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Building the Marco Scandella Experiment

Marco Scandella is now a long-term Blue, so what needs to be done to make the most of his new contract?

NHL: MAR 06 Blues at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Blues announced a long-term contract extension for newly acquired Marco Scandella this past weekend. Even with a constant rambling of stats, my complaints weren’t enough; Scandella will now serve as a fixture of the Blues blue-line for the next four years. He’s signed at a decent price as well, with his new cap hit of $3.275 million placing him in the same group as players like Travis Sanheim and Darnell Nurse.

This is an admirable group to be a part of. And while Scandella may have a handful of past discrepancies, his skillset doesn’t leave him hopeless among good company. With four years to play with, and around four percent of their cap now invested into him, the Blues are in a place that no other team has been in: they get to mold the old-school style of Scandella into a reliable top-four option, one that he showed flashes of this year.

Setting Up the Scandella Experiment

The Basis of the Experiment

Scandella’s Past

This season was a huge refresher for Scandella. The now-10-year-veteran had spent the past two seasons rotting with the Buffalo Sabres, and the two prior struggling to keep his footing with the Minnesota Wild. It was a hard stretch to witness, throwing Scandella into a grouping with the league’s worst defensemen.

But despite his terrible play, he remained in the NHL. This is largely thanks to being on such a poor Sabres blue-line, which would’ve been better with 72-year-old Bobby Orr than with the group of six that they rolled out every night. These low standards, though, directly led to Scandella’s resurgence this season. When he finally was moved from the Sabres to the Montreal Canadiens, Scandella’s play shot up. While nowhere near a star, Scandella was finally holding his own and proving reliability on both ends of the ice. He went from one of the worst defensemen in the league to a great middle-pairing option.

This is what led to the Blues’ notable acquisition of him, giving up a second and fourth round pick in the return package. After losing Jay Bouwmeester, Scandella’s two-way reliability was very attractive to the Blues, who reeled in the defenseman six days before the Trade Deadline. He would end up playing 11 games with St. Louis before the league’s shutdown, again showing off his continuing reliability and finishing off a rebound to glory, reaching wins-above-replacement (WAR) and expected-goals-above-replacement (xGAR) levels that he had only managed once before in his x year career:

Marco Scandella’s career xWAR/xGAR charts, courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

Scandella’s Play Style

The most important thing to understand when building an experiment is the subject you’re working with. Scandella has been very consistent in his isolated impact. Through his career, he’s affected his team’s offense and defense at almost perfectly-even rates, usually holding things around league-average. It’s a style that, while imperfect, lines Scandella up exactly with the “two-way” style of play. From the split between xGF/60 and xGA/60, to the split of unblocked shot rates for and against, Scandella’s stat line perfectly backs up this style...

The Video and The Chart

...As does the video. Readily apparent even in his debut with St. Louis is Scandella’s unique hugging of the boards on the left-point when in the offensive zone. He does a good job of knowing when to pinch in to keep the puck in the zone but tends to be extremely passive, sticking to his corner between the blue-line and boards instead. In fact, there’s roughly a 15ft x 5 ft area along the left point, between the boards and in-line with the left face off dots, that Scandella is glued to for almost all of his time in the offensive zone.

Scandella’s Corner

Everything he does in the O-zone is confined to this area, including nearly every single shot Scandella takes. This is notable because Scandella is a fairly frequent-shooting defenseman, averaging around 1.5 shots-per-game nearly every year in his career. So to see his firing all coming from such an enclosed area is a little disappointing. Below is a density chart, mapping out every shot Scandella has taken at even-strength throughout his career. It clearly shows this favorite corner of his, with next-to-no variation save for a small sample size when the Sabres used him as a right defenseman.

Scandella’s career even-strength shooting chart courtesy of Mitch McCurdy (hockeyviz.com).

The End Goal

In the same way that it’s important to know your subject, knowing your anticipated outlook is just as important in forming any experiment. Looking at Scandella’s shooting chart quickly doesn’t raise any eyebrows. He’s a left-handed shot, so of course he’d shoot more from the left side, and he’s a defenseman, so of course he’d shoot from the point more. Right?

Well, not so much anymore. In a league that is rapidly racing towards a high-speed, high-skill caliber, defensemen are among the most evolving group. They’re becoming one of the most influential parts of teams’ offensive gameplans, working lower in the zone with their shots, sometimes even rifling shots from the low-slot at a rate higher than ever before.

So while Scandella’s passive play makes sense on paper, it’s rapidly becoming outdated. New-age defensemen like future-Blues-star Vince Dunn, leading-defensive-goal-scorer Zach Werenski, and Leafs newest phenomenon Rasmus Sandin all follow a similar pattern, at progressively more exaggerated levels of emphasis. Again this is shown perfectly by their even-strength shot charts from this past season:

Dunn’s 2019-20 even-strength shot chart, courtesy of Mitch McCurdy (hockeyviz.com).

Dunn’s shot chart starts to show this new style of play. The 23-year-old defenseman was a force to be reckoned with on both offense and defense this season, providing a huge punch to the Blues lineup. While he does stay close to Scandella’s corner with a bulk of his shots, he also does a tremendous job of working toward the middle of the ice, the high-slot, and all around the left face-off dot. It’s a very mobile style of play, one that fits perfectly to Dunn’s nimble fashion, and allows the defenseman to harness a terrific shot to its full potential.

Werenski’s 2019-20 even-strength shot chart, courtesy of Mitch McCurdy (hockeyviz.com).

Werenski’s chart takes Dunn’s mobility and runs with it. He shot from anywhere on the ice, with a dramatic emphasis on shooting from close to the middle of the faceoff circle. It’s in this area that five of Werenski’s 11 even-strength goals came from this season. Five others came from the right side of the low-slot and one was netted from Scandella’s corner along the blue-line. This is a very important sign: the man that led defensemen in goals this season only netted one from the same area that 58 percent of Scandella’s even-strength shots came from this season.

Sandin’s 2019-20 even-strength shot charts, courtesy of Mitch McCurdy (hockeyviz.com).

The most diverse chart comes from the youngest of the three, though, helping show off how new-age defensemen truly handle their shooting. Sandin has been described as an incredibly smart player who uses his shot very effectively in the offensive end. Another Leafs expert described him as an ever-improving offensive dynamo, showcasing a great skillset for a 20-year-old defenseman. Case-in-point, Sandin embodies the future style of play and his shot chart reflects that. He almost entirely avoids Scandella’s corner, instead opting for a high volume of shots in the dead-center of the point and all around the left faceoff dot. And while he only netted one goal in the 28 games he played this year, it came off a wrist shot from the circle, highlighting is knack for a mobile shooting pattern.

The Experiment

Three of the league’s best goal-scoring, young defensemen all show a similar pattern: get the puck to higher-danger areas before shooting. Gone are the days of needing to stay back and constantly worry about a counter-rush. Now, defensemen need to pride themselves on their offensive abilities and use their shots to the best of their abilities. It’s a trick boasted by the league’s most promising youth, as well as the best veteran defensemen in the league, like Alex Pietrangelo and Dougie Hamilton.

It’s something Scandella needs to adopt immediately. All worries of him getting caught in the offensive end are completely eliminated by his two-way ability, especially if he keeps it at the level it was this year. In a short sample size with the Blues, Scandella made next to no mistakes when it came to knowing when to pinch, when to get back, and what play to make if he was beat on a backcheck. It was every ingredient to make a great aggressive, two-way defenseman but Scandella still remained conserved, confining himself yet again to his corner.

But if he wants to thrive in St. Louis, and on a pairing with the blossoming Colton Parayko, he needs to start taking these chances. Using an incredibly innovative program from McCurdy, we can find that a typical Scandella slap shot coming from the heart of his corner, against a league-average goalie, at even-strength, has about a 2.4 percent chance of going in the net. If he dips in 10 feet closer to the net, that percentage goes up to 6.4 percent. Shoot it from the top of the circle, like Vince Dunn, and an average Scandella slap-shot (against an average goalie at even-strength) goes in roughly 10.9 percent of the time.

Make the Change

These seem like meager increases but they rack up significantly over the course of a season, not to mention any scenario that isn’t 5v5. While probability is just probability, these meager change to Scandella’s play could push him into double-digit goal totals for only the second time in his career.

It’s a desperately needed switch. Not only is Scandella’s corner an outdated place to live, it’s also simply not working for the defenseman. In 10 career years, and 580 career games, Scandella has only 48 goals, largely thanks to his refusal to leave the corner he has made home. It’s a pitiful average for a defenseman that shoots the puck so frequently. These shots need to be better harnessed and the fix is as simple as following the guidelines of a booming youth.

And with Parayko all-but-confirmed to be Scandella’s defensive partner for the next while, there’s no better time to test out a confident change in Scandella’s style. In the month leading up to the stoppage of play, all of which was spent alongside Scandella, Parayko had one of the best xGA/60 among Blues defensemen, only topped by Robert Bortuzzo and Scandella himself. The 26-year-old Parayko was clearly more comfortable with Scandella by his side, opening the door for both players to take more risks. This only becomes more true as their chemistry grows through the next few years.

A For-Sure Success

Scandella hasn’t had the prettiest NHL career by any means. It’s been largely plagued with harsh doubt (from me) and stark opposition. But with St. Louis, his colors shined. He became a comfortable and reliable option on the blue-line and earned himself a pretty extension as a result. But now, it’s time for the best coaching staff in the league, on the best team in the league, to mold Scandella into what his potential screams he can be: a strong, reliable two-way threat, with an amazing knack for shooting the puck. If Scandella can change his style to match the new-school crowd, he could quickly become one of the most valuable defensemen in the league; something that would only boost the already blooming Parayko beside him.

Thank you to Evolving Hockey (@EvolvingHockey), Mitch McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath), and Oscar Elieff (@Oscaelie_99) for the graphs and quotes used in this article.