Just how valuable is this Luke Schenn character?

First the Toronto Maple Leafs were shopping Luke Schenn. Then they weren’t, and Brian Burke was taking pot shots at Hockey Night in Canada for no particular reason other than Eliotte Friedman reported “rumblings” coming from somewhere.

Schenn still draws discussion about his size, his ferocity (feracity? ferociousness?) and his potential. He was a really good skater and puck mover in junior and those talents have yet to carry over to the NHL. Which brings us to the main question: “Can he PLAY?”

And the answer is “well, maybe.”

Schenn, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, never went back to Kelowna for another junior season. He was tossed right into the NHL as a 19-year old along with fellow high draftee defencemen Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian. After playing out the three years in his entry level deal, Schenn was signed to a 5-year deal worth $18M in September. For those of you who don’t have 18 million fingers to count with, that makes his cap hit $3.6M a year.

It’s not the worst contract, but it isn’t a bargain for a guy who hasn’t exactly proved too much at the NHL-level. Doughty was a critical component of Los Angeles’ Stanley Cup run and Alex Pietrangelo has become a two-way force on St. Louis’ blue-line. Schenn, like Bogosian, hasn’t seen too much NHL success, playing in an easier role.

So yeah, Luke, he of “one pretty good NHL year” – 

Age TOI Corsi Rel Rel Cor QoC
19 17.4 -7.6 0.66
20 14.3 -7.3 -0.31
21 18.0 1.5 0.39
22 14.3 -7.6 -0.15

The Rel Cor QoC indicates Schenn’s quality of competition, and Corsi Rel indicates Schenn’s possession levels via a shot attempt differential metric, pro-rated for sixty minutes of play. I didn’t include offensive zone start percentage because he’s generally started just as many shifts in the offensive to the defensive zone every year of his career.

What this chart indicates, to the un-initiated, is that Schenn had a very good 2011 season as a 21-year old. He was a plus-Corsi player against above-average competition, and the Leafs moved the puck when Schenn was on the ice than not. He also played 18 minutes of even strength per game. 18 minutes! That is a legitimate top-four hockey paying defenceman!

Unfortunately, if you just look at his stats last season, you see a replacement third pairing defenceman. What happened to the 21-year old Luke Schenn? Was he playing under too much pressure of a new contract?

Then again, he is just 22. Andrew Bates discussed a few month’s ago Schenn’s up and down season and the roles that Ron Wilson was putting him in last season:

I’m not going to say that I’m disappointed in Ron Wilson’s benching of Schenn against the Oilers (as we won the game). Maybe Schenn needed a kick in the ass, but it’s unfortunate to see a young player that we’ve seen do so well at times get scratched and hardly play when he is dressed. Something I am disappointed in is that Keith Aulie continues to get playing time, and in Wednesday’s case over Schenn. Aulie has actually averaged more ice time then Schenn at 5v5 this year, which is beyond confusing.

You hate to see a coaching staff mis-use a young defenceman. It seems like the Leafs never let Schenn get into a groove. He’d play 16 minutes one night and 11 the next based on some pretty arbitrary reasoning.

One game is too small a sample size for a coaching staff to determine whether a player is any good or not. It’s fine to ease a guy into a certain role and up his minutes and his level of competition, but you can’t go “all in” one night and “not at all” the next. If they don’t trade Schenn, I’d hope that they go into next season with a plan mapped out: the amount of minutes and the calibre of his opponents’, and stick to that plan so Schenn learns his role going forward and they can re-assess the situation at the quarter pole.

The 2011 campaign was the only one where Schenn gave us a reason to be optimistic, but keep in mind how few defencemen play at the NHL level this much before they turn 23. Post-lockout, only Schenn, Drew Doughty and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have played 290 games before their 23-year old season. In the last 20 years, that list gets stretched to include Roman Hamrlik, Oleg Tverdovsky, Kyle McLaren, Wade Redden, Scott Niedermayer and Bryan Berard.

Now, not everybody on that list are potential all stars, but every player was a serviceable NHL defenceman in a good top four at some point. The full list is here. The striking difference between Schenn and everybody else is his offensive numbers. Like Vlasic, Schenn has just 14 NHL goals in his first four seasons.

It takes defensive defencemen a little longer to develop. If Schenn became Marc-Edouard Vlasic at some point, that would be perfect. It’s difficult to compare those two defencemen because Vlasic has had a clearly defined role since the beginning of the “Behind the Net” era; he’s played against above-average competition and has started a good amount more shifts in his defensive zone every single season. He also plays for a more stable organization so there’s more room for error.

Still, Vlasic never had a positive Relative Corsi until he was 23. The caveat being that he played pretty tough minutes on a very good team, but it took him a while to become elite, and he backed up a strong 23-year old season by dramatically improving at 24.

Schenn was drafted fifth, so there is some NHL talent in that body. It needs to be properly harnessed. The Leafs should only trade him if they don’t think they can do that. Switching his role from game-to-game and season-to-season isn’t helping a guy who has been developing as an 18-year old in the NHL since 2008.

The $3.9M cap hit means they can’t exactly be patient with him any more, but there’s a top-four calibre defenceman somewhere in that big body of his. I’m sure teams that bring his name up in potential discussions with the Maple Leafs know this all too well. I admit I’m softening my stance a little on Schenn as a player, but I think the organization has done a poor job properly defining what they expect out of Schenn.

  • Danny Gray

    I wasn’t so sure about Ron Wilson getting fired but I really hope the coaching change helps young Luke turn his career around after last season. I don’t think it could have happened under Wilson.

  • I’m a lot less convinced there’s a worthwhile player there. I mean, skating against nobodies in your 4th season and still getting outshot doesn’t really point the arrows in the right direction, particularly since he’s been outshot in aggregate over the course of his career so far. Meaning, Schenn STILL has to improve to be a good third pairing option at this point – which is bad news when there is no offensive upside.

  • I think most of last seasons issues for Luke can be tied to Wilsons mismanagement of the kid. He wanted his style of play no matter what and refused to adapt to the situation at hand. Nobody could foresee the disaster that was going to happen but it was pretty obvious to me that we were in serious trouble around Xmas when teams figured out they could just trap us to death. Ron never gave the guys any chance to counter that and stubbornly kept to that rush game instead of a little chip and chase. Forwards were stripped and up the ice and the puck was shoved down our throats with 3on2s and 4on2s the norm. This kid will be alright and I would hate to see him go. He could be another Scott Stevens if treated right.