Jaccob Slavin’s days as one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL are numbered

Slavin has been a standout for the Hurricanes since he broke into the league, but this post-season has seen him step into the spotlight like never before and he's starting to get the credit he deserves.
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The top of the post-season scoring list is somewhat unique through the early stages of the second round for no reason other than three of the four players fighting for the playoff scoring lead are blueliners. At the top is Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks Norris Trophy-contending rearguard, who has 11 points. Behind him is teammate Erik Karlsson, set to become one of the hottest free agents in the league, at 10 points. And tied with Karlsson for third place in post-season scoring is…Jaccob Slavin?

No doubt, one of these things is not like the other, but you can check the league’s scoring leaders for yourself if you’re in doubt. What you’ll see is Slavin, right there alongside Karlsson, with 10 points through nine games with the Carolina Hurricanes this post-season. And while Burns and Doughty are no strangers to press, Slavin has arguably been one of the NHL’s best-kept secrets.

Putting the spotlight on Slavin this post-season is undoubtedly his offense, primarily because he’s produced a whole lot of it and it’s far easier to measure. His nine assists in the first round matched Karlsson’s output and saw both blueliners tie for the second-most assists by a defenseman in a single playoff round in NHL history, two back of the record of 11 assists jointly held by Paul Coffey and Al MacInnis. And when it matters most, Slavin was all over the scoresheet in Round 1. In Game 7 against the Washington Capitals, Slavin picked up a helper on Sebastian Aho’s shorthanded goal, the primary assist on Jordan Staal’s game-tying goal and it was Slavin who started the play that resulted in Brock McGinn’s double-overtime series winner.

But there’s much more to Slavin than offense. Matter of fact, offense usually comes second for Slavin, who logged nearly 40 minutes of ice time in Game 7, has averaged nearly 27 through nine games this spring and has been leaned on more heavily than any of the Hurricanes’ other rearguards.

Slavin is the consummate do-it-all defenseman, and he does indeed do it all for the Hurricanes. Throughout the regular season, Slavin led all Carolina defensemen in even strength ice time at 18:50 per game. He ranked second in shorthanded ice time with 2:24 spent on the kill per outing. And though not on the top power play unit, Slavin manned the second group with his 1:48 per game third among Hurricanes defensemen, though only four ticks back of Dougie Hamilton’s second-place average ice time. True as it may be, too, that the situation on some bluelines would thrust Slavin into bigger ice time and minutes at all strengths because of a dearth of defensive depth, rest assured that’s not the case in Carolina, where one of the deepest defense corps in the entire NHL exists.

It’s one thing to play those minutes. It’s another to thrive in those situations, which Slavin has absolutely proven he can. Of his 31 points during the regular season, Slavin scored 22 at evens, seven on the power play and even added one shorthanded goal and two points while down a skater. More than simple offense, though, Slavin has shown an ability to push play as good as, if not better than, his defensive counterparts.

This past season, for instance, Slavin finished the campaign with a 54.7 Corsi percentage, 53.9 shots percentage, 54.7 scoring chances percentage and 54.3 high-danger chances percentage at five-a-side. He managed those marks despite having the lowest offensive zone start percentage, 53 percent, of any Hurricanes defenseman. And while his goals for percentage was a meager 48.2 percent, Slavin fell victim to poor on-ice scoring percentages as much as anything. His expected goals for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was 2.99 given the quality of opportunities for which he was on the ice. His actual rate was 2.21 per 60 minutes. No Hurricanes blueliner had a greater disparity between expected and actual goals for, according to NaturalStatTrick.

When you take into account more than one season’s data, though, Slavin’s goals for percentage gets back to even footing and his other underlying numbers only sing louder. Removing his rookie season from the equation – only because he was getting his feet wet and wasn’t yet the top-minute man in Carolina, not for one second because his numbers were subpar – Slavin has posted a 54.3 Corsi percentage, 53.9 shots percentage, 53.6 scoring chance percentage and 55.1 high-danger chance percentage at 5-on-5. That goes along with a 50.8 goals for percentage, which is awfully impressive given his 47.1 offensive zone start percentage over the past three combined seasons, not to mention the state of the Hurricanes goaltending in the two seasons prior to the current campaign.

Admittedly, those numbers are useless without context. So, how’s this? There are 118 defensemen who have skated a total of at least 3,000 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons. Slavin ranks sixth in Corsi percentage, 10th in shots percentage, 14th in scoring chances percentage and seventh in high-danger chances percentage. His goals for percentage is his worst mark, coming in at 53rd. That said, he has suffered through the 23rd-lowest on-ice save percentage despite the 27th-lowest expected goals against per 60 minutes rate of the entire group. That goals for percentage is hardly on him, especially when taking into consideration his 54.7 expected goals for percentage.

That play throughout the past three seasons has carried over into his first turn in the post-season, too. He has been simply exceptional, driving play remarkably well – 56.5 Corsi percentage and 57.9 shots percentage at 5-on-5 – and possessing a 64.7 goals for percentage at five-a-side through the first nine games of the playoffs. He has drawn the tough assignments and won those matchups. And he’s cemented himself as the leader of the defense, the top guy on a blueline that also boasts Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton.

What does it mean for Slavin? As far as the post-season is concerned, it means he’s giving the Hurricanes the best chance to continue their season beyond the second round, and his helper in Game 2 on the game-winning goal helped Carolina to a 2-0 series lead. But beyond this campaign, it means there’s likely to be that much more attention paid to him going forward. And after accumulating a mere three fifth-place votes for the Norris over the past two seasons, it stands to reason that voters will be paying much more attention to Slavin moving forward. That's what happens when a secret gets out.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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