaving you just with your hockey sense and skating ability. Sekera is pretty good at defending off the rush with his great backwards skating and lateral mobility, he is notable at getting sticks on pucks when the shooter is shooting and closing gaps or reading when to step up in the neutral zone (for a pokecheck, not a hit). Sekera's skating also allows him to recover in order to pick up the high guy (or even into the same defending position) if his gamble is ill-timed.


Stretching the Neutral Zone
Something else I noticed in watching Sekera is his ability to use the stretch pass and find seams in the defense. Again, this comes from puck skills, skating and playing with your head up; numerous times in only two games was Sekera able to spring skaters across two zones for rushes. Not every defenseman is able to spot these situations AND act immediately with a hard and accurate pass, so Sekera was definitely notable again in this aspect.


Offensive Zone
There's not a ton here. Sekera isn't going to be putting up 50 points and bombing one-timers home from the point, but his above-average puck skills make him above league-average in this category for defenders. He's not going to panic with the puck at the blueline and dump it into the corner instinctively like a lot of defensive defensemen. He's not afraid to shoot on net when he gets the chance and will be fairly aggressive with pinches. I noticed he is particularly adept at passing on his backhand, and the agility that allows him to alter angles and options in the defensive zone also transfers to the offensive zone. You're not going to depend on him to produce offense for your team, but it's not a point of concern or a minus to his game. With much more powerplay time (over 2:00/game) in 2010-11, Sekera was able to produce 29 points, but his game has clearly shifted more towards the defensive.

Troubles

I've taken the liberty of highlighting Sekera's strengths throughout this post, but obviously he isn't the perfect defenseman. He can be be guilty at times of being too cute in his own zone; turning into pressure or making one little extra move with forecheck pressure oncoming that gives the other team the puck, as demonstrated in the following clip.


I think that his lack of use on the penalty kill could possibly be attributed towards this. While he is great at exiting the zone, if Sekera makes a move or pass to break it out six times out of ten, chips it out three times but gives it away behind his net once, it's going to stand out in a coach's mind versus a defensive defenseman who chips the puck off the glass eight times out of ten, but fails twice. He's most certainly a net positive in reducing time spent in his own zone and gaining and maintaining possession of the puck for his team. However, coaches are typically risk-averse, and one memorable mistake can stand out against a player.

Conclusion
For the reasons I've detailed above, it's pretty clear that Sekera is quite a good defender. He may be underrated by the casual fan, but given a more discerning look, it becomes quite clear he possesses a number of positive qualities and is quite valuable. It was only a sample of two games for viewing, to be sure, but the eye test seemed to reflect that he's relied upon heavily at even-strength and trusted to do a lot of the hardest work for his team in the defensive zone (as the numbers would indicate). Defending a lead against the Rangers in the final few minutes, Coach Rolston had Sekera out for a marathon 2:31 shift in a 5v6 situation. His skating and defensive instincts are excellent and smooth, and his offensive instincts are a plus for his position as a whole.

Sekera is not going to be a #1 defenseman playing 30 minutes a night on the powerplay and penalty kill, but he is most certainly a top-4 defenseman on any team — likely a second-pairing or #3 on a truly good team. He's going to have the odd brain cramp that might glare for a bit, but the overall long run contribution will certainly outweigh that. For a guy with his tools, it's easy to be left wanting more from the offensive side, but he should be viewed as what he is. Non-physical defensemen (especially without much offense) that go through bad spells (as every player in the league will) can get a bad rap because their contributions aren't as overt as a player that hits and fights and bleeds — good ol' Western Canadian boys with heart and character, and all that.

His contract runs through 2014-15 with a cap hit of $2.75M, which is a great contract for the time being. By the time he hits UFA, I'd probably be pretty comfortable with him in the $3.5M-$5M range. Sekera is part of a newer class of defender — he possesses instincts, sense and reaction time that can't really be taught.  Similar to players like Paul Martin or Dennis Seidenberg, it is an emerging "type" of defender that will and should be valued by teams — ones that can advance the puck and keep it out of their own zone as much as possible in order to increase their team's possession time. It's a departure from the archetype of big, bruising defenders that clear the front of the net without mercy and throw thunderous hip checks along the boards.

Currently, if you were trading from a position of strength (as you'd always like to, naturally), or in position for contention, acquiring Sekera would be a terrific move for almost any team in the league — especially with those cost-controlled years remaining on his deal. If you're to keep him on your radar with a longer view on things, he's a viable UFA option to keep an eye on if his level of play is maintained or progresses.

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