A superstar NHL player jumps over the boards, grabs the puck, races up the ice and then…….nothing happens.
A few days ago, I sent out a tweet hinting that I’d be writing an article about a player who I feel might be the most underrated in the NHL. Of the 100+ responses I got back, only one person mentioned the guy I was thinking of – shoutout to ‘chloeshow1981’ on Twitter. This was a good hint that the player in question is still flying under the radar in most markets other than his own. This player is Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild. A left shot who can play both sides of he ice, Brodin has established himself as one of the better defenders in the NHL.
Brodin, who will be eligible for a contract extension July 1st, isn’t flashy and rarely shows up on highlight reels but his value comes less from what happens while he’s on the ice and more from what doesn’t happen. Opposing teams rarely score or generate scoring chances for that matter when Brodin is patrolling the ice.
Why is that?
Brodin is a master of the small details of the game that make a big difference. Positioning, anticipation, and awareness to name a few. It also doesn’t hurt that Brodin can skate backward as well as some players skate forward.
Minnesota Wild fans see him play often enough to know what makes him such a valuable defenseman. For those who don’t see the Wild or Brodin play often, here are the three hallmarks of his game that allowed him to put up some of the best defensive numbers in the NHL this season.
HALLMARK #1 – SKATING
Brodin’s ability to match an attacking players’ speed while moving backward is one of his greatest assets. There’s maybe a handful of defensemen in the NHL who can do this as well as Brodin. Exhibit A – this sequence against Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As Matthews builds up speed through the neutral zone, Brodin is able to keep Matthews to the outside before stripping the puck and starting a breakout.
It may not seem like it at first glance but there aren’t a lot of defensemen in the NHL who can do what Brodin just did.
Brodin is essentially flat-footed but is able to keep pace with Matthews thanks to a couple of quick crossovers and his elite skating ability. Pushing a world-class scorer like Matthews outside the dots is imperative and not only was Brodin able to do this, he was able to strip the puck and help the Wild exit the defensive zone.
Here are a couple more examples of Brodin’s exceptional skating allowing him to keep pace with attacking forwards in full flight. One against Austin Wagner of the L.A. Kings and one against Nathan MacKinnon, who led all players in rush scoring chances this season.
Brodin’s ability to skate with the fastest and most dynamic forwards in the NHL enables him to kill a lot of entries at the defensive blueline, before opposing players can make a successful play in the offensive zone. This shows up the number of times Brodin denied a controlled zone entry attempt this season – more than any defenseman in the NHL.
Brodin’s raw totals in this area are much more a reflection of his ability to kill entries than simply being targeted at a high-rate or eating a lot of minutes as his success rate defending entry attempts shows. Brodin denied 56.3% of the zone entry attempts that came his way at 5-on-5, 3rd best in the league.
So, the odds of skating through or around Brodin aren’t great. How else can a team try to get the puck into the offensive zone and to the middle of the ice to generate quality chances? You can try to chip the puck past him and pressure him on the forecheck but you probably won’t be very successful.
HALLMARK #2 – PUCK RECOVERY
This is where the awareness and deception in Brodin’s game really show. Whether an attacking forechecker is on his hip or just a few strides behind, Brodin’s ability to get back on pucks and quickly move it up and out is noticeable. A few examples in the following video…
Vs CGY – After a quick shoulder check, Brodin uses the small amount of available ice to connect on an outlet pass which allows the Wild to break out and generate a Grade A chance in transition.
Vs ARZ – A bit of deception as he gets to the puck allows Brodin to escape initial pressure and a between-the-legs pass starts the breakout.
Vs ANA – Straight up beats Derek Grant to the puck and exits the zone successfully.
Vs TB – Establishes body position on Tyler Johnson, angles him off the puck at the point of contact and skates the puck out.
241 times this season Brodin recovered a dump-in and successfully navigated the puck out of the defensive zone, either by skating it or passing it, at 5-on-5 – 13th most of any defenseman. His success rate in terms of dump-in recoveries leading to successful zone exits, 75.3% which ranked 27th.
As good as Brodin is at denying entries and recovering dump-ins to limit time spent in the defensive end, even the top defenders in the game are going to have to defend in-zone. This brings us to the third hallmark of his game.
HALLMARK #3 – POSITIONING / ANTICIPATION
Brodin rarely gets caught out of position and does a terrific job anticipating what’s coming next. This is another reason why teams struggle to attack between the dots when he’s on the ice. A few examples…
Vs SJ – Brodin angles the attacking forward to the outside, gets his stick in the passing lane, and recovers the puck to lead the breakout.
Vs CHI – Shorthanded, Brodin doesn’t chase behind the net, jumps a pass and draws a tripping penalty.
Vs WPG – Again, Brodin maintains his defensive position in the slot, gets his stick in the passing lane and exits the zone.
Vs COL – The Avalanche powerplay does a nice job of opening up a soft spot for a Nazem Kadri one-timer. Brodin reads it and takes away a prime scoring chance. Goalies love this stuff and you’ll see Devan Dubnyk give him a tap at the end of the sequence.
Because Brodin is positionally sound and reads the play so well, he’s able to break up passing plays at a high-rate. This is reflected in the number of passes he’s blocked in his own zone.
Again, this is more a reflection of Brodin’s ability than him spending an inordinate amount of time in his own end, which he doesn’t.
Denying entries, turning puck recoveries into successful exits and blocking passes into contested areas aren’t plays that end up on SportsCentre but these are absolutely the type of plays that prevent the other teams’ star players from appearing in highlight packs.
They also contribute to Brodin’s elite defensive while-on-ice numbers.
Brodin’s 0.64 expected goals against (a reflection of shot quantity and quality) per-20 at 5-on-5 ranked 2nd amongst the 198 defensemen who played at least 500 minutes in this game state. His inner slot shot differential of 62.4% was best in the NHL. In addition to the impressive defensive numbers, Brodin set a career-high in points with 28 in 69 games despite minimal powerplay time.
Brodin isn’t a 1A defenseman like a Roman Josi, Alex Pietrangelo, or Victor Hedman but he’s a top tier 2 / 3. You might not see his impact in terms of points in the boxscore on a given night but be sure to check the other teams’ top players, as well. Don’t be surprised if their stat sheet is a little more bare than usual.
(Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)