Class of ’99 – Defensemen

Considering the end results, I’d have bet that the 1998 expansion draft had talent that vastly surpassed the 1999 one.  As this project has gone on, I’m not so sure this is the case.

Of the two drafts, only 1999 had a first-line scoring forward in the prime of his career (Geoff Sanderson); all others in both drafts were either pending free agents who were too expensive to retain, were past their prime, or were unproven.  1998 did have the better goalies available, specifically because of how far above the class Mike Dunham towered.

But with defensemen who were not pending free agents, unproven, or past their primes, it is my opinion that 1999 far exceeded 1998.  Yet the end result is that, although Atlanta allowed almost 200 fewer shots (2,533 compared to 2,701), they allowed substantially more goals (313 against compared to 261 for Nashville).  Part of this is goaltending, but a big part is defense.

The best four defensemen that Atlanta had to choose from were, in my order, Dave Manson (Chicago), Curtis Leschyshyn (Carolina), Bill Houlder (San Jose), and Gord Murphy (Florida).  After that, it gets a bit muddled, with Darryl Shannon (Buffalo, and a spare part in the playoffs), Mark Tinordi (Washington, pending free agent, injured), and Steve Duchesne (Philadelphia, and very highly-paid).  This is a quick comparison between them all.

Dave Manson – In the 1999 History of Hockey podcast (episode 23), I referred to Manson as “a poor man’s Shea Weber”, although their careers in the NHL do not overlap by a single day.

Both possess an absolute cannon of a shot, each having won the Hardest Shot Competition in the All-Star Skills Competition.  For both, their shot was described as “heavy”, the type that actually stings a goalie to make even a clean save on.  Both are thus ideal for playing the point on a power play, as they’ll both try to squeeze that shot through a small gap to either hit the net directly or create a large enough rebound for someone else to put in.

And in their own zone, both possess a serious mean streak that makes them intimidating presences.  Neither has ever seemed to be content to simply separate an opposing forward from the puck, preferring instead to separate the opposing forward’s skates from the ice.  Both are heavy hitters, and won’t hesitate to give an extra shot if the opportunity presents itself.  Both have been accused of being out of control at times, and both have consistently played with what seems to be a barely-restrained rage in the defensive zone.

One big difference is that while Weber gets a ton of power play time, Manson’s declined over the years.  In the late 1990s, there entered a new generation of extremely fast penalty killing forwards in addition to increased usage of fast first-line forwards in such a role.  From 1995-96 to 1998-99, eleven players have more than ten shorthanded goals: Mike Modano, Peter Bondra, Mike Peca, Joe Sakic, Tony Amonte, Theo Fleury, Peter Forsberg, Alexander Mogilny, Mario Lemieux, Mats Sundin, and Rob Zamuner.  This marks a striking shift from the preceding years, when players like Wayne Presley, Esa Tikkanen, Dave Poulin, and Paul Ranheim, or Dirk Graham and Doug Smail tended to dominate the list.  Yes, scoring forwards being used on the PK is nothing new, but the players who were being used in all situations (including heavy power play time) was newer. (Statistics are courtesy of hockey-reference.com)

In the case of Dave Manson, this hurt him because of a relative lack of recovery in skating.  A loose puck in no-man’s-land in the offensive zone on the power play could result in a scoring chance going the other way because Manson may not be able to recover quickly enough to either keep the puck in the zone or to negate the opposing forward.  I believe this is a big part of why his power play time diminished in the two years leading up to the 1999 expansion.  Of course, on an expansion team with limited power play options, Manson would have every chance to get out there and blast pucks on net time and again.

Manson was signed through the 1999-00 season at $1.65 million per year.

Curtis Leschyshyn – I’ve played and/or coached various sports, and from studying I can say with certainty that coaches love guys who understand and embrace the idea of “playing within yourself”.  I’m reminded of a quote that goes something like, “It’s possible to win with mules, and it’s possible to win with thoroughbreds, but when your mules start playing like thoroughbreds you’re in trouble.”  It drives me crazy that I can’t remember who actually said that, or the exact verbatim quote, but I’m sure I’ll find it soon.

In many ways, Leschyshyn was the defenseman who embodied this ideal.  He went into the WHL as a scoring center who was primarily a setup man, then converted to defense at the relatively advanced age of 17.  He was drafted after two years in Saskatoon, then went right into the NHL with Quebec.

There are few things tougher than taking a defenseman who’s just been drafted and turning him loose in the highest league immediately, and that goes double when it’s on a really bad team.  The Nordiques had just missed the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history, and would miss the playoffs for a total of five straight seasons before the enormous turnaround in 1992-93.  On the defensive side, it was an extremely young group.  Robert Picard was the old man of the group, with no one else over age 25.  In 1990-91, as the Nordiques stumbled to their third straight season of finishing dead last in the league, no one over age 28 played a single game on the blue line.  This happened again in 1991-92…and 1992-93…and 1993-94….

Quebec, in short, treated defensemen the same way that one would have tested a witch: tie them to a chair and throw them into the lake.  If they escaped, they were a witch, and if not, they’re dead but at least you know they’re not a witch.  The idea of turning loose half a dozen young defensemen all at once with little or no veteran guidance is an appallingly bad idea.  The 1989-90 Nordiques had a blueline group of Leschyshyn, Jeff Brown, Steven Finn, Joe Cirella, Michel Petit, and (32-year-old) Mario Marois.  They finished with 31 points of a possible 160, and allowed 167 more goals than they scored in just 80 games.  Marois was gone the next year, leaving 28-year-old Randy Velischek as the old man.

In Leschyshyn first four years in the NHL, he scored 14 goals and 34 points, with a ghastly -120.  That he wasn’t completely broken by the experience is a credit to him.  And when Quebec started turning it around, he was a big part of the reason why.

By the time we get to the 1999 Expansion Draft, Leschyshyn was a fully matured defenseman with a Stanley Cup ring (1996 with Colorado).  As a result of his experience and salary, he could have been a hotly-pursued Group V free agent in 1998, but instead passed on this chance in order to sign a three-year contract extension with Carolina.

A lot of players who convert from forward to defense generally have a maddening tendency to constantly be thinking of putting the puck in the other net; they’ll do things like want to skate the puck out of danger instead of simply getting it out of the zone, or look for a crisp tape-to-tape pass instead of a simple clear (usually while not looking to see where the forechecking forwards are), or get loose or lazy in gap control because there’s usually someone else back there who can pick up the slack.  Leschyshyn wasn’t this type of player at all, and in fact did a lot of little things that even good defensemen didn’t always do.  If the puck was bouncing around his own net, he’d either settle it before moving it or take a nice level whack at it instead of a golf swing that would take him out of the play.  If he had the chance to skate the puck up the ice, he’d make sure the lane was open and that he had an escape plan if a forechecking forward applied pressure.  If he had the chance to spring someone with a long pass, he’d move after the puck was away in case the puck ended up being knocked back into the zone quickly.

Leschyshyn did a lot of things well, but nothing great.  His best ability was that ability to play within himself; he wouldn’t go for a huge hit because it wasn’t his game, he wouldn’t try to fly up the ice like Paul Coffey because he didn’t have the skating or stickhandling for it, he wouldn’t pinch deep into the offensive zone because he might get caught on a quick turnover.  He played a smart game that emphasized the safe play by embracing calculated risk management.

By the time the 1999-00 season began, he would have just turned 30 years old and was signed for two more years at $1.66 mil per season.

Bill Houlder – The 1987-88 Washington Capitals had a defense of Houlder, Scott Stevens, Rod Langway, Larry Murphy, Kevin Hatcher, Garry Galley, Grant Ledyard, and Paul Cavallini.  They lost in the second round of the playoffs to New Jersey, who had 82 points and was in the playoffs for the first time in team history.  This is something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone say “offense wins games, defense wins championships” like they’re the most wise person that ever lived.

Houlder had a bit of an odd career, in that he went from contending teams to the IHL to an expansion Ducks team to another contender to a rising Lightning team to a terrible Sharks team.  And what he was asked to do was all over the place as well, from scoring and playing the power play with Anaheim to playing a more physical shutdown role with St. Louis but not killing penalties, then killing penalties with Tampa Bay, then getting back on the power play with San Jose while also playing first-pairing minutes in all situations.

Of course, he was asked to do this because he had the skills, the smarts, and the work ethic to do it.  He wasn’t as physical as Manson, or as positional as Leschyshyn, but he was right there with them in terms of his overall game.  He could do a lot of things very well at a high level, but was often overlooked because there wasn’t a particular skill that he was superlatively skilled at.

In 1999, Houlder was 32 years old and had a player option year for both 1999-00 and 2000-01 at around $1.6 mil per year.  Had Atlanta taken him in the expansion draft, there would certainly be a risk that he’d decline the option and become a free agent.  There’s also the chance that he would pick up the option and immediately play on the first pairing.

Gord Murphy – Murphy was somewhat similar to Houlder in that he went from a couple of contending teams to a first-year expansion team.  Then he went to a contender, although this was because of Florida’s rise and not because of being traded.  And then his fall to a rebuilding team was a result of Florida’s fall and not a trade.

Murphy came into the league more as a power play specialist than a well-rounded defenseman, and over time developed the other facets that would keep him in the league.  Unlike Leschyshyn’s time early with Quebec, Murphy had the chance to learn under some excellent veterans in Philadelphia with Mark Howe, Kjell Samuelsson, and Jay Wells.  In Boston, he had the incomparable Ray Bourque to work with and learn under.

Compared to the three defensemen above, Murphy would probably be more similar to Houlder than Leschyshyn or Manson.  In 1999, he was 32 years old, a veteran of over 800 NHL games, and signed for two more years (1999-00 and 2000-01) at an average of $1.85 mil per season.

Top Four Assessment – Atlanta had four legitimate proven top-four defensemen to choose from in the 1999 Expansion Draft, three of whom were signed for at least one more year and the last one of whom (Houlder) who had a player option for that year and the next.  Passing on Leschyshyn can make sense because Carolina also had Trevor Kidd unprotected.  The other two…well, the Thrashers made the absolutely baffling decisions in passing on Manson in favor of AHL third-liner Sylvain Cloutier and Houlder in favor of unsigned European Alexei Yegorov.

And now we see the problems with Atlanta right from the beginning.

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