Size. It means so much in today’s NHL, and it’s exactly the reason that Jared Spurgeon has never received the respect he deserves around the league. Despite coaches singing his praises, defensive partners gushing over his abilities and years of exemplary stats piling up, his 5’9” stature means that he is often overlooked by journalists and pundits alike. But his ability can’t be denied and the team got to feel the void of his absence across the last month of the season, fully demonstrating how important he is to the team. Including that injury, this season saw a bit more adversity for the atomic top-pair defenseman, though he still had a very productive season on both ends of the ice. Let’s take a look at last season and then try to figure out what it might mean for the future of our beloved 1D.
In the thick of a playoff race, in which the Wild bounced around from being out of the picture to finishing in third place in the Central Division, Spurgeon nearly saw his season ended early. An tough hit suffered in a loss to the surging Colorado Avalanche on March 14th would send Jared into the boards awkwardly and cause a partial tear of the hamstring. Reports were that the injury would take 4-6 weeks to heal, but Spurgeon as able to return to start the playoffs, just as the Wild learned it had also lost his defense partner Ryan Suter for the season. Having already missed 9 games earlier in the season with a groin injury, Spurgeon managed to skate in only 61 games in 2017-18.
In the 61 games he did skate, Spurgeon performed like the same top-pairing defenseman we’ve come to know and love in Minnesota. He had 9 goals and 28 assists for 37 points and 0.6 points per game average. Expanded to a full 82 game schedule, that would have been good for 50 points, which is quietly as productive as fellow blueliner Matt Dumba. Spurgeon also saw his second highest average time on ice at 24:33. The team counted on him to play big minutes with Suter and deployed him in all situations.
Yet somehow it seems that these stats barely scratch the surface of the value Spurgeon provides. Perhaps the stats that most clearly define how talented Spurgeon is and the value he added to the team last season are this: Out of all defensemen with 1000+ minutes, Spurgeon had the third-highest High-Danger Chances For per hour, and the fewest High-Danger Chances Allowed per hour at 5v5.
In case that didn’t jump off the page, let’s break that down. With Spurgeon on the ice, his team allowed the fewest High-Danger Chances. There was no player whose presence had more impact on preventing the other team’s best chances to score. Conversely, there were only 2 players whose presence resulted in more High Danger Chances for. So not only was Spurgeon the best player at preventing scoring, he was also elite at driving scoring for his team.
And he has offered that presence across his career. Spurgeon is also second overall amongst active players for Expected Career +/- (Mikko Koivu #1, Suter #5, Zach Parise #6). While the viability of +/- can be debated, it is certainly useful for measuring a player’s ability to drive results over time, so it is quite meaningful that a 28 year old sits next to the top of that list compared to the many more experienced players around him.
Another measure of a player’s worth is his impact on the other players around him. Hockey Viz’s With-or-without-you chart demonstrates that nearly every roster player drove more shots for and less shots against while they were skating with Spurgeon (this is easily decoded by looking for the black box to appear higher and to the right on the graph)
Spurgeon also failed to net any Lady Byng votes this season, but only spent a total of 8 minutes in the penalty box, which is an incredible number considering the amount of minutes played. This is yet another way he makes himself valuable by keeping himself on the ice to compete.
It is easy to see why the Wild has made Spurgeon a fixture of their core, and they have done so affordably to this point. Spurgeon’s roughly $5.2M cap hit is a discount compared to several other top defensemen across the league. Compared to P.K. Subban’s $11M and Brent Burns earning $10M while posting only moderately better stats, Spurgeon’s contract is one of the most valuable in the league, and you can count on the new General Manager subscribing to the same logic. Spurgeon’s big pay day may come in two years when he reaches UFA status for the first time, but it is not likely the team won’t be willing to pay.
So while his small stature may not be as intimidating as Dustin Byfuglien, and his personality isn’t as loud as Subban, Jared Spurgeon fully belongs in the conversation of the top defensemen in the league. But somehow because of his size, his name rarely appears outside of Minnesota, making him the Wild’s somewhat best kept secret. And as defensemen mature, several more years of this kind of performance can be expected as Spurgeon is firmly in the middle of his prime years.