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What is behind the hot start of Philip Hronk?

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Of all the first season storylines that came out of Detroit Red WingsQuality starts in season, perhaps none more surprising than Philip Hronik’s play. The 25-year-old played some of the best hockey of his life during the first two months of the season, scoring 4 goals and 14 points over his first 18 games. And he does it all while playing sound, responsible defense.

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It’s a nice change of pace for the much mischievous blueliner. Hronk’s offensive promise was often overshadowed by a string of defensive lapses and turnovers. So this begs the question, what was different this season?

Hronch dominates his end

Let’s start with one of the biggest improvements, Hronek Defense. In previous seasons, Hronek’s play in his area was often a liability, especially when it came to blocking chances directly around the Red Wings net.

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Defensive heatmaps for Hronek at 5v5. Areas with darker shades of blue represent areas where Hronek is blocked Scoring chances for opponents. The darker shades of red represent the areas where the Hronek is located Permissible Chances of competitors scoring at a high rate.
Micah Blake McCurdy – Hockeyviz.com

This year, however, Hronek has turned the scenario around, becoming one of the best in the league at blocking good scoring chances. Of the 178 NHL defensemen who have played at least 150 minutes this season, Hronek ranks 19th in terms of least high risk chances allowed at 9.37 per 60 minutes. This is ahead of players like Cal Makar, Adam Fox, Devon Toyos, and Miro Heskin, and just barely behind Jacob Slavin, who is hailed by many analysts as possibly the best defensive tackle in the NHL right now.

Part of that could be the fact that Hronek has more help on his end. His primary partner, Ole Mata, is a much better defensive man than any of Hronek’s partners in previous seasons (Mata, in fact, ranks 24th in the list of least dangerous chances allowed). He made sure to play the most aggressive style and pressure he wanted to play without having to worry about whether his partner would support him.

However, don’t discount the Hronek’s own improvement in this regard. His positioning was better, and he did a better job of moving and adapting to block passing and shooting lanes.

It controls the disc better

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of Hronek’s game in the past few seasons has been his inability to control the puck at crucial times. We’ve often seen key turnovers at the wrong times due to Hronek’s lack of situational awareness, trying to do too much on the off chance entering the area, or not making the first pass out of the defensive zone.

There is still room for improvement in this regard, but Hronkek has taken a step forward this season. He has gone from an average of 2.94 gifts per 60 minutes three seasons ago to 1.17 this season. While this is still It seems High, that rate actually puts him in the top quarter of NHL defense this year.

Filip Hronek Puck-Possession Statistics

season CF% xGF% Endowments / 60
season CF% xGF% Endowments / 60
2019-20 44.64 40.76 2.94
2020-21 47.39 45.39 1.42
2021-22 46.19 44.61 1.61
2022-23 51.07 60.01 1.17

Statistics provided by NaturalStatTrick and Advanced Hockey

Better control of the puck has allowed Hronek to… well… actually control the puck. His CF% and xGF% are over 50% after finishing that percentage the past three seasons, which means – overall – the Red Wings get more chances with Hronek on the ice than they give up. And when you have a player as offensively gifted as Hronek, any extra time he can get with constant pressure in the attacking area will likely pay off. And speaking of…

Hronk’s awareness is improving

As mentioned, Hronek’s offensive abilities were never questioned when judging his skills as a player. He has proven that he will go “full YOLO” to try and make an offensive game, 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.

Hronk’s goal against the Sharks is a perfect example of this. In the play, you see him stay in the right spot until David Peron and Oscar Sundqvist win the garbage takeover. At this point, the forward sharks begin to drift towards the left board, leaving the right side of the ice wide open. At this point, Hronek decided to jump into the play, take Perron’s feed and capitalize on what was effectively a 1-on-1 vs. 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 expects the Bruins to win the puck battle along the left boards and begins to skate backwards, ready to move into the backcheck. This is when Craig Smith tries to throw a penetrating pass into center ice. As he’s ahead of the play and keeps the play flowing in front of him, Hronek realizes he’s in a better position to reach the puck than the Bruins’ forward, and steps up to keep the puck in the area, which leads to an Adam Erne goal.

Below is another example of Hronek’s ability to read and predict the play that leads to a Red Wings goal. In this segment against the Rangers, Hronek actually leads the rushing attempt. After successfully entering the area, he applies the disc to Pius Sutter. Often, players will back off after that first pass to try and give the puck a pass to pass, but in this case Hronek recognizes Larkin joining in rushing behind him. Instead of dropping back, Hronek actually speeds between the Rangers’ defences, and because they need pressure to account for a barrage of goal, Sutter has the pass wide open to Larkin, who puts a quick shot on Halak. Hronk and Sutter are there to control the rebound and get Detroit on the board.

So… can Hronek keep up with this one?

It’s only November… it’s too early to shut down any talk of a “career best” season with the permanent ink. However, there’s a lot about Hronek that, at the very least, seems sustainable. His decision-making is better and his analytics prove his better start in scoring is more than just the ‘lucky puck’. It also helps that the team around him is much better than in years past (and still has plenty of room to grow,) which means he’s likely to have more support on both ends of the ice.

The big question will be on the ice’s defensive end. As the season progresses, and Detroit’s opposition becomes tougher, Hronek will be tasked with slowing down faster, sharper offensive teams. The next few weeks feature encounters against the likes of Tampa Bay, Florida, Toronto and Vegas, all teams whose double D-second depth will challenge the Wings. Hronek’s performance in those games will likely test how far his defensive development goes.

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