Nick Holden is the Rangers “BEST” defenseman, “statistically”
Nick Holden, Top Pair D??
Ok, Ok, take it easy. Don’t break out the tar and feathers just yet. The title was a shameless attention grabber. However, there is some truth to it. I have come to believe that Nick Holden is far better than everyone would have you believe.
— TheBrothersBlueshirt(@BlueshirtBros94) January 23, 2018
Holden is the most vilified Rangers defenseman except for, maybe, Marc Staal. Last year in the series against the Senators, Holden and Staal were on the ice for, what seemed like every single goal that the Senators scored. And in a moment that will live in GIF infamy, both Holden and Staal, “snow-angel’d” at the exact same time in an attempt to break up a potential pass. While the merits of the dive block can be debated, the image of two sprawling defenseman on the ice, swinging their sticks in an ill-fated attempt to break up the play, did Holden no favors. Additionally, Patrick Roy did Holden no favors when he called Holden his “best defenseman” after his trade to the Rangers. While Holden did score 34 points (11G, 23A), Holden’s second half left a sour taste in many people’s mouths and one that was only exacerbated by the Ottawa Series.
Coming into this season it was widely expected that the Rangers would go with Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith as their top 4, with Marc Staal and a group of Anthony Deangelo, Neil Pionk, Ryan Graves and Holden fighting it out for the 6th/7th defenseman slot. Holden won that battle and Deangelo, Pionk, and Graves were sent back to the AHL for further seasoning. While many people were disappointed that one of the youngsters was not able to crack AV’s top six, most were ok with Staal and Holden as a bottom pair. However, as the season has gone on Holden and Staal have been elevated to the top two pairs while Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Brendan Smith have all spent time on the bottom pair. This has continued to spark a large amount of outrage from the Ranger fan base as Holden has been McDonagh’s partner on the top line for a significant amount of time.
Initially I had the same reaction as most fans. How could Nick Holden, the man who was on the ice every time an opposing goal was scored in the playoffs, be Ryan McDonagh’s partner? How could AV shackle Ryan McDonagh with another anchor when Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, or Brendan Smith are all completely capable of playing on his right? What was AV thinking?
As it turns out AV has an “extremely sophisticated stats package.” While I say that with tongue in cheek, it turns out AV may actually be adhering to advanced stats more than people think. It’s just not everyone’s favorite “advanced stat”, Corsi. AV’s comments at his presser were in reference to Corsi. AV said he did not put much value into Corsi, and rightfully so. If you look at advanced statistics as a predictor of success (as I did in great detail, here and here), Corsi is the least predictive of success in the NHL. The Rangers style of play, systems, and advanced statistics all reflect that. While they are significantly below average in all categories of Corsi, the Rangers are towards the top of the league in scoring chances for and high danger chances for. When a team has a good percentage for these statistics they are much more likely to have team success than if they have a high Corsi Percentage. The issue is that they are near the bottom of the league in scoring chances against and high danger chances against. But I digress.
According to the eye test Nick Holden falls anywhere from terrible to slightly above average NHL defenseman, depending on who you ask. I used to think Holden was closer to the terrible side of the scale. However, as I hate seeing players and coaches UNFAIRLY destroyed, I decided to pay closer attention and decide for myself. For a number of games I followed Holden’s play closely. What I saw was somewhat surprising. Holden is a solid, if unspectacular presence on the back end. While Holden makes mistakes, he does not make mistakes any more often than any other defender. It just seems that way because every person on social media seems to hate him and he has become the target of GIF makers around the twitter verse.
— Fitz (@FitzyGSN) January 24, 2018
If you pay attention, you will notice that Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and Kevin Shattenkirk do not receive nearly the amount of scrutiny that players like Holden receive. Whether it is because McDonagh has a large body of work with the Rangers, or Skjei is supremely talented and is the future, or Shattenkirk took a discount to play in New York, they all receive the benefit of the doubt while Holden does not.
Holden is not a super flashy player that will amaze you with his skating ability like Skjei or his passing ability like Shattenkirk. However, Holden is just as solid, if not more so, than the other Ranger defenseman. While this is not saying much, considering the Rangers defense this year, his stats were not what I expected to see given all the bad press that Holden gets. However, the eye test cannot prove anything to anyone other than that of the beholder. After watching him for a number of games, I decided to put him under a statistical microscope and see if the numbers confirmed or denied what I thought I was seeing. I was not disappointed.
Statistical Deep Dive
Note: All statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise mentioned.
As I mentioned above, the Rangers do not play a game or use a system that emphasizes Corsi or a high volume of shots. Instead, the Rangers system values high quality shots. You can see this play out every time you hear fans (including myself) screaming for the Rangers to shoot the puck more. The Rangers have a way of driving us nuts when they pass up good shot opportunities in favor of trying to create a great play. Even though it is not the Rangers way, it is still worth mentioning Holden’s Corsi statistics as compared to the other Ranger defenders.
At an initial glance, Holden has poor Corsi numbers. His 45.44 Corsi For percentage ranks 6/6 among the Ranger defenseman with 500 minutes of 5v5 play. Brendan Smith leads all Ranger defensemen with a 46.71 Corsi For percentage. This is only slightly higher than Holden’s. However, when taking zone start percentages into account, Holden’s numbers begin to tell a different story. Holden has an offensive zone start percentage of just 37.47%, the lowest amongst all Ranger defenseman. This means that Holden starts in the defensive zone close to 2/3 of the time (neutral zone discounted).
In fact, Holden has had more defensive zone starts than any other Ranger defenseman and fewer offensive zone starts than any other defenseman. It is incredible that Holden’s Corsi percentage is nearly identical to the rest of the Ranger defensemen when he is at a significant disadvantage in terms of zone start percentages. For comparison’s sake, Brady Skjei has an offensive zone start percentage of 61.62%, but only produced a Corsi For percentage of 46.29%. Again, I do not put a ton of value on Corsi because the Rangers do not employ a system built around shot attempts. However, Holden’s numbers begin to jump off of the page when compared to his teammates.
Scoring Chances For
As I mentioned, I do not put a lot of stock into Corsi when evaluating Rangers players. The Rangers system is built around counter-attacks and creating quality shots as opposed to a large volume of shots. As such, I believe it is far more important to evaluate them based upon Scoring Chances and High Danger Chances. The Rangers, as a whole, have a Corsi For percentage of 46.09 (last in the league). However, their Scoring Chances For percentage (2+ rating) is higher at 47.60. Still not great. However, when it comes to grade-A scoring chances or high danger scoring chances (3+ rating) the Rangers have a 50.36 percentage. Again, still not great for a team that has Stanley cup aspirations (not realistically anymore). However, it does illustrate the Rangers style of play and what we should emphasize when evaluating players in their system.
Nick Holden has a Scoring Chances For percentage of 49.6%, which is highest amongst Ranger defenseman. In addition he has the 2nd highest (Marc Staal) High Danger Chances For percentage at 52.22%. In comparison, Kevin Shattenkirk has a 47.58% and 47.78%, respectively which is just barely higher than his Corsi For percentage. While Shattenkirk has been injured this year, Brady Skjei has been healthy all year. Skjei has a nearly identical Corsi For percentage at 46.29% while owning a 48.10 Scoring Chances For Percentage and a 51.22 High Danger Chances percentage. Even Ryan McDonagh falls short of Holden’s chance levels. McDonagh has 47.78 Scoring Chances For percentage and a 50.46 High Danger Chances For percentage. Interestingly enough, Marc Staal is closest player to Holden in terms of chances for and against. However, that is for another time. In addition, as mentioned above, Holden has the lowest, by far, offensive zone start percentage. The fact that he has a nearly even scoring chance percentage and a positive high danger chance percentage is quite incredible.
Although Holden is known more as an offensive defenseman, he actually has the best penalty kill stats of any Ranger defenseman. Holden has the 3rd highest number of penalty kill minutes behind Staal and McDonagh. As of this writing Holden had 88:21 minutes of penalty kill time compared to McDonagh’s 130:21 and Staal’s 138:49. During those minutes Holden was on the ice for 5 goals against while McDonagh and Staal were on the ice for 11 and 13 goals against, respectively. When broken down by goals against per minute, Holden gives up .05 goals against per minute on the penalty kill. McDonagh and Staal come in at .08 and .09 goals against per minute, respectively.
Don’t like fancy stats? No problem. At 5v5 Holden has the 2nd best goal differential (on ice) at +6, only trailing Ryan McDonagh’s +7 (nearly 60 minutes more). Simply put, Holden has been on the ice for 34 Rangers goals while on the ice for 28 goals against. Shattenkirk and Skjei both have been on the ice for more goals against, 36 and 33, than goals for, 30 and 25. As for individual stats, Holden leads all defenseman with 3 goals at 5v5 and is 3rd in total points behind Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, both of whom have had significantly more offensive zone starts. As I mentioned above, these are not eye-popping stats. However, on a suspect Rangers defense, Holden is not the biggest issue.
Nick Holden IS NOT the Rangers best Defenseman. The Rangers have Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and Kevin Shattenkirk on their roster. All three have a case to make for the Rangers best defenseman. However, Nick Holden is a good NHL defenseman and is a very underrated piece to the New York Rangers. Holden has received a lot of negative attention for his play during the second half of the year last year and during last year’s playoffs. This negative attention is somewhat deserved as Holden was on the ice for multiple extremely critical goals against. However, Holden is not the terrible ECHL 3rd line defenseman every makes him out to be.
By both basic and advanced stats, Holden has shown himself to be an extremely solid NHL defenseman (this year). My point in writing this article is to encourage everyone to do their own analysis and not go along with the popular narrative just because it’s easy or convenient. Don’t just accept something because someone says it is so. I get it. Holden is an older player that does not have the skating ability of Skjei or the passing ability of Shattenkirk. He is not going to put up gaudy numbers in the box score. He is not going to play the body like Brendan Smith. However, that does not mean he is a poor defenseman. By the numbers, and I know how much we all love numbers, Nick Holden is far better than he gets credit for from the fans.
All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com