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Better Know: Why Jordan Leopold Should Start Over Nate Prosser

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The Minnesota Wild have finished off the regular season and are putting together the roster to face St. Louis. The only question on defense is the left side of the third defensive pairing. Despite the offensive upside of Christian Folin and strong play from Nate Prosser recently, Jordan Leopold may be the team's best option for the team heading into the playoffs.

Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild's defensive pairings are almost set in stone for the playoffs. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are the top pairing with Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon as the second. That is the standard we have seen when all four are healthy this season and it's highly unlikely to change (even if The Hockey News posts a poorly researched bit of non-sense about how weak the top four in Minnesota is). The only question remaining is what the third pairing looks like.

On the right side, Matt Dumba a definite. That leaves just the left side of the third pairing, a spot that has been difficult for the Wild to carve into stone all season. Nate Prosser, Jordan Leopold, and Christian Folin are the three potential candidates for that spot. Let's take a look at what the team should do with the left side going into the playoffs.

Christian Folin

We can cross Folin out of contention for this position. Unless there are injuries or an absolute tire fire on the blue line, we're unlikely to see him at all in the playoffs.

Folin has done a lot this season to prove he's capable of taking a NHL position regularly. However, the team is wary of putting him on his off-hand and as a right-handed defenseman, that means he's competing with Dumba for the right side of the third pairing.

Folin has been solid and often much better than he's been given credit for, but he's not getting Dumba's spot. Dumba has a higher ceiling, is a player the team wants to develop, and he's been very good since returning to the NHL in January. He's posting solid possession numbers (second best CF%Rel among Wild defensemen) and he has become a fixture on the power play.

Prosser v. Leopold: Round 1

Leopold was brought in at the trade deadline to be a viable option on the left side since he's a left-shot d-man. Prosser wasn't given the chance to play the left side much last year with the team seeming to be unsure of his abilities there. Since the season-ending injury to Keith Ballard on December 9, Prosser has been trusted and used on the left side. And he's actually been ok for the last couple of months.

Prosser's career numbers aren't great and his overall season numbers aren't either. Long-term, he's a cusp third pairing defenseman (or worse, though we'll visualize that in a bit). However, since February 14 he has been vastly improved. He has a 54.43% CF%, second best among Wild defensemen. That's 2.17% relative (CF%Rel), second only to Dumba. That's been done with -11.71% offensive zone starts relative (ZSO%Rel). That's the worst zone starts among team defensemen. He gets tough zone starts with the middle of the pack in terms of quality of teammate and judging by his competition's Corsi, he's getting fairly easy competition.

Here's a look at how he's fared this season and a three-year running total, as well as a divide at February 14 to see how much improved he's been over the last 17 games.

Through Feb. 13 Feb 14 to now Season Total Last Three Seasons
Games 45 17 62 132
CF% 44.89% 52.43% 46.90% 46.72%
CF%Rel -7.94% 2.17% -5.23% -3.50%
P/60 0.5 0.64 0.54 0.43
ZSO%Rel -15.85% -11.71% -14.69% -10.91%
CorC% 49.88% 48.77% 49.57% 49.73%
dCorsi XXX XXX 22.3 XXX

It's a bit of a mixed bag there, but Prosser hasn't been as bad as he's made out to be in recent games. But, for me, two questions remain. One, can he keep his recent "hot streak" going. That's tough to assess because of the nature of streaks at large. They exist, but predicting the start and end of them is a fool's errand.

I also have questions about his decision-making abilities. Despite good numbers recently, he still reacts to the play slowly. Some take this stat and point to an ability to take a hit and make the play, but he's taken 139 hits through 62 games this season. The next highest on the team is Nino Niederreiter, but Niederreiter is a physical player. Nino has delivered 141 and Prosser just 29.

Hit counts should be subject to scrutiny due to arena bias and the unclear definition the league has of an official hit. If you're using hit statistics and dealing in the minutia of a few hits, it probably doesn't matter much, but the next closest defenseman on the team is Spurgeon, who has taken 86 hits. Prosser taking 53 more hits is significant and does say something. The disparity is great enough that it's a little troubling and maybe shouldn't be touted as a good thing. From tracking zone exits and defensive zone touches, I believe that the number of hits Prosser has taken is closely tied to an inability to make a decision and move the puck quickly. He hesitates frequently, allowing opposition players to close the gap and make contact with him.

Prosser v. Leopold: Round 2

Here's a look at Leopold's season, split between the three teams he has played for this year, and how things look over a three-year run for him.

With St. Louis With Columbus With Minnesota Last Three Seasons
Games 7 18 17 108
CF% 56.13% 40.76% 46.11% 48.29%
CF%Rel -0.91% -3.87% -3.62% -1.30%
P/60 0 0.46 0.29 0.51
ZSO%Rel 14.07% -8.79% 1.27% 4.10%
CorC% 50.11% 51.05% 50.29% 50.18%
dCorsi 7.87 -38 -22.76 XXX

Leopold's numbers are more consistent, even if he's getting somewhat easier zone starts than Prosser. He also doesn't have any sort of hot streak to point to in hopes that these numbers might be better than the sum of their parts. But consistency is important to this debate.

Here's a look at Leopold's usage-adjusted numbers, followed by Prosser's. Neither is a glowing assessment of the player, but, here again, Leopold's consistency jumps out to me.

Jordan Leopold UA Corsi

Nate Prosser UA Corsi

Here's how their numbers look against each other in HERO chart form.

Jordan Leopold HERO

Nate Prosser HERO Chart

Ultimately, it's not clear-cut who is the best option for the third pairing. Neither is outstanding. Once you get the sample size to a decent size, it seems clear that Leopold is a better option than Prosser. However, he's not going to light the world on fire and he's not riding a streak of impressive play that might provide a boost to what the Wild should expect from that position. Leopold is steady and might be a good presence on the other side of Dumba where Leopold can play a more conservative game and allow Dumba to activate off the blue line.

On the other hand, Prosser has clearly been better in recent games. It's a small sample-size, but recent history matters. If you can keep that going, there's an advantage to having Prosser in the mix. The knock-out blow to the recent games argument, is that he missed games from March 14 to April 4 and it's hard to say that he'll be able to keep his recent play alive after missing so many games. If he didn't get injured, maybe the decision is a little tougher. It could become a more direct debate about the "hot hand" versus the known quantity. But it's not. Prosser's injury helps place him on the outside of the debate and in the press box.

With Prosser's injury and history, the best move for the team is to not try to capture lightning in a bottle with the weakest spot on the team and to go with the safest option in Leopold.

(Usage-adjusted and HERO charts via Own the Puck. Other advanced stats via War on Ice.)