After earning at least one vote for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 7 of his first 11 seasons in the NHL, Jared Spurgeon is a finalist for the award for the first time along with Auston Matthews and Jaccob Slavin.
Considering the fact that Brian Campbell (2012) is the only defender to win the award since 1954 I’d say it’s probably rare that two of the three finalists are defensemen. The closest Spurgeon had come to winning the award before this season was when he finished fifth in voting for his play in 2017-18, when he took only four minor penalties in 61 games while playing 24.5 minutes per game. Spurgeon’s minutes have been down closer to 22 per game over the last two seasons, but there has been absolutely no sign of decline in his game despite the fact that he’ll turn 32 years old in November. Spurgeon still drives play at an elite rate while not taking many penalties as he took only three minor penalties in 54 games while drawing four himself.
Despite being listed at 5’9, 167 pounds, Spurgeon has managed to consistently drive play without taking penalties ever since he entered the league in 2010 as a tiny 21-year-old defenceman. It’s truly hard to oversell how impressive that is. Even considering his top-tier play Spurgeon has never finished in the top ten in Norris Trophy voting, which feels like a crime. Even worse, he hasn’t even received a vote in seven of his ten seasons coming into 2021. He’s not a finalist this season either, as Cale Makar, Adam Fox and Victor Hedman were announced as the top three, but we don’t know yet how the rest of the voting played out.
“He doesn’t do one thing that maybe stands out (other than his shot is actually pretty sneaky good, and if you like blocks he blocks shots). But Spurgeon is the epitome of the ‘do everything well and add a bunch of value’ kind of player.” - Josh and Luke Younggren, evolving-hockey.com
The twins from evolving-hockey.com summed Spurgeon’s game up pretty nicely with the above quote, but I’d add his skating is probably a standout trait as well. It feels like it would be borderline impossible to produce the results he has for so long as a defenceman of his stature without being a great skater and he definitely is that. Here’s how Spurgeon himself described how he’s able to succeed as an NHL defenceman despite his stature:
The captions are a bit off, but essentially what Spurgeon says is that he uses his brain and his feet to overcome the barrier of his size. This season, Spurgeon utilized his feet to snuff out zone entry attempts at a rate only rivalled on the Wild by Matt Dumba. The difference between the two is that Spurgeon is able to shut things down even when he’s unable to shut down the initial entry, while Dumba falls apart after successful entries.
Spurgeon’s skating allows him to angle attacking puck carriers out to the perimeter even when he’s forced to concede the entry. The captain’s ability to think the game at an advanced level allows him to judge speeds and quickly adjust where he needs to get to to be most effective. In the clip below, Alex Tuch receives the puck in the neutral zone in full stride coming down the wall on Spurgeon’s (No. 46) side.
Spurgeon was shaded toward the middle lane due to Nicolas Roy occupying it, buying Tuch a bit of a bigger gap to enter the zone. The Wild defender stays with him giving him no lane to drive the net and doing a pretty good job of stopping Tuch when he elects for the buttonhook. Spurgeon gets just a piece of the pass across, deflecting the puck into Cody Glass’ feet and spoiling a good scoring chance with the help of his backtracking forwards.
Most often, though, Spurgeon simply snuffs out plays in the neutral zone, killing any opportunity for offence and helping his team regain possession of the puck.
While Spurgeon is very good at preventing entries and cutting off the middle lane entirely when the situation makes it possible, he’s also a very capable shot blocker when things get a little more desperate. Spurgeon ranks 45th league-wide in total blocks since 2007 and was tied with Fox for 15th in 2021. Some players rack up blocks because they’re constantly stuck in the defensive zone, which is decidedly not an issue with Spurgeon.
Rather than reverting early to the block, Spurgeon mostly uses his shot blocking skills as a last resort, especially defending the rush and on the penalty kill. Spurgeon also led the NHL in blocks while on the powerplay, which probably tells you more about the Wild powerplay than anything else.
Even more noticeable around his own net is Spurgeon’s ability to disrupt plays with his stick in a variety of ways. A lot of the time it’s simply reading plays quickly and getting his stick in lanes, but he’s also got some great hand-eye coordination which allows him to swat pucks away from the net in mid-air as well. I reached out to Brett Marshall for his take on what he thinks makes Spurgeon so good and he also pointed out this noticeable skill.
“There’s no stat for it, but if they were a “Pucks batted out the Air Per 60,” stat, he’d be the leader in it. I’m constantly amazed at how knocks pucks — often ending rushing or disrupting scoring opportunities.” - Brett Marshall, @SoundTheFoghorn
When Spurgeon gets the puck on his stick in the defensive zone he’s one of the best in the league at moving the puck up the ice efficiently. Again, Dumba is the only defender on the Wild in Spurgeon’s stratosphere in this department.
Spurgeon is such a well rounded player that he’s able to contribute in a variety of ways on the breakout. He’s able to evade forecheckers with his feet in order to buy himself some time and space or to pull defenders toward him and away from passing options.
The skilled defender also sees the ice very well and is able to execute on his passes very quickly. If there’s an option available, Spurgeon isn’t going to miss it and he often seems to find lanes that don’t even seem to be there until he threads the puck through it.
He’s also very patient with the puck and doesn’t try to force low-percentage plays. Spurgeon is happy to skate the puck himself until opposing players are forced to vacate their positions to take space from him.
If he’s given too much space, Spurgeon will gladly carry the puck into the offensive zone. He also likes to activate when his partner has the puck to give him another option for a pass.
Spurgeon doesn’t just sit back and let the forwards do the work from the red line in either, as he loves to jump into the rush and create issues for the defensive coverage.
For a defenceman, he’s got great hands around the net and he loves to drive the middle lane.
Spurgeon doesn’t just score from in tight off the rush, either, as he isn’t scared to activate deep into the zone when he identifies a soft spot in the defensive coverage.
Spurgeon doesn’t shoot all that often because he’s not one to shoot it from distance with any regularity. As a result, he’s been one of the most efficient shooters at his position in the NHL since his arrival. Of the 421 defensemen to play over 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2007, Spurgeon ranks 20th in shooting percentage. That extends to the powerplay as well as the only two defenders to convert at a better rate in that time are Jacob Chychrun and some dude named Scott Niedermayer.
He’s also second in expected shooting percentage, behind Niedermayer, which means he doesn’t like to shoot unless it’s from a dangerous area. You’ll notice in all of his goal clips he’s in tight to the net. He scores goals like a forward.
Spurgeon’s contributions in the offensive zone aren’t limited to his goal scoring abilities, as he’s also the most involved in-zone passer among Wild blueliners. By a lot.
Spurgeon doesn’t often put up assists at a huge rate, though, although that just may be a product of playing for the Minnesota Wild for his entire career with the amount of forward talent he’s been privy to dealing with. Regardless, his in-zone passing shows itself frequently regardless of whether or not the chances actually turn into goals.
Spurgeon really is simply good at most things on the ice and has no real holes to his game. He’s very good defensively and rarely ever gets burned despite contributing pretty heavily on the offensive side of the puck. He’s an effortless skater and he just has a great feel of when to jump into the play and when to retreat before he gets exposed. He plays a tight gap all over the ice, suffocating opposing offences while simultaneously getting the puck back for his team. He doesn’t shoot unless it’s a legitimate chance and when he does he scores at a higher rate than nearly any other active defenceman.
Though I doubt he’ll ultimately win the Lady Byng, it’s nice to see Spurgeon get some recognition on major award level, even if it’s not for the Norris.