Canucks hope Hronek’s breakout season a sign of things to come
Who is Filip Hronek?
Not in the literal sense. We have seen Hronek play in more than 300 games at this point of his career, with the 25-year-old blueliner spending five seasons with the Detroit Red Wings organization before being dealt to Vancouver at last year’s trade deadline.
Despite his looming restricted free agency status (his current three-year contract expires at the end of the 2023-24 regular season), the Canucks were aggressive in their pursuit, and ended up forking over a first- and second-round pick to add the defenceman. Perhaps for good reason: Hronek at his best is a fantastic puck carrier and transitional player, one who can ignite a team’s offence from the blueline. We saw flashes of it when he was with Detroit, even amidst a rebuilding lineup that was shallow on high-end talent.
But it hasn’t always been great with Hronek. On those same talent-weak teams, we saw him struggle from time to time defending the run of play. Video of the first few years of his career is ripe with turnovers against sustained defensive-zone pressure, and even when Hronek wasn’t giving the puck away, he was all too willing to chip the puck out of the zone or simply play it off the boards.
That style of play tends to run very counter to what teams expect from top-four puck movers in the modern era, as defencemen are increasingly tasked with driving offensive play.
This all raises a question: Did Vancouver acquire a hidden gem buried on a team that couldn’t provide him adequate support, or was Hronek additive to Detroit’s struggles at times? It’s the multi-million-dollar question, to be blunt, and even if Vancouver doesn’t commit long term to Hronek, they still need him to produce in a big way next season.
It’s also a tricky one to analyze because absent last year’s breakout season, Hronek’s resume is lacking. If you look at a measure like Goals Above Replacement, Hronek looked very much like a replacement-level player until a 2022-23 breakout:
One of the benefits of using a measure like Goals Above Replacement is it’s much more sensitive to teammate effects – in both directions – and controls for the impact it can have on a player’s performance.
Consider the 2019-20 season, where the Red Wings managed to win just 17 games. The team’s play was dire, but Hronek still outperformed about 31 per cent of defenders around the league, comparable that season to Dante Fabbro in Nashville and Oliver Kylington in Calgary.
Another way to look at this is to trend Hronek’s play against that of his teammates when he was off the ice. Hronek has generally been in one of the least tenable positions a player can be put in – a heavily utilized young defender on a talent-poor team against tough competition. For years, it didn’t matter if Hronek was on his shift or not – the Red Wings were bleeding goals in either scenario.
Until last season:
A stunningly correlated downward trend reversed last season – the Red Wings suddenly became a game team with Hronek on the ice, whereas the rest of the lineup still capitulated on a regular basis.
We tend to see this when there is a material shift in teammate quality, but interestingly for Hronek, it wasn’t really the case. Perhaps Olli Maatta and Ben Chiarot as partners were slight upgrades over Nick Leddy and Marc Staal the year prior, but there’s not a ton of daylight between those two groups. And forwards like Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond have played regularly with Hronek for a couple of seasons now.
Is it possible Hronek’s own development, and the development of some of the younger pieces around him in Detroit, were the start of a real career turnaround?
That’s what Vancouver’s betting on, at least for this season. The good news for the Canucks organization is they’ll have about five more months of Hronek in a new environment, with more talent around him, to see if he’s a bona fide top-four defenceman.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference