When I said I was going to do a deep dive into the analytics of the Stars key players the first request I got was “Do Esa! he’s a great stay at home defenseman who deserves more credit”.

When he signed a large contract extension last off-season (6 years, $5.8m AAV) many eyebrows were raised but, as has been noted so many times its almost cliche, defense wins championships.


So, what do the numbers tell us about Esa?


Advanced Stats

Esa Lindell isolates
Graphic: hockey-viz.com.

On an initial view of the isolates, Esa Lindell does not appear to be a particularly special player, both the RAPM model of Evolving Hockey and Micah Blake McCurdy’s isolate charts have him a little below average on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck over the last three seasons. It should be noted that evaluating defensive defensemen isn’t always the easiest of tasks, many of the stats that we use to track player performance such as xGF, Corsi, Fenwick etc. rely on players taking shots and are less reliable when evaluating defense.

It’s difficult to isolate defensive performance from goaltending etc. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue the Stars have anything less than elite goaltending which should only affect defensive advanced stats in a positive fashion.


Esa Lindell isolates
Graphic: hockey.com

Esa struggles when rated on these advanced stats, however, his most frequent defensive partner John Klingberg is close to a top 10 defenseman in the league. So what effects does Esa have on his defensive partner? 

At even strength, Klingberg-Lindell was the defensive pairing the Stars went with almost 20% of the game times and Klingberg was overwhelmingly Lindell’s most common defensive partner, a situation that has been remarkably consistent since the 2016-2017 season. Of late, Esa has also seen some ice time with Miro Heiskanen but at a much lower rate than his pairing with Klingberg. 

Unfortunately for Esa, it seems as if his play has little to commend it when paired with Klingberg. When we look at “with or without you” charts on hockey-viz.com it seems like while Lindell is largely improved both offensively and defensively by the presence of John Klingberg, Klingberg’s play both offensively and defensively deteriorates.


That being said, the results of Klingberg being paired with Miro Heiskanen were, analytically speaking, markedly worse. 

2019-20202018-20192017-20182016-2017
OffDefOffDeffOffDeffOffDeff
3+23+
23-3++++++

So, if Lindell appears to be unnoticeable in advanced stats and seems to largely act as an anchor to his defensive partner, what is it that he does to justify his contract?


Micro-Stats

The micro stats provided by companies like Sportlogiq and Stathletes to the NHL are typically not available to the public. Luckily for analytics nerds everywhere, Corey Sznajder makes a heroic effort to hand track every NHL game and make those stats available online.

So what do these tell us about Esa? From an initial view, the weaknesses in his game are weaknesses in the Stars’ game as a whole.

While Lindell has developed something of a reputation as the defensively responsible member of the top pairing he actually ranks fairly well on shot contributions. When ranked on shots, primary and secondary assists as a D-man he ranks behind only Heiskanen and Klingberg. There is little difference overall between him and Klingberg on shots and Lindell is only a little lower on primary and secondary assists. Both Klingberg and Lindell are among the stronger defensemen in the NHL as a whole at setting up high danger passes. Heiskanen, by contrast, is much stronger at the low to high pass to set up point shots.  It says much about the Stars offense that their top three defensemen are, in fact, three of their more potent offensive weapons.

The weakness in Lindell’s game is echoed across the Stars as a whole in that they lack, almost completely, anything that might be regarded as dual-threat transition play. The closest they have to a dual-threat player is probably Klingberg, however, Lindell ranks second in Neutral Zone + Defensive Zone shots assists – a marker of contributing to rush offense. 

Lindell is in fact very effective at clearing the defensive zone, however, unlike Klingberg and Heiskanen, Lindell virtually never skates the puck out of the defensive zone, relying almost exclusively on dumping the puck out. Overall Lindell’s transition play is slightly below average compared to the whole corps of NHL defensemen.


NHL Play-by-Play Data

The NHL play-by-play data is available via a public API, and thanks to our friends at evolving-hockey.com who wrote an incredibly useful scraper tool for this data it’s relatively easy to get your hands on. I pulled all of the game data from the 2019-2020 season to see if we could get an idea of the job Esa does for the team. If we first look at shots on goal we can see that, as noted above, he actually shoots quite often. However, his shots are generally distributed along the blue line, and therefore little danger to an offensive team, which probably explains the fact that he has only had 3 goals this season. Lindell shoots left, so it’s good to see that many of his shots are on the right side.

Generally, shooters will have more success on their off-wing, where they can pull the puck central to the goaltender. Given that Esa has a good number of primary and secondary assists, it appears that the primary strategy has been to have him shoot the puck from the blue line and either stay high, or clear space by engaging opposition players along the boards. This relies on the other 4 skaters retaining offensive possession via rebounds and scoring from there. Given the Stars less than successful offense this year, it would be nice to see him retain possession of the puck deeper in the zone and actually attempt to score off of the rush. 

Esa Lindell shots on goal

On the defensive side of the puck, we see that Lindell sits 4th in total hits at 5v5 behind Klingberg and Heiskanen and on a par with Faksa. Lindell’s hits are shown on the rink map as the red dots (the rest of the team in blue). He shoulders an extremely heavy workload particularly in the corner and along the half wall on the right-hand side.

That being said, he puts in heavy work all behind the net. As Lindell appears not to retain the puck very much (see red dots on take-aways chart) it appears the idea is that he pins opposing players in the corner and attempts to knock the puck loose for others to retrieve.

On the offensive end of the ice, we see much the same strategy, however on the opposite wing, which is consistent with off-wing shooting and then entering the zone to engage opposition and clear space for secondary offense. As with pretty much everything else related to the Stars there seems to be a lack of engagement in the neutral zone.

Esa Lindell hits (red). Stars (blue)

 

Esa Lindell puck takeaways (red). Stars (blue)

Esa leads the team in blocking shots. It’s no surprise to anyone who has watched an extensive number of Stars games that he is ready and willing to get his stick and body in the way of opposition shots. His positioning here is excellent (actually the Stars as a whole seem to do this very well).

Some earlier work would suggest that this year in the AHL, at least, the hallmark of a team blocking shots well was a v-shaped morphology in front of the net rather than localized shot-blocking in the slot. We see this from Esa and from the team as a whole. I would expect to see more of this in the playoffs.


Esa blocked shots (red). Stars (blue) (Photo: —)

Summary

What do we make of Esa Lindell? As the Stars highest-paid defenseman he doesn’t exactly stand out analytically but the PbP data, at least points, to a tremendous worker along the boards in both ends and good placement shot-blocking in front of the net. He ranks 3rd pretty much extensively across the Stars defensive core behind Heiskanen – who may be the best D-man of his age in the NHL and Klingberg, who – despite the issues Stars fans have with him – is analytically elite.

Lindell is a better offensive defenseman than many people give him credit for. He could probably be better still with a better transition game and more inclination to retain possession deep into the O-zone.

It would be interesting to see him paired extensively with someone other than John Klingberg, although Klingberg has the edge analytically they are similar types of players and Lindell seems to often find himself caught between the stools of offense and defense. The issues with his game – lack of transition, tendency to dump out of his own zone rather than retain possession and dump and chase when on offense – are issues with the wider Stars game as a whole. 


Rick Bowness has noted that the Stars plan to work on these areas in camp prior to the season restart, with a particular focus on the defense joining offensive plays.
It will be interesting to see if Esa Lindell returns to play with a renewed focus on these areas.

Featured Image: Getty Images
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