What’s behind Filip Hronek’s hot start?
Of all the early season storylines that have come out Detroit Red Wings‘ quality start to the season, perhaps none more surprising than the play of Filip Hronek. The 25-year-old has played some of the best hockey of his life through the first two months of the season, posting 4 goals and 14 points in his first 18 games. And he does it all while playing sound, responsible defense.
It’s a nice change of pace for the oft-maligned blueliner. Hronek’s offensive promise has often been overshadowed by a series of defensive lapses and turnovers. So it begs the question, what has been different this season?
Hronek is dominating his own end
Let’s start with one of the biggest improvements, Hronek’s defense. In previous seasons, Hronek’s play in his own zone has often been a problem, especially when it came to preventing chances directly in the Red Wings’ net.
This year, however, Hronek has flipped the script, becoming one of the BEST in the league at preventing quality scoring opportunities. Of the 178 NHL defensemen who have played at least 150 minutes this season, Hronek ranks 19th in fewest high-danger chances allowed at 9.37 per 60 minutes. That’s ahead of the likes of Cale Makar, Adam Fox, Devon Toews and Miro Heiskenen, and barely behind Jaccob Slavin, who many analysts laud as perhaps the best defensive defenseman in the NHL right now.
Part of that could be the fact that Hronek has more help in his own end. His primary partner, Olli Maata, is far and away a better defensive back than any of Hronek’s partners in previous seasons (Maata, in fact, is 24th on the list for fewest high-danger chances allowed). Maata’s responsible presence has allowed Hronek to play the more aggressive pressing style he wants to play without having to worry if his partner is supporting him.
However, don’t discount Hronek’s improvement in this regard. His positioning has been better, and he’s done a better job of moving and adjusting to eliminate passing and shooting lanes.
He is controlling the disc better
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of Hronek’s game in recent seasons has been his inability to control the puck in key moments. We often saw key turnovers at inopportune times caused by Hronek’s lack of situational awareness, trying to do too much on a zone entry opportunity or simply not executing the first pass out of the defensive zone.
There’s still room for improvement in that regard, but Hronkek has taken a step forward this season. He has gone from a rate of 2.94 freebies per 60 minutes three seasons ago to 1.17 this season. Although this still can look like high, that rate puts him in the top quarter of NHL defensemen this year.
Filip Hronek’s Puck Possession Statistics
Stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick and Evolving Hockey
Having better control of the puck has allowed Hronek to… well… control the puck. His CF% and xGF% are above 50% after finishing well below that mark for the past three seasons, meaning overall the Red Wings have a better chance with Hronek on the ice that they don’t give up. And when you have a player as gifted offensively as Hronek, any extra time he can get with sustained pressure in the offensive zone is likely to pay off. And speaking of…
Hronek’s consciousness is improving
As mentioned, Hronek’s offensive skills were never in question when judging his skill set as a player. He has shown that he will “YOLO full” to try and make an offensive play, sometimes at the expense of his defensive responsibilities. This year, however, Hronek has done a better job of picking and choosing his spots to be aggressive.
Hronek’s goal against the Sharks is a good example. On the play, he is seen staying in the right spot until David Perron and Oskar Sundqvist win possession on the flip. At those moments, the Sharks forwards begin drifting toward the left backboard, leaving the right side of the ice wide open. It is at THIS point that Hronek decides to jump into the act, taking Perron’s feed and taking advantage of what was practically a 1-on-1 against James Riemer.
Another good example was the Boston game. Here we see Hronek circling the circle ready to jump into action. However, he anticipates the Bruins winning the puck battle along the left boards and begins to skate back, ready to pass on his review. That’s when Craig Smith tries to throw a quick pass to the center of the ice. Being ahead of the play and keeping the flow of the game in front of him, Hronek recognizes that he is in a better position to get to the puck than the Bruins forward, and stands up to keep the puck in the zone, leading to the ‘Adam Erne. goal.
Here’s another example of Hronek’s ability to read and anticipate the play that will lead to a Red Wings goal. In this clip against the Rangers, Hronek leads the rushing attempt. After a successful entry into the zone, he passes the puck to Pius Suter. Often, players will stay behind after that first pass to try to give the puck carrier a passing lane, but in this case, Hronek recognizes that Larkin joins the rush behind him. Instead of falling back, Hronek actually accelerates between the two Rangers defensemen, and since they have to pinch themselves to account for him going in toward the goal, Suter has an open pass to Larkin, who takes a shot fast to Halak. Hronek and Suter are there to pick up the rebound and get Detroit on the board.
So… can Hronek keep it up?
It’s only November…too early to permanently ink any talk of a “best career” season. That said, there is a lot about Hronek’s game that, at the very least, looks sustainable. His decision-making is better and his analytics show that his career-best scoring start is more than just “puck luck.” It also helps that the team around him is much better than in years past (and he still has a LOT of room to grow), which means he’ll likely have more support on both ends of the ice.
The big question will be on the defensive end of the ice. As the season progresses and Detroit’s opposition gets tougher, Hronek will be tasked with slowing down the teams’ faster, sharper offense. The next few weeks include matchups against Tampa Bay, Florida, Toronto and Vegas, all teams whose depth will challenge the Wings’ second pairing D. How Hronek does in these games will likely test how far he has come in his defensive development.
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