There's no debating that Jonas Brodin's sophomore season was a letdown. He dropped from a 50.6% 5-on-5 Corsi close in his rookie year to 46.5% in his sophomore campaign. Those numbers represent a staggering drop-off in Brodin's ability to have a positive influence on his team's puck possession. These numbers can mostly be attributed to Brodin's decision making with the puck. Instead of taking an extra look to make direct passes out of the zone, he was constantly throwing pucks up the wall into the winger's feet, or just blindly off the glass when attempting zone exits.
When players are making bad decisions with the puck, it's generally because they are not seeing the game properly. This visual impairment can often stem from a lack of confidence. When players lack confidence the wheels in their head start spinning, and instead of reacting to what they see, they are thinking about what they see. Much like when being followed by a police car we start analyzing every move we make, turning an easy task like driving into something that requires all of our focus. In hockey, that extra split second of processing often leads to wide open passing and shooting lanes all but disappearing. This play against Detroit last season is a perfect encapsulation of the uncertainty from which Brodin's play was suffering.
Brodin has the puck along the wall, head up, not much pressure, and looky there, that's the Wild's leading goal scorer standing in front the net, wide open. Pominville, looking like he just encountered a grizzly bear is trying to make himself as big as possible, doing everything he can to be seen. And there is just no way Brodin doesn't see Pominville here. He may not be looking directly at him, but hockey players routinely make decisions based on what they see in their peripherals, and there is nothing here to indicate Brodin shouldn't make the pass. But instead of collecting what could have been a very easy assist, Brodin inexplicably moves the puck to the point, and the offensive chance died.
After seeing this play, it was little surprise to find that Brodin did not register a single primary assist at even strength all of last season. That's an impressive feat when you consider he averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice time a game, playing much of his time with the top lines.
Whatever the cure for the fabled "sophomore slump" is, it appears that Brodin found it in the offseason, and then proceeded to guzzle about 50 gallons of it (the cure is some sort of liquid, of course). Through the first stretch of this season, Brodin looks like a dominant defender and has also improved his offensive game. His S/60 (shots per 60 minutes of ice time) are up to 4.7 compared to a paltry 2.3 last season. The extra shots haven't manifested into measureable offense thus far, but it's only a matter of time before Brodin's name starts to show up on the score sheet on a more regular basis.
This play against Tampa Bay from earlier this season shows how confident Brodin has been handling the puck this year. He receives the pass on his backhand, backpedals and spins from the defender, and gets a shot through to the net. With Parise driving the front of the net, all it would take is a slight bobble from the goaltender, and there could be a goal.
For most players, the bad decision-making and execution Brodin suffered from last year would lead to stints in the press box, but Brodin's excellent skating and mobility limited his defensive liability. Impressively enough, it looks like Brodin has improved his skating over the offseason. His ability to build speed while moving laterally is one of the most impressive components of his game. This allows him to maintain a solid gap between oncoming forwards while maintaining enough speed to then hang tight with them as they enter the zone. The ability for defenders to break up zone entries is one of the best ways for them to improve their possession metrics.
In the gif below, Avalanche defender Tyson Barrie picks up the puck at center ice with a full head of steam. Now, Barrie is by no means Mackinnon-fast, but he is in fact a very mobile defenseman in his own right. When Barrie picks up the puck, Brodin is already stationed at the Wild blue line. This means there is a 20 foot gap between Brodin and Barrie, with Brodin relatively flat footed. This kind of gap usually leads to controlled entry by the offense. However, with three powerful lateral cross-cuts, Brodin not only builds up speed, but positions himself perfectly to deny Barrie entry to the zone.
Another improvement over the offseason for Brodin is his strength. He is now listed at 194lbs, up from his draft weight of 165lbs. Brodin has shown he is now capable of pushing opposing players off the puck (just not Chris Kreider), and winning battles he would otherwise have to win with his quickness. Here's an example from earlier this season of Brodin muscling his man off the puck, and making a solid pass leading a successful zone exit.
To be a dominant, possession-driving defenseman in this league, you need to have elite mobility and passing ability. Think of the Doughty's, Keith's, and Karlsson's of the league. None of them are particularly physical, but they can all skate like the wind, have ridiculous puck skills and vision. Brodin looks to now have elite mobility that should open up more space on the ice for him. And it's with that open space that we all hope he can continue to develop an elite offensive game.