The Red Wings blueline is easily the roster department in most need of improvement. Until Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement in 2012, it wasn’t apparent just how bad it would be. Since then, it’s been a steady increase of goals, shots, and shot attempts against the team. In 2014, the team committed Jonathan Ericsson to a 6-year, $25.5-million contract, which held an average annual value of $4.25-million. At the time, it wasn’t such a bad decision. Ericsson was a big (6’4”, 220 lbs) young defenseman with positive on-ice 5v5 goal, shot, and shot attempt differentials.
The problems began as the ink dried on the contract. Suddenly, Ericsson’s on-ice shot and shot attempt differentials fell below 50% as ugly plays and mistakes that lead directly to goals became obvious to the naked eye. With the way he played and the cap hit attached to his name, he quickly became fans’ favourite punching bag.
It all seemed to come to a head last season. Ericsson was playing some of the worst hockey of his career when he fractured his wrist in a February 9th game against the Washington Capitals. The injury would sideline Ericsson for the rest of the season as the team went on to miss the playoffs for the first time in twenty-five years. All-in-all, it was a disappointing season from every perspective. Due to the nature of the Red Wings salary structure, there wouldn’t be many personnel changes made, so the improvements would have to come from the players themselves. Nobody expected it to come from Jonathan Ericsson, who has shown improvements this year at 5v5, is one of the Red Wings’ best defensemen, and is making the players around him better.
Ericsson Vs. Himself
Despite some glaringly obvious giveaways, Ericsson is playing some of the best hockey from a statistical perspective since the start of his contract. At 5v5, Detroit is driving possession while Ericsson is on the ice better now than at any point in the last three years. Relative to his teammates, Ericsson has a positive on-ice shot attempt differential. Not only that, the shots they are taking while Ericsson is on the ice are of much better quality this year.
While 5v5 makes up the bulk of a player’s ice time (about 82% in Ericsson’s case), a lot of goals are scored on the man advantage. Ericsson doesn’t play the powerplay, but he is heavily relied on for the penalty kill. At the time of this writing, Ericsson is one of three players who has seen more than fifty minutes on the PK. Compared to the last three years, his penalty killing stats haven’t really improved. The on-ice shots against per sixty minutes is consistent to last year and five shots worse than in 2015-16. Despite this, Detroit has the fourth best penalty killing unit in the league with an 84.45 PK%. They also have the second most shorthanded goals in the league with four. This shorthanded success is more due to solid goaltending from Jimmy Howard and the pressure applied by their speedy forwards at the top of the zone.
Overall, Ericsson has shown some great 5v5 improvements over past years, but has been worse on the penalty kill.
Ericsson Vs. His Teammates
Statistically speaking, Ericsson has been one of Detroit’s better defensemen at 5v5. Though he hasn’t produced as much as Mike Green or Nick Jensen, both of whom are putting up 0.86 points per sixty minutes, Ericsson has the second best on-ice shot attempt percentage and expected goals-for percentage, according to Corsica.
Since these metrics are “on-ice”, one might think that it has a lot to do with who Ericsson has been playing with. More than anyone else this year, he’s been paired with Trevor Dailey. The veteran defenseman was brought on board this year to use his speed and start the rush to break out of the defensive zone. These are the kinds of tools that Ericsson does not have.
So far, they’ve been Detroit’s best pairing. They’ve played over 100 5v5 minutes more than any other pairing and have the second best shot attempt percentage on the team (of pairings who have played more than 50 minutes together). In addition to this, their expected goals for percentage of 55.17% is top-20 in the league (among pairings who have played more than 100 minutes together).
While it may seem like Daley is padding Ericsson’s play, it’s actually the other way around. Trevor Daley has been better because of Jonathan Ericsson. According to Natural Stat Trick, Daley’s 5v5 on-ice shot attempt percentage of 70.59% with Ericsson becomes 47.77% without him. He’s also got a much better shots for percentage with Ericsson (55.56%) than without him (48.99%). In nearly every 5v5 metric, Daley is performing worse when he plays away from Ericsson.
Daley isn’t the only player who has benefited from playing with Ericsson either. There are a total of twelve Red Wings who have a better shot attempt percentage with Ericsson on the ice than without him.
Putting It In Context
Ericsson may be one of the better defensemen on this team this season, but it’s important to remember that this team’s defense corps is among the worst in the league. They have allowed 564 shots against, which is 6th worst in the league and averages out to 32.26 shots against per sixty minutes. They also rank in the bottom third of the league when it comes to giveaways with 247, 22 of which came off of Ericsson’s stick. The fact that they have a league-average goals against tally is a testament to the strong play from their goaltenders.
So yes, Ericsson has been the best defenseman on the team, but he is far from a top-2 D-man in the league.
In conclusion, Jonathan Ericsson has been better at 5v5 this year than in the past, though his shorthanded play has been worse this year than in previous years. He’s also been one of the Red Wings best defensemen at 5v5 and has made his teammates better.
So is your hate for him misplaced? Yes. Ericsson is an easy target because his misplays are so glaringly obvious. The eye test is not kind to him, but there are other defensemen on the team who have been far more frustrating to watch this year. Danny DeKeyser and Xavier Ouellet have been particularly bad.
Of course, Jonathan Ericsson is not and will not be the blueline saviour that the Red Wings need. He’s a serviceable third pairing defenseman who is finally playing well this year. Yes, his cap hit is still far too high and yes he makes bonehead plays from time to time, but the team would be worse if he was sitting in the press box.
So how about we ease up on the Ericsson rage for now?