Is Grant Clitsome a Top-4 Defender?

Grant Clitsome signed his first one-way NHL contract in June 2011 for two years and $2.5M. A former 9th round pick by the permanently struggling Blue Jackets, Clitsome had not been a stand-out AHL player, with just 54 points in 169 games after four years at Clarkson University. But a January 9th call up in 2011 saw him unexpectedly post 19 points in the team’s remaining 31 games while playing over 21 minutes a night for the beleaguered Scott Arniel.

Clitsome not only improved a poor powerplay, he earned the second most minutes of any Blue Jacket defender and was labeled as ‘dependable.’ Some even marked him as a potential 40-50 point defenceman at the time of the signing in June 2011.

By Febuary 2012 – still the first season of that two-year, one-way contract – Clitsome was waived for poor play by the Jackets and plucked by the Jets. He was a welcomed addition, and made his mark on the top pairing with Byfuglien when injuries forced him up the depth chart during the 2012/13 campaign. Just 56 games into his tenure with the Jets, the team rewarded Clitsome with a 3-year, $6.2M contract.

Twenty-one games into his new contract, Clitsome’s season has included injury, healthy scratches, a multitude of partners, more turnovers than any human can count, and a team-worst -8 rating. 

Is it possible that Grant Clitsome is in over his head by playing in the Jets’ top-4?

The Scouting Report

Clitsome is an undersized defender without a lot of edge to his game. Coming into this season, he had 72 PIMs in 150 NHL games, and a Most Sportsmanlike award from the National Junior-A Championships in 2004. 

Jets’ fans are comfortable with that build, having watched Tobias Enstrom since the beginning. Clitsome does possess impressive balance and control on his skates, allowing him to battle above his weight class. But as with many smaller defenders, he is known for his puck skills. Hockey’s Future has this to say about his talent:

"Clitsome is an excellent puck-moving defenseman. While he is known for his offensive prowess, Clitsome is also a very solid defensive player as well. He is very strong on his skates and has good speed. He is very effective one-on-one. Clitsome’s willingness to get physical along with his body strength makes him tough for the opposition to have to play against. One area that Clitsome improved in his sophomore season was shooting the puck more. He has no trouble getting pucks to the net and has an excellent slapshot. Clitsome is blessed with superb passing skills and can make nice tape-to-tape passes. He is also a fierce competitor who can play in virtually any type of situation."

I think we can tell that was written at the height of Clitsome-Mania, but it rings true in broad strokes. 

We’ve talked about the Jets’ intended transition offence, and considered that their systems are designed with puck-moving defenders in mind. When the contract was signed this past summer, the team was still using a swarm to compensate for undersized defencemen, and using a long fast-break pass that requires particular skills to accomplish. Clitsome fit.

The ‘Good News’ Math

We have quite a few numbers to consider for Grant Clitsome these days, and many of them are positive. 

We all love corsi (you must, the Cult Leader sayeth), and he’s doing well by that metric. For the most part, that number correlates well with wins and scoring chances – better than any other single number have. It also hides extremes as the sample grows. Clitsome has had good games and bad, like any player, but in total he sits at a 52.8% shot attempt rate at even strength. That means more shots go toward the opponent’s net than his own while he’s on the ice, and it also means he’s both slightly above team average and slightly above his own performance from last season. 

Further in the ‘good news’ column, he’s much better with Byfuglien than without. At even strength, the pair together are at 54.2% corsi. Considering they often play the toughest opponents, it’s remarkable.

The ‘Bad News’ Math

Clitsome’s total scoring is positive. His six points in 17 games are nothing to sneeze at, and certainly fit with his cap hit of just over $2M. It brings his scoring to 1.02 points per 60, very close to last season’s 1.16 rate.

That said, three of those points (aka half) came in a single game against San Jose. You don’t need a math degree to know that the scoring rate for the other 16 games isn’t pretty. 

Worse in terms of his scoring is that his shooting percentage is up. Already, his 6.8% career shooting percentage is high for defencemen, but if we accept his scouting report from above, he should be a good shooter. Still, this year he’s all the way up to 9.5% – around average for an NHL forward – while his average shot distance has gone from 32 feet last year to to almost 44 feet this year. We know from Michael Parkatti that this pattern is very unlikely to continue. He has to get closer, get more shots, or expect the scoring to dry up.

Though I mention above that corsi often correlates with scoring chances, that is not the case for Grant Clitsome. His blunderous turnovers and very high average shot distance have combined to make him the worst Jets’ defender in scoring chance differential, and it’s not a close margin. He’s in Mark Stuart territory for scoring chances for (not good) and far and away the worst player on the team for chances against at an average of 6.24 per 20 minutes of even strength ice time. It’s ugly.

It also has a root problem we can see in the math, which is that he has the fewest zone entries with control of any Jets defender after 20 games. He has entered the zone with control on just 19% of his total entries, which are also low in absolute numbers.

Together, those numbers speak to the quality of his scoring chances and the quality of what he gives up. They also account for how a defender with 52% corsi could be a team worst -8. The shots stop coming once the puck is in your net. 

What Does It All Mean?

There is one number that serves to tie together Clitsome’s season to date, and that’s his on-ice save percentage. That is, the save percentage of the team whenever Clitsome is on the ice. At just .888, he’s well below his number last season and the worst on the team among regulars (only the injured Slater and Chiarot rank lower). 

In many circles, that number has been attributed to luck at the individual level. There are five skaters and a goalie, so it’s hard to say Grant Clitsome is responsible for a poor save percentage. If you believe in that analysis, you can be excited that Clitsome’s season will improve through the power of probabilistic regression. 

By eye, though, it actually makes a lot of sense for Clitsome (and his partner Byfuglien, who is second last) to rank where he does in that stat. To start the year, his turnovers were atrocious. And while he’s started to correct the problem, Byfgulien’s walk-about means a higher-than-average rate of odd-man rushes, and all sorts of defensive breakdowns in set-zone play. 

The team simply does not have a good goaltender, and Clitsome has been testing that more often than most Jets’ defencemen.

Sum It Up

Clitsome is only paid $2M a year, and for that money, he’s living up to expectations. But also by money, he should be a bottom-4 player. By eye and by (much of the) math, as well, he would do well to face easier opposition in fewer minutes per night. That said, he does fit the system, move the puck well, and play better alongside Byfuglien than with another partner. 

In an ideal Jets defence group, he’s a third pairing defenceman who can move up in the case of injury, Enstrom plays with Byfuglien, and the team has a viable option to pair with Bogosian. I think it’s easy to recognize that he would be a 5th man on a better team. Perhaps Trouba will push him down the lineup when he returns, and the world I’m describing comes into focus.

Clitsome is living up to his contract to date, but is yet another player paid in full for his services by this management group. A three year term for a previously waived, 29 year old player whose best work came in a tiny sample of 350 minutes with Byfuglien a season ago seems like a lot. When measuring Clitsome against his low expectations, he comes out ahead. When measured against the opportunity of a better player in his place, it’s not so clear.  


  • Kevin McCartney

    I somewhat agree with your summation of Clitsome. At times he’s a responsible defender, but at other times a giveaway machine. Not particularily physical by vitue of his size, nor an offensive jaugernaut. Decent shot, but this league is full of decent shots. I’ve been more impressed with Ellerby than I have by Clitsome since his arrival.

    I suppose it comes down to perspective. On a team like Edmonton or Florida Clitsome could easily be the fourth or fifth defenceman in the fold. But a team like Winnipeg, with a marginally better talent pool, he should be perhaps playing in the six or seventh position.

    I will admit this however. When Grant Clitsmore is on, he can really be on. Unfortunately, those games are few and far betweem. And I suppose at two million a year he’s money fairly spent (I can’t beleive I just said that).

  • Kevin McCartney

    Yeah, that’s where I end up too, Scott. He’s good, but he’s not good, is sometimes excellent, sometimes awful. The game is so much mental that it’s hard to know just how and why he runs so hot and cold.

    One thing I found interesting (though possibly meaningless) is that he scores a lot of his points with 0 days rest. Combined with the fact that he also scores most of his points (and makes all of his good impressions) January to April, I wonder if he has a conditioning advantage, or an energy advantage due to not being as physical. Or maybe he needs extra work to get focused? I don’t know the nature, so I didn’t include it in the article. Still, it’s a strange pattern after 170 NHL games.