The 2020 Calder race is generally presented as a two-horse competition, featuring 2017 fourth overall pick and Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar and Canucks’ blueliner Quinn Hughes, who went 7th overall in 2018 (for what it’s worth, he was 3rd overall on my board). It’s very much the year of the defenceman; there’s no argument about that. But there’s a third defenceman with a deserving case for the award– New York Rangers defender Adam Fox, a former NCAA standout that bounced from Calgary to Carolina before finally signing in the Big Apple. And with the amount of success that he found as a rookie, you can’t criticize him for that decision.
Glance at Fox’s EliteProspects page and you’d think he would be a one-dimensional, offence-focused defenceman. He’s 5’11”, was a third-round pick back in 2016 despite a stellar offensive record with the United States National Team Development Program, and his worst offensive season over three years in the NCAA was 28 points in 29 games in his sophomore campaign. Obviously, he’s an outstanding offensive player. But Fox’s greatest strength as an NHL rookie wasn’t his ability on the puck (although he sure does have plenty of it), but rather his fantastic defensive results. Fox’s New York Rangers allowed 7.67 fewer 5v5 shot attempts per sixty minutes with the rookie on the ice, the best rate of any individual defenceman with more than 250 minutes of time on ice this season. If we sort by expected goals, Fox drops to 17th– still a strong position in the grand scheme of things. For a rookie defenceman, and especially one with such an unassuming defensive profile, his ability to limit shot attempts and offensive opportunities against at such a high level is exceptional. (Statistics from evolving-hockey.com). These two charts from the brilliant hockeyviz.com illustrate the situation better than I ever could: New York bled opportunities from all over without Fox, but cut down on high slot chances and conceded far less offence with the young defenceman patrolling the blueline.
The source of Fox’s defensive success isn’t what he does in the defensive zone though– it’s his ability to deny zone entries at his own blueline and prevent offence in its developing stages. He’s extremely mobile in all facets of the game, allowing him to match speed through the neutral zone and maintain a tight, suffocating gap. Just his presence in front of attackers moving through the neutral zone can force uncontrolled entries, like it did on this play– Fox’s tight gap, combined with the threat of a New York backchecker, force a dump-in (and Fox throws a hit afterwards for good measure).
His backwards mobility is a huge tool. Fox can match speeds with just about every forward in the league, allowing him to maintain his gap even as opposing players attack the wing with speed. He contains Connor McDavid about as well as you’ll ever see from a defender here, keeping him to the outside and not allowing any inside lanes to the net:
Fox isn’t afraid to put his body on the line to disrupt plays. An important step in defensive progression for smaller defenders is understanding how to effectively use their body to get in the way, even if they aren’t anywhere near large enough to channel their inner Scott Stevens. It’s something Quinn Hughes, another undersized rookie blueliner with strong defensive results, was excellent at back in the NCAA and something he has continued at the NHL level. We already saw Fox step up and throw a hit at the blueline in one of the earlier clips, and here he is stepping in front of an opposing forward and quelling an attack by taking down both the attacker and himself at the attacking blueline.
He has strong defensive awareness and isn’t afraid to venture outside of his typical defensive lane when he has support, stepping up to double team the puck carrier and force a dump-in knowing that a forward has dropped back to cover his position.
Another similar example from the same game– Fox steps up at the offensive blueline and uses his body to disrupt the puck carrier. He probably got moved more by that hit than the player he was targeting– it looks like he even catches a little air– but he got in the way and prevented the offence from moving forward. That’s how a player can maintain a physical presence even as an undersized defender.
And when the occasion is just right, Fox is capable of full-on laying a guy out. That’s 6’1″, 205 pound Jamie McGinn that gets sent to the ice here.
For an NHL rookie, Fox sure plays beyond his years as a defender. He’s still subject to the occasional mistake that looks to be a product of his inexperience– like this unneeded penalty after sliding to take away a passing lane that was already barely there, and another similar sliding defensive play that nearly results in a penalty and goal against– but his overall body of work in his own zone was extremely positive.
When the other team has the puck in the neutral zone, he’s always looking to apply pressure and force uncontrolled entries. Fox’s style and attitude as a defender is perfect for the modern game: his tape is a video exhibit of the philosophy “the best defence is a good offence”. He plays a possession-centred game, forcing the opposition to forfeit their offensive possessions before they even begin and always pushing the puck forwards towards the offensive net. He’s an excellent offensive player, no doubt, but the backbone of his entire game is what he can do in transition, and that goes both ways. We’ve looked at his neutral zone defence, but Fox’s ability to move the puck from defensive zone to offensive zone with possession is even more impressive. The defender is a uniquely comfortable puckhandler, demonstrating incredible confidence on the puck and showing little fear of turnovers or the physical consequences of overhandling the puck. And for good reason– Fox is more than capable of playing that style without giving the puck away in droves, posting a rate of 2.66 turnovers per sixty (a rate lower than many high-profile players with similar playstyles including Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang, Miro Heiskanen, Drew Doughty, John Carlson, Brent Burns, as well as teammates Tony DeAngelo and Jacob Trouba. He’ll hang onto the puck at length if it means finding a controlled outlet and can evade forechecking pressure with relative ease.
You’ll rarely see Fox rim the puck around the boards or bounce the puck off the glass on the breakout. He doesn’t panic with forecheckers bearing down on him– there are two coming in hot on this play– instead picking up his head and finding an outlet. He does so twice in short succession here and the Rangers eventually exit the zone with possession.
Few NHL defenceman have the awareness and intelligence to move the puck away from pressure at the level that Fox demonstrates as a rookie this season. He understands how drawing attention and pressure to himself will open up teammates elsewhere and has the processing ability to find those teammates even with forecheckers closing in. Fox has two forecheckers about to apply pressure on this play: one pursuing around the net and another on the other side of the cage ready to close him out along the boards. A basic reverse moves the puck the other way and removes both forecheckers from the equation, creating tons of space for an easy exit for Mika Zibanejad.
Breaking out doesn’t have to be fancy; poise and circling away from pressure allow Fox to make a basic short pass leading to a controlled exit from his winger after creating space from the forecheck.
His comfort level on the puck is that of an extremely skilled forward– Fox isn’t just capable of handling the puck for extended periods, but he would appear to actually welcome it. In situations where many defencemen would rush a play and often relinquish possession in the neutral zone, Fox will hang onto the the puck, draw forechecking attention to himself, and wait for options to open up. He evades the initial forechecker and eventually draws all three Carolina forwards to himself before moving the puck off. The pass doesn’t quite connect, but the value of attracting significant attention as the puckcarrier on the breakout is obvious– just look at all the space created for the teammates around him.
The high-level two-way transitional play that Fox exhibits is what powers his possession impact. His ability to transport the puck out of his own zone with possession leads to more consistent controlled zone entries and prolonged offensive stretches for the Rangers and his prowess defending his own blueline and forcing dump-ins or turnovers create additional possessions for his team. New York controlled a 4.39% greater share of the shot attempt share (corsi-for percentage relative to his teammates) with Fox on the ice compared to their results with the rookie on the bench as well as 7.76% more of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) and an 8.28% boost on New York’s expected goals results (statistics from naturalstattrick.com). He led every rookie defender, including Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, in all three of those statistical categories in the regular season this year.
But we haven’t even gotten to the most visible part of Fox’s game yet. The defender is a stellar offensive talent. possessing the o-zone tools of a point per game forward and tallying 42 points in 70 games as an NHL rookie. Fox is aggressive in all facets of the game, remaining on constant lookout for opportunities to activate into the offensive play as a fourth forward. He’s a member of a select group of NHL defencemen that will routinely find themselves as the most talented offensive player of anyone on the ice at the time, regardless of position. He has an eye for backdoor cuts, can work off his forwards, play give-and-gos off the point– if he has an opportunity to activate into the play, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a time where he doesn’t take it. Jumping into the rush is pretty much required from NHL defencemen nowadays, but Fox is more even more eager than most. There are certain defencemen that possess an impressive ability to sneak up the weak side– on a prospect level, Minnesota prospect Calen Addision is another player that excels at it– and Fox is one. It’s one of hockey’s elements that can be a little difficult to pick up on video, but is really apparent live. Focus too much on the puck moving up one side of the ice and before you know it, the weak side defenceman will catch up to the play and present himself as an option on the far side of the ice just as his team gains the zone. Unfortunately, he just barely can’t corral the pass here– he would have a great shooting chance otherwise.
Here’s another similar play, but this time Fox collects the pass and feeds back-door for a primary assist. He doesn’t initially intend to slip in on the far side off the zone entry, but senses the open space and of course, Artemi Panarin is more than capable of threading that cross-ice pass.
He can follow up the play as a late man on the strong side as well, taking whatever space is in front of him and looking for a pass back from a forward for a slot chance. Fox has terrific awareness for open space in the offensive zone and knows how to slip into the space without immediately being picked up by a defender.
This next goal doesn’t happen without some uniquely Detroit defensive awfulness, but look at how that weakside activation turns into a breakaway chance. Puck-focused defences can really struggle with this kind of play– it looks like Detroit didn’t even know Fox was coming up the middle of the ice on this play.
When he has an opportunity to jump into the transition game as a puck carrier on the zone entry, Fox doesn’t hesitate either. He’s mobile and agile enough to navigate the heavy traffic of the neutral zone and can work the puck forwards into the offensive end.
Fox takes advantage of sleeping backcheckers on a routine basis and can create or aggravate odd-man situations with his speed as a late man.
His activation turned a two-on-one into a three-on-one above and a similar eagerness creates a three-on-one odd-power situation out of an even two-on-one this time.
When the Rangers are set up in the offensive zone, Fox is just as eager to get involved offensively. Whereas some defencemen act as though they are practically chained to the offensive blueline, Fox is more than willing to play like a fourth forward. He’s comfortable in all kinds of offensive positions, including below the goal line, around the crease, and pursuing the puck on the forecheck. This play below really illustrates that willingness to “abandon” his post on the blueline and play almost like a forward at times.
That kind of push down the wall as a defenceman is by far one of the best ways to get involved offensively as a blueliner, especially when it involved a handoff of possession from forward to activating defenceman like the next clip. It isn’t nearly as frequent of a concept in hockey as it is in basketball, for instance, but forcing switches can create a lot of space and opportunity for an offence. It’s a big reason why a well-executed cycle game can be so lethal. That kind of play produces a Rangers’ goal here in the qualifying round against the Hurricanes.
Here’s another play coming down that wall– a super creative and deceptive slap pass to the front of the net for a primary assist. Fox’s playmaking vision and creativity from the blueline is super rare and a really valuable element for a team’s offence.
Fox is already one of the most dangerous passers coming off the blueline in the league– look at how he picks this backdoor seam on the powerplay for one of the easiest tap-ins you’ll ever see.
He can sneak in himself to play as the finisher on those backdoor plays, as he does on this combination with 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko.
Fox’s passing vision, active eye for opportunities to sneak into the slot, and comfort handling the puck on the blueline even under pressure– shown below leading to a secondary assist– make him a highly proficient powerplay QB. Only ten defencemen with more than 100 minutes of powerplay time outproduced Fox on a per-sixty basis on the man advantage. Only four were more efficient at recording primary assists.
Fox is one of the NHL’s most exciting and dynamic young defencemen. He’s a few years older than Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, but he’s absolutely in the same class as both players and had a very strong argument for a Calder nomination. His poise and intelligence on the breakout drives play forwards at a rare level and Fox’s aggressive neutral zone defence keeps the time he spends defending in his own zone to a minimum. As a result, Fox posted terrific defensive results and was among the best defencemen in the entire league, regardless of age or experience, according to commonly-referenced possession metrics like shot attempts and expected goals. It isn’t difficult to imagine him eventually usurping Jacob Trouba or Tony DeAngelo to be the #1 defenceman on what should be a must-watch Rangers team down the road.
If he can develop this kind of offensive chemistry with all of New York’s offensive weapons, he’ll be one of the league’s premier defensive weapons for a long time.
Featured Image Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images