Of all the early season storylines that have come out of the Detroit Red Wings’ quality start to the season, perhaps none are more surprising that the play of Filip Hronek. The 25-year-old has played some of the best hockey of his life during the first two months of the season, tallying 4 goals and 14 points through his first 18 games. And he’s doing 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 runs of defensive lapses and turnovers. So that begs the question, what’s been different this season?
Hronek is Dominating His Own End
Let’s start with one of the biggest improvements, Hronek’s defense. In prior seasons, Hronek’s play in his own zone has often been a liability, especially when it came to preventing chances directly around the Red Wings’ net.
This year, however, Hronek has flipped the script, becoming one of the league’s BEST at preventing quality scoring chances. Of the 178 NHL defenders who have played at least 150 minutes this season, Hronek ranks 19th in terms of fewest high-danger chances allowed at 9.37 per 60 minutes. That ranks ahead of players like Cale Makar, Adam Fox, Devon Toews, and Miro Heiskenen, and just 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-above a better defensive defenseman than any of Hronek’s partners in prior seasons (Maata, in fact, is 24th on the list of 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 whether his partner is backing him up.
However, don’t discount Hronek’s own improvement in this regard. His positioning has been better, and he’s done a better job of moving and adjusting to take away passing and shooting lanes.
He’s Controlling the Puck Better
Maybe one of the more frustrating aspects of Hronek’s game the past few seasons has been his inability to control the puck at key times. We often saw key turnovers at inopportune times caused by Hronek’s lack of situational awareness, trying to do too much in a zone entry opportunity, or just not executing that 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’s gone from a rate 2.94 giveaways per 60 minutes three seasons ago to 1.17 this season. While that still may seem high, that rate actually puts him in the top quarter of NHL defensemen this year.
Filip Hronek Puck-Possession Statistics
Statistics courtesy NaturalStatTrick and Evolving Hockey
Having better control of the puck has allowed Hronek to… well… actually control the puck. His CF% and xGF% are above 50% after finishing well below that mark for the past three seasons, which means — in general — the Red Wings are getting more chances with Hronek on the ice than they’re giving up. And when you have a player as offensively gifted as Hronek, any extra time he can get with sustained pressure in the offensive zone is likely to bear some fruit. And speaking of…
Hronek’s Awareness Is Improving
As mentioned, Hronek’s offensive abilities were never in question when judging his skillset as a player. He’s proven he’ll go “full YOLO” to try and make an offensive play, sometimes at the expense of his defensive responsibilities. This year, however, Hronek’s done a better job at picking and choosing his spots to be aggressive.
Hronek’s goal against the Sharks is a prime example. In the play, you see him staying at the right point until David Perron and Oskar Sundqvist win possession off the dump-in. At that points, the Sharks forwards start drifting towards the left-wing board, leaving the right side of the ice wide-open. It’s at THIS moment that Hronek decides to jump into the play, taking Perron’s feed and capitalizing on what was virtually a 1-on-1 versus James Riemer.
Another prime example came in the Boston game. Here we see Hronek hovering around the circle ready to jump into the play. However, he anticipates the Bruins winning the puck battle along the left boards and begins to skate backwards, ready to transition to his back-check. That’s when Craig Smith tries to throw a break-out pass to the center of the ice. Because he’s ahead of the play and keeping the flow of play in front of him, Hronek recognizes he’s in better position to get to the puck than the Bruins’ forward, and steps up to keep the puck in the zone, leading to the Adam Erne goal.
Below is yet another example of Hronek’s ability to read and anticipate the play leading to a Red Wings goal. In this clip against the Rangers, Hronek is actually leading the rush attempt. After a successful zone entry, he dishes the puck over to Pius Suter. Often times, players will hang back after this first pass to try and give the puck-carrier a passing lane, but in this case, Hronek recognizes Larkin is joining the rush behind him. Instead of hanging back, Hronek actually accelerates between the two Rangers’ defensemen, and because they need to pinch in to account for him breaking in towards goal, Suter has a wide-open pass to Larkin, who puts a quick shot in on Halak. Hronek and Suter are there to corral the rebound and get Detroit on the board.
So… Can Hronek Keep This Up?
It’s only November… way too early to lock any talk of a “career-best” season in permanent ink. That being said, there’s plenty about Hronek’s game that, at the very least, seems sustainable. His decision-making is better and his analytics prove 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 still have PLENTY 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 quicker, sharper offensive teams. The next few weeks feature matchups against the likes of Tampa Bay, Florida, Toronto, and Vegas, all teams whose depth will challenge the Wings’ second D-pair. How Hronek does in those games will likely test just how far he’s come in his defensive development.