The NHL Expansion Draft was a year-long headache for the Anaheim Ducks.
A Vegas Golden Knights-friendly set of expansion rules — combined with Anaheim’s pile of talented defensemen — made it feel like a near certainty that the Knights would be able to nab an important piece of the Ducks’ roster.
Yet as the Draft approached, it became clear that teams around the league were finding creative ways to get Vegas to lay off of their prized possessions.
Suspicion grew that Anaheim had gone that route when it was reported that Kevin Bieksa hadn’t even been asked to waive his no-move clause, effectively exposing the blossoming Josh Manson.
Even for the harshest critics of Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray, it was impossible to argue that he would prioritize protecting Bieksa over Manson. Surely, he had worked something out under the table.
Sami Vatanen was reported to be heading to Vegas via trade in an effort to keep the Knights away from Manson, which turned out to be more inaccurate than outright false.
My understanding, as part of Ducks/Knights expected trade, is Vatanen will end up in Vegas. Other parameters to deal, but that's main part.— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) June 17, 2017
Shea Theodore was the young Ducks defenseman that ended up going to Vegas via trade, in exchange for an amusingly vague return of “Expansion Draft Considerations”.
Those “Considerations” ended up being that Knights’ GM George McPhee — in exchange for having gotten Theodore — would draft Clayton Stoner and stay away from the likes of Manson and Vatanen.
At the time, the general consensus was that Murray had done very well. He managed to not lose any core pieces of his roster while getting to shed Stoner’s onerous $3.25 million cap hit. Generally speaking, that’s not a bad day at the office.
Part of the “Murray did fine” logic was that Anaheim still retained its enviable pile of blueline prospects, even with Theodore’s departure. Though highly touted, Theodore struggled to stay in the lineup during the 2017 playoffs, while the first-year Brandon Montour seemed to flourish in his first NHL go-around. Montour’s fast ascent paired with Theodore’s recent struggles made the decision seem fairly obvious.
However, there’s more than enough evidence to believe that decision wasn’t nearly as obvious as it seemed.
In particular, Theodore’s defensive acumen came into question during not only the post-season, but throughout the entirety of his 2016-17 campaign. On an eye-test level, he doesn’t necessarily impress in his own zone, but he’s not a complete liability, either.
Thanks to Corey Snazdjer’s zone-entry tracking micro-statistics, there’s reason to believe that Theodore isn’t anywhere near a turnstile at his own blueline. Keep in mind, however, that this is from a limited sample of regular season games:
ANA doesn't have the biggest sample here. Theodore just crossed the minimum targets threshold.— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 20, 2017
Manson looks good, as usual. pic.twitter.com/9BKePfiqtj
Tierney made sure to point out that this wasn’t from a considerable sample of games. Perhaps that explains why Hampus Lindholm isn’t where anyone would expect him to be. Or, those weaker micro-stats might explain why he’s not as good away from Manson, who absolutely crushes it in this chart.
Ultimately, micro-stats (carry-in percentage, break-up percentage) are only inputs to inform the greater outputs (shot-attempt and goal differentials). In Theodore’s case, his stronger micro-stats help to inform some discrepancies in his outputs.
Dig into Theodore’s linemates, and a pretty clear picture seems to arise:
Theodore spent the grand majority of his minutes next to Bieksa, which was absolutely disastrous for his shot-attempt differential. He was actually quite respectable with just about anyone else.
He isn’t a clear-cut play-driver just yet. As we’ve just seen from two different data sets, however, he’s not nearly as bad as the perception of him seems to be.
A number of his linemates experienced a positive bump in possession, perhaps hinting that he can eventually have that kind of play-driving effect across the board. He’s still only 21.
The data doesn’t seem to agree with Theodore’s overall reputation. What does it have to say about Montour’s? Here’s how he fared next to the guys who he spent the bulk of his even strength minutes with:
As we saw in the previous chart, six of Theodore’s nine most common linemates were better with him. Montour? Only two of nine. That feels like a pretty wide gap.
A quick glance at the nature of their minutes further contextualizes this comparison:
As we’ve already seen from the previous graphs, Theodore got saddled with some rather unimpressive linemates. Montour, on the other hand, got to enjoy playing with some of Anaheim’s top blueliners.
However, the opposition that Montour faced wasn’t all that tougher than Theodore’s. So if Theodore is driving play at a better clip against only slightly inferior competition, then what does that say about Montour, who’s struggling to do so?
This all comes to a head when looking at a number The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow mentioned in a recent piece. Through his own research, he found that of the 195 defensemen that played 40-plus games in the AHL at age 21, roughly 19 went on to become good top-four defensemen in the NHL, and they managed to quickly start driving possession upon arrival. That’s an astoundingly low figure.
At age 21, Montour played 68 games down in the AHL. Once he did get to the NHL a year later, his possession numbers didn’t really jump off the spreadsheet.
Theodore only played in 26 AHL games at the same age, and showed play-driving potential in the NHL that same year. Granted, Anaheim’s a very particular case among the league. With such good young talent already up with the big club, it’d be natural to expect guys to be in the AHL longer than they probably should be.
Given everything we’ve just gone over, however, that figure brought up by Dellow certainly feels like it helps Theodore’s case as potential top-four NHL defenseman, while further weakening Montour’s.
Watch Montour for any length of time, though, and the guy clearly has some serious upside to his game. He’s got a knack for correctly pinching up in the offensive zone, and he’s extremely aggressive in his decision making, both at five-on-five and on the power play. It’s not unreasonable to believe that he can eventually develop into a reliable top-four blueliner.
However, from a number of angles, Theodore appears much closer to that reality.
Yes, the Ducks didn’t give up any of their supposedly core pieces in the expansion draft, but it’s impossible to argue that they came out of it unscathed.