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Assessing The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Underrated Defensive Expert

The phrase “defense wins championships” floats around the hockey world towards the end of the season come playoff time. Additionally, goal-scoring experiences a steep decline. However, it’s not only up to defencemen to keep the puck out of the net. The defensive play of the forwards is indispensable to structural team defence. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nick Paul will be vital to the team’s defence this upcoming season.

Nick Paul is a Career Defensive Stalwart

The Dallas Stars drafted Paul 101st overall in the fourth round during the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Then, Paul joined the Ottawa Senators as part of a return package for Jason Spezza. After splitting time between the NHL and AHL for four seasons, Paul became a full-time roster player for the 2019-20 season. Paul spent three and a half seasons with the Senators and earned an alternate captain letter for the 2021-22 season.

Julien BriseBois was a massive buyer during the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. Furthermore, the Lightning were looking for new core pieces to help them capture their third straight Stanley Cup Championship. On March 20th, BriseBois completed a transaction with the Senators to acquire Paul. The organization sent Mathieu Joseph and a 2024 4th-round pick the other way. 

Defensive Metric Grades

Evolving-Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement Model (WAR) grades Nick Paul as a positive defensive player at even strength every season. Displayed below are his even-strength defense grades from his entire career.

  • 2019-20: 1.3 EVD
  • 2020-21: 3.5 EVD
  • 2021-22: 2.5 EVD
  • 2022-23: 1.5 EVD

By definition, “Goals Above Replacement (GAR, WAR, and SPAR) is a metric that attempts to assign a total value to each player, which represents how much that player contributed to their team in a single number. This single number is comprised of multiple components that are ratings for each area of play within a given sport” (Evolving-Hockey). 

Contextualizing to Understand Defensive Impact

While all-in-one statistics help fans capture the big picture over an 82-game season, there are still many flaws in computing these numbers. In addition, the calculation of the statistic is not understood by many. We can contextualize why the model loves his defensive game through numbers.

Starting in 2019-20, the Senators did not have a productive season. The organization finished seventh place in the Atlantic Division. However, Paul emerged as a stable middle-six forward for the Senators. Paul spent the season alongside Connor Brown and Jean-Gabriel Pageau as linemates. Furthermore, the trio took on the heaviest workload defensively. Paul started 15.85% of his shifts in the defensive zone, tied for second-best on the Senators.

Paul limiting the quality of chances against him boosted his even-strength defensive grade. He ranked first in expected goals against per hour relative to his teammates. All relative to teammate statistics calculations are displayed below via Evolving-Hockey.

  • Defense (RelTM CA/60, RelTM xGA/60, etc.):
    • player on-ice xGA/60 – weighted average of all teammates’ on-ice xGA/60 (weighted by player TOI% with teammate)

Paul allowed 0.13 fewer expected goals per 60 than the Ottawa team average. Moreover, he placed tied 90th amongst 392 forwards league-wide during the entire season with 350+ minutes played.

A Career-Year Defensively for Nick Paul

Paul experienced his best defensive season in 2021. The Senators missed the playoffs yet again with a .455-point percentage. However, Paul proved himself to be a bright spot on the roster. He started 15.32% of his shifts in the defensive zone, first amongst all Ottawa forwards. In addition, Paul allowed 0.21 fewer expected goals per hour than the Ottawa team average, good enough for tied 39th amongst 357 forwards with 350+ minutes of ice-time. 

The numbers match with Paul’s defensive grade that season. His 3.5 even strength defence grade is a career-best to date. Little did Senators fans know this would be Paul’s last season with the organization.

Nick Paul Joins The Bay

With more offensive opportunities to start the 2022 season, Paul ranked fourth in defensive zone start percentage during his time with Ottawa. Before the trade, he started 13.49% of his shifts in the defensive zone. Moreover, his -0.08 xGA/60 relative to his teammates ranked 5th amongst Ottawa forwards.

Then, Paul quickly found his role with the Lighting after the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. Jon Cooper immediately placed trust in him defensively. Paul started 13.16% of his shifts in the defensive zone, fourth-best amongst Tampa Bay forwards. Furthermore, his -0.11 xGA/60 relative to his teammates ranked 5th amongst Tampa Bay forwards. Despite splitting time between two organizations, Paul posted a respectable 2.5 even strength defence grade.

Recap of Paul Last Season Defensively

In his first full season with the Lightning, Paul did not experience a drop-off in his stellar defensive play. He recorded a grade of 1.5 even strength defense per Evolving-Hockey. Paul worked through another heavy workload defensively, starting 16.48% of his shifts in the defensive zone. This percentage ranked second-best amongst Tampa Bay forwards.

Additionally, Paul performed well relative to the rest of the team. Paul allowed 0.08 fewer expected goals per hour than the Tampa Bay team average, good enough for third amongst the forwards. 

What This Means For Next Season

The Lighting signed Nick Paul to a 7-year, $22 million contract in July 2022. The contract carries an annual cap hit of $3.15 million through the 2028-29 season. At 28 years old, Paul will remain an impactful forward on the defensive front for years.

He’s slotted in the third-line centre role to start the 2023-24 season alongside Tanner Jeannot and Michael Essymoint. BriseBois and Cooper use him similarly to Yanni Gourde during the Stanley Cup run in terms of a team-building perspective. In this case, the role of a defensive centre who plays on both sides of the puck.

Main Photo: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports


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