If you have been keeping up with the scoring chance recaps, one thing you will notice is that Jamie McBain & Jaroslav Spacek have been the team's "highest rated" defensemen in about six of the last seven games. These two are also leading the defense corps in terms of possession metrics and are currently the only defensemen on the team with scoring chance percentages above the .500 mark. What this means is that whenever these two are on the ice, the puck is moving in the right direction and the Canes have been creating more chances.
Another thing they have in common is they rank near the bottom of the defense corps in corsi relative to quality of competition, which means they are mostly matched up against third and fourth liners from the opposing team. They are also among the team leaders in offensive zone starts, showing that they've been given a strong territorial advantage which has contributed to their success. Essentially, these two have been third pairing defensemen who have been seeing protected minutes and are used in mainly offensive situations. Some might see this as a knock on their game because they aren't being used against tough minutes, but I see it as head coach Kirk Muller utilizing both players to their strengths and it has had a very positive effect on the team's defense.
After the jump, we'll take a look at how McBain & Spacek have excelled in this role and the effect it has had on the rest of the defense corps.
Here's a quick breakdown of what the offensive zone starts have looked like ever since Kirk Muller took over. Data courtesy of Vic Ferrari's time on ice site.
Gleason & Allen are getting the tough minutes, Faulk & Harrison are being used primarily against secondary competition while McBain & Spacek have been getting the offensive/protected minutes. This should be no surprise with Spacek because he played a similar role in Montreal last year, only not as extreme. Still, with his age and reputation as more of an offensive specialist (and the greatest offensive defenseman the Columbus Blue Jackets organization has ever seen), this role makes perfect sense for him. McBain is an interesting case because Muller is using him in a completely different way than Maurice did. When Maurice was head coach last year, McBain was used a lot more in the defensive zone, but saw only average competition. For whatever reason, Maurice decided to increase McBain's workload this year by using him even more in the defensive zone (44.3 OZ%) and using him against tougher competition. Muller, on the other hand, has been using him completely differently as McBain's OZ% is 52.4% ever since the coaching change and it get even higher when he's paired with Spacek.
Here is a breakdown of zone starts and scoring chances dating back to the game on January 12, 2012 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is when Muller started to use McBain & Spacek as a regular pairing. Some of the data is skewed because Spacek missed a few games in January with an injury but this does represent how both defensemen have been utilized under Muller. You will see that McBain & Spacek are regularly deployed in the offensive zone and are getting the job done when it comes to being third pairing defensemen. Over 55% of the even strength scoring chances are going in Carolina's favor when these two are on the ice and that's pretty good even with protected minutes. Some more points would be a nice bonus, but these two have done a great job as the third pairing thus far.
I have heard some say that they expected McBain to be playing a bigger role than this, which is fair because he played in the top-four last season and should be growing as a player but you have to remember what kind of player he is. McBain has a great offensive skillset and isn't exactly the biggest player, so he may not be suited for a shutdown role yet. I've also heard some people say this is Muller not showing confidence in McBain, but I do not buy that at all. If Muller didn't have any confience in McBain, he would be sitting in the press box. This is simply a case of a coach using an offensive defenseman the way he is supposed to by playing him to his strengths. Neither McBain or Spacek are racking up points but they are doing their jobs by creating chances and not giving up too much at the other end.
Also, I think the play of Justin Faulk & Jay Harrison has allowed Muller to utilize McBain & Spacek the way he wants to. Harrison started a ton of his shifts in the defensive zone last season and has proven this year that he can take on opposing team's second lines while Faulk has shown that he does not need the benefit of a protection despite being only 19. Because of this, along with Gleason & Allen forming the shutdown/tough minute pairing, McBain is freed up to easier minutes and this is the role that suits him best on the team now. He isn't ready for tough minutes yet and his best assets are his puck-moving skills and offensive upside, which makes him a fine addition to the third pairing. Muller deserves a lot of credit for recognizing this and managing the defense corps carefully. It will be interesting to see how McBain is utilized next year after Spacek leaves for free agency and if McBain can find a success with another defense partner.