A Tale of Two Defensemen: Why Josh Manson Belongs in the NHL


December 1, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler (4), goalie Frederik Andersen (31) and defenseman Josh Manson (42) celebrate the 3-2 victory against the Boston Bruins following the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s see if you’ve heard this story before:

Faced with an unexpected injury to a veteran blueliner, the Anaheim Ducks are forced to call up a young defenseman early in the season. The youngster goes on to impress—in fact, he plays so well that he is considered among the Ducks’ top drivers of play, and garners the attention and envy of the rest of the league. However, this young defenseman is ultimately squeezed out of the lineup by the Ducks’ continued reliance on lumbering, slow defensemen with lots of “grit” and like intangibles, but poor decision making, positioning and possession metrics.

Sounds familiar, right? It should, because this oddly specific story has happened twice in the last two years alone: last season, the young defenseman was Sami Vatanen. This season, it’s Josh Manson.

Vatanen Held Back

Last year, the Ducks were forced to rely on a 22-year old Finnish defenseman with only 8 games of prior NHL defenseman in the absence of Sheldon Souray, who underwent career-ending wrist surgery in the summer of 2013.

In 48 NHL games in the 2013-14 season, Vatanen was among league leaders in possession—posting an impressive 53.5% (+2.9% rel) despite being paired with possession black-hole Bryan Allen.

When paired with Allen, the two had a CF% of 52.8%. When apart, Vatanen’s CF% went up to 54.7%, and Allen’s CF% collapsed to a 48%.

In other words, Vatanen made Allen look like a semi-reliable NHL defenseman—something that the Montreal Canadiens are now finding out is quite the feat.

Management and the Ducks coaching staff may be surprised at Vatanen’s emergence, but anybody paying attention to his underlying numbers saw it coming

Vatanen’s excellent play was also evident in his offensive production. Vatanen scored 21 points (6g-15a) in 48 games, putting him above the curve for production from a defenseman.

Despite this, Vatanen commonly found himself out of the starting lineup. Outside of his 48 NHL games, Vatanen played 8 games for the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, and spent a good third of the season as a healthy scratch in Anaheim, in favor of depth defensemen Luca Sbisa and Mark Fistric.

Other teams around the league began to see Anaheim’s under-valuing of Vatanen as an opportunity. Around the deadline, it was rumored that several playoff teams were interested in Vatanen’s services. Additionally, Vatanen was at one point rumored to part of the failed deadline deal that would have sent Ryan Kesler to Anaheim in time for the 2013-14 postseason.

This year, Vatanen is off to a tremendous start. He’s tied for fourth in points among defensemen (23: 8g-15a). Additionally, he’s been given more ice time and more difficult matchups. He also has been given full control of the first powerplay unit, where he collects the majority of his points (13). Vatanen’s smooth skating, hard slap shot and excellent playmaking vision has become the envy of the league.

Management and the Ducks coaching staff may be surprised at Vatanen’s emergence, but anybody paying attention to his underlying numbers saw it coming.

Deja Vu—Josh Manson

This year, the same scenario is unfolding once again, with rookie defenseman Josh Manson.

Manson made his NHL debut on October 31, against the Dallas Stars. Manson was initially called up to replace the injured Ben Lovejoy, who missed over a month with a broken finger following a fight with San Jose’s Joe Pavelski.

Manson, the 23-year old son of legendary enforcer Dave Manson quickly caught the eye of the Ducks coaching staff. After starting on the third pairing, Manson eventually spent significant time in the top-4 alongside Hampus Lindholm, and eventually Cam Fowler.

Nov 25, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks defenseman Josh Manson (42) and Calgary Flames left wing Jiri Hudler (24) in front of the Ducks net during the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Manson plays a solid two-way game. Standing at 6’3”, 217 pounds, Manson shares elements of his father’s strong, physical game.

Additionally, Manson played forward in his midget hockey days, which is evident in acute offensive abilities.

While Manson doesn’t necessarily contribute to the offense in terms of points, he is a smooth skater, a solid passer and possesses excellent vision up-ice.

These tools make him an ideal candidate to lead the breakout or merely skate the puck out of harms way.

In his first 18 NHL appearances, Manson was an overwhelmingly positive possession player. Manson held a CF% of 56.1%, the best on the team and 14th among league defensemen. He did so while facing the most difficult competition of any defender other than Francois Beauchemin.

For a time, it appeared that Manson’s strong play may have earned him a spot on the roster, even once other defensemen returned from injury. The Ducks appeared to be making room for Manson when they traded away Bryan Allen in late November. GM Bob Murray said of the deal:

"“The younger defensemen have played well, and it’s a situation unfortunately, when we’re healthy, we have lots of defensemen. Fistric and Lovejoy aren’t that far away.”"

However, Murray dug the Ducks deeper into the logjam by acquiring defenseman Eric Brewer from the Tampa Bay Lightning. When Brewer was injured in just his second game with the Ducks, Murray panicked again and acquired defenseman Colby Robak.

Only a few games later, Lovejoy, Fistric and Stoner returned from injury. With Brewer and Beauchemin not far away from returning to the lineup, Manson became expendable. Despite being one of the team’s best defensemen for over a month, Josh Manson was reassigned to the AHL on December 11.

This is a mistake. Statistically, Manson contributes more to the team than Fistric, Stoner, Brewer, Robak, and even Lovejoy.

While it would be a bad idea to rush Manson’s development, it’s an equally poor choice to keep a young player in the minors when he’s ready to face the responsibility of playing in the NHL.

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With Manson, Fowler, Vatanen, and Lindholm, the Ducks would have a formidable young defensive core, rounded out by veterans like Beauchemin and Lovejoy, and Fistric and Stoner serving as the 7th and 8th defenders.

Instead, GM Bob Murray passed over Manson in favor of Eric Brewer—another slow, large defenseman with middling possession numbers in the mold of Bryan Allen, and Colby Robak—a player that couldn’t crack the lowly Florida Panthers roster.

The Ducks don’t know what they have in Josh Manson, and they are ultimately making the same mistake they made last year with Sami Vatanen. While Manson doesn’t have as much experience, he is simply a better player than other options on the blue line.

The choice is clear: Bob Murray should work to clear the logjam of depth defensemen and give Manson a roster spot if the Ducks want to have the best defensive unit possible.