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Rating the Blue Lines

posted Dec 18, 2017, 11:38 PM by Robert Vollman   [ updated Dec 19, 2017, 3:28 AM ]
One week ago, for no particular reason, I ranked each team's goaltending based on a weighted average of their NHL and AHL save percentages over the past 3-and-a-bit seasons. This week, again for no particular reason, I plan to do the same thing for the blue lines.

This presents a whole new challenge, because there's no single stat equivalent to a goalie's save percentage with which you can attempt to rank defensemen. The closest I can think of is a player's Corsi, but it's nowhere as useful for defenseman as save percentage is for goalies.

There are almost too many problems to mention, but the two that bother me most is that a defenseman has limited influence over the offensive component of the equation (shot attempts for), and that the defensive component can be more a function of how a defenseman is used than the player's own abilities. Someone that has a great partner like Karlsson or Doughty, is used primarily in the offensive zone, and rarely has to face top opponents like McDavid and Crosby, is going to look like a million bucks.

I'm not looking for the perfect solution, I'm just looking to have a little bit of fun, so Corsi it is. I'll measure it on a per-60 minutes basis, relative to his team, and make an adjustment for zone starts, but that's about it. So, Doughty's 7.2 result means he moves the needle by 7.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes. Oh, and don't forget that I'm using the same weighted average over the last 3-and-a-bit seasons, not just this year!

When I ranked the league's goalies, I broke it down to each team's No. 1 goalie, the primary backup, and the depth options. I'll do the same here, defining a team's top pair as its No. 1 defenseman and his partner (even if his partner isn't particularly good), defining its second pair as the balance of the top four, and so on. I won't rank anyone who hasn't played at least 50 games in this time span. Plus, since Corsi data isn't available for the AHL, most depth players will not be properly evaluated, and neither will some of the league's most prominent young players.

I know there is an element of judgment for each grouping, and that my choices might not be accurate based on injuries and current deployment choices, but I will explain my choices with each team. Not everyone will agree with my categorizations, but remember this is just for fun. Please don't take it too seriously. 

1. Nashville Predators
Top Pair: Roman Josi 3.7 (25th), Ryan Ellis 1.3 (33rd)
Second Pair: Mattias Ekholm 9.2 (2nd), P.K. Subban 6.7 (4th)
Third Pair: Alexei Emelin -3.9 (32nd), Yannick Weber -8.7 (49th)
Ranked Depth: Matt Irwin -1.7 (29th), Anthony Bitetto -19.5 (54th)

With the injury to Ellis, Josi has played with Ekholm, and Subban with Emelin. When Ellis returns, I figure they will revert to last year's pairings. I'm not sure which one is considered the top pair, but it's probably the best top-four in the league. Beyond that top four, the Predators are below average.

2. Anaheim Ducks
Top Pair: Hampus Lindholm 15.5 (1st), Josh Manson 13.2 (4th)
Second Pair: Cam Fowler -0.4 (29th), Kevin Bieksa -12.8 (59th)
Third Pair: Francois Beauchemin -1.9 (28th), Brandon Montour -9.2 (51st)
Ranked Depth: Korbinian Holzer -10.6 (46th)

Anaheim might have ranked first before Vatanen was traded away. Up until then, Fowler was the team's No. 1 defenseman, but now it looks like they're leaning more on the long-time pair of Lindholm and Manson instead. They have even toyed with the idea of splitting them up, and playing Manson with Fowler, but I'll keep Lindholm and Manson together for this purpose. Bieksa isn't really a top-four defenseman, but someone had to fill in for Vatanen, and they don't want to break up Beauchemin and Montour.

3. Calgary Flames
Top Pair: Dougie Hamilton 13.9 (2nd), Mark Giordano 13.8 (3rd)
Second Pair: T.J. Brodie -1.8 (34th), Travis Hamonic -4.2 (49th)
Third Pair: Brett Kulak -0.4 (23rd), Michael Stone -6.4 (45th)
Ranked Depth: Cody Goloubef 4.4 (4th), Matt Bartkowski -11.1 (48th)

Calgary might have one of the league's best top pairs, but the rest of the lineup is pretty average. I'm a little surprised why the second pair isn't better, given how successful both players were just a few years ago.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets
Top Pair: Zach Werenski 11.5 (5th), Seth Jones 7.4 (12th)
Second Pair: David Savard -0.4 (28th), Jack Johnson -1.7 (33rd)
Third Pair: Ryan Murray -5.7 (42nd), Markus Nutivaara -6.6 (46th)
Depth: Andre Benoit -3.0 (35th), Scott Harrington -10.0 (44th)

Like the Predators, Columbus also have a great top four, but not much beyond it. Werenski and Jones are certainly another contender for the League's top pair, and Savard and Johnson form a perfectly average second pair. Due to Murray's injury, Johnson and Savard were split up, the former with Nutivaara on the second pair, and the latter on the third pair with Scott Harrington. However, the lineup should return to normal upon Murray's return.

5. Carolina Hurricanes
Top Pair: Brett Pesce 8.5 (10th), Jaccob Slavin 4.7 (20th)
Second Pair: Justin Faulk 2.7 (16th), Haydn Fleury (NR)
Third Pair: Noah Hanifin 0.9 (17th), Trevor van Riemsdyk 0.7 (20th)
Ranked Depth: Klas Dahlbeck -13.1 (49th)

Youth makes it hard to rank Carolina's blue line, but it seems to be solid now, and could develop into one of the league's best in years to come. Some may quibble with the fact that Faulk is not listed as the team's No. 1 defenseman, but all indicators have Pesce and Slavin as the team's top pair right now. Besides, Faulk usually isn't playing with an established top-four option. He seems to have spent most of the season with Fleury, but that's not exactly etched in stone. He started the season with Hanifin, but he has been entrenched on the third pair with van Riemsdyk for some time now, and played more on the third pair with Tennyson last season than with Faulk in the top four. Quibble with his partner if you must, but Faulk seems to be second pair right now.

6. Arizona Coyotes
Top Pair: Oliver Ekman-Larsson 8.2 (11th), Jason Demers 4.9 (19th)
Second Pair: Alex Goligoski 1.9 (21st), Niklas Hjalmarsson, 1.4 (24th)
Third Pair: Luke Schenn -4.1 (33rd), Jakob Chychrun -4.2 (35th)
Ranked Depth: Adam Clendening -1.2 (26th), Kevin Connauton -2.5 (33rd)

I'm really surprised that Arizona isn't doing better, given the vast improvement of their blue line. And yes, I know that the third pair is actually Schenn with Connauton, and that Chychrun is on Goligoski's second pair right now. However, when Hjalmarsson is in the lineup, he's more suitable for that role. And, if all six defensemen are in the lineup, then Connaution would probably be the odd player out, right?

7. Vancouver Canucks
Top Pair: Chris Tanev 6.4 (16th), Ben Hutton 0.5 (40th)
Second Pair: Derrick Pouliot 5.8 (8th), Alexander Edler 3.0 (14th)
Third Pair: Michael Del Zotto -1.2 (26th), Eric Gudbranson -5.0 (40th)
Ranked Depth: Troy Stecher 2.1 (12th), Alex Biega 1.1 (19th), Nikita Tryamkin -1.5 (27th), Patrick Wiercioch -1.6 (28th)

Depth is what really helps Vancouver rank this high. That depth makes this a depth chart that's very hard to sort out, but their top two defensemen are clearly Edler and Tanev, and the former generally plays with Pouliot, and the latter with Hutton. I'm not sure which pair actually qualifies as the team's top pair, though. As for Del Zotto, he does handle a lot of minutes, but he rarely plays with Edler or Tanev, and usually with the various third-pair options instead.

8. Boston Bruins
Top Pair: Zdeno Chara 3.2 (29th), Charlie McAvoy 8.7 (NR)
Second Pair: Torey Krug 2.3 (20th), Adam McQuaid -3.8 (47th)
Third Pair: Kevan Miller -2.1 (29th), Brandon Carlo -3.8 (31st)
Ranked Depth: Paul Postma -2.3 (32nd)

It's hard to properly evaluate a blue line that has two young players in key positions, but they seem to be at least average on all three pairs. I know that Carlo has been in a more prominent role this season, and only briefly played on the third pair with Miller, and that he is located close to Chara on a player usage chart, in terms of zone start percentage and quality of competition. However, McAvoy plays a ton of minutes and is clearly Chara's partner now (despite being closer to Krug on a player usage chart), and Krug and McQuaid were the second pair most of last season, and earlier this season before McQuaid got hurt. Plus, Carlo is 21, has only one season of experience, and ranks fifth in even-strength ice time per game, so it's not completely unreasonable to classify him on the third pair, if only very temporarily. 

9. New York Rangers
Top Pair: Nick Holden 3.2 (28th), Ryan McDonagh 1.3 (34th)
Second Pair: Kevin Shattenkirk 0.5 (25th), Brady Skjei -1.1 (31st)
Third Pair: Brendan Smith 6.2 (3rd), Marc Staal -1.0 (24th)
Ranked Depth: Steven Kampfer -8.5 (43rd)

With three clear and well-established pairs, each of which are average or better, the Rangers actually serve as a great measuring stick for the league's other blue lines. Being good essentially means being better than this.

10. Minnesota Wild
Top Pair: Jared Spurgeon 9.3 (7th), Ryan Suter 6.7 (14th)
Second Pair: Jonas Brodin -1.2 (32nd), Matt Dumba -2.7 (40th)
Third Pair: Ryan Murphy -4.5 (38th), Kyle Quincey -6.7 (47th)
Ranked Depth: Nate Prosser -6.8 (39th), Mike Reilly -14.0 (51st)

This is how Minnesota's top four looked prior to Spurgeon's injury. Since his return, Spurgeon has swapped spots with Dumba, but that's probably just temporary. The third pair is currently in the AHL, but Murphy and Quiincey have more established NHL credentials of all the the team's journeymen options, in my opinion.

11. Washington Capitals
Top Pair: John Carlson -0.3 (42nd), Brooks Orpik -5.1 (57th)
Second Pair: Dmitry Orlov 9.5 (1st), Matt Niskanen 8.0 (3rd)
Third Pair: Madison Bowey (NR), Christian Djoos (NR)
Ranked Depth: Taylor Chorney -15.6 (53rd)

Washington does something interesting with Bowey and Djoos. Rather than play them together as a third pair, they take their occasional shifts with someone from the top pair (usually Orpik and Carlson, respectively). Unfortunately, it's too early to see how good those two actually are, and they certainly seem to have affected the top pair's numbers. Orlov and Niskanen could form the league's best second pair, however.

12. Winnipeg Jets
Top Pair: Dustin Byfuglien 4.6 (21st) Tobias Enstrom -0.6 (44th)
Second Pair: Joshua Morrissey 2.5 (17th), Jacob Trouba 2.4 (19th)
Third Pair: Tyler Myers 1.6 (14th), Dmitry Kulikov -4.7 (39th)
Ranked Depth: Ben Chiarot -6.9 (42nd)

In Enstrom's absence, Byfuglien has been playing with Chiarot on the top pair, who is otherwise out of the lineup because the other pairs are essentially set in stone. The second pair is young and solid, and the third pair is good, but simply overpaid.

13. Pittsburgh Penguins
Top Pair: Kris Letang 5.7 (17th), Brian Dumoulin 4.4 (23rd)
Second Pair: Justin Schultz -2.4 (38th), Olli Maatta -3.5 (45th)
Third Pair: Chad Ruhwedel 3.2 (10th), Ian Cole 0.3 (21st)
Ranked Depth: Zach Trotman 2.1 (11th), Frank Corrado -0.7 (24th), Matt Hunwick -4.2 (36th)

Pittsburgh's second pair might be its Achilles heel. Right now, they have Ruhwedel on the second pair with Maatta, but it's simply more reasonable to classify Schultz as a top-four defenseman. Some people may also put Hunwick ahead of Cole on the depth chart, but their third pair and depth are fine no matter what.

14. Chicago Blackhawks
Top Pair: Cody Franson 10.1 (6th), Duncan Keith 3.1 (30th)
Second Pair: Connor Murphy 5.6 (9th), Brent Seabrook -5.6 (52nd)
Third Pair: Gustav Forsling -10.5 (52nd), Jan Rutta (NR)
Ranked Depth: Michal Kempny 12.5 (1st), Michal Rozsival 0.4 (20th)

This team's blue line is simply impossible to sort out. Keith and Seabrook started the season together, then they were split up, and each of them has had two or three different partners since then. The other statistical indicators don't seem to help out much, either. At this very instant, Keith is with Oesterle, and Seabrook is with Kempny. However, Seabrook has spent more of the season with Murphy, and Franson plays with Keith whenever he's healthy. Rutta has played a ton of minutes, but he has spent most of them with Forsling, so we'll make that the third pair, even though Oesterle and Kempny ought to be mentioned. 

15. Dallas Stars
Top Pair: John Klingberg 3.8 (24th), Marc Methot -1.9 (50th)
Second Pair: Dan Hamhuis 3.2 (12th), Esa Lindell 0.1 (26th)
Third Pair: Greg Pateryn 2.1 (12th), Stephen Johns -0.1 (21st)
Ranked Depth: Jamie Oleksiak -6.8 (40th)

Remember when Dallas had one of the league's worst blue lines? Well, they made a couple of moves, and a few of their prospects have hit the mark, and now I'd say this is an above-average blue line. I know that Lindell plays with Klingberg, not with Hamhuis. However, Methot started the season with Klingberg, and his cap hit suggests that's where he slots into the depth chart when he's back. Methot's absence has temporarily hoisted Pateryn up into the second pair, but Lindell is actually the remaining top-four defenseman, whether he has played with Hamhuis or not.

16. San Jose Sharks
Top Pair: Brent Burns 6.6 (15th), Paul Martin -0.9 (45th)
Second Pair: Marc-Edouard Vlasic -2.5 (39th), Justin Braun -6.3 (55th)
Third Pair: Brenden Dillon 3.8 (6th), Joakim Ryan (NR)
Ranked Depth: Dylan DeMelo -2.2 (30th)

San Jose used to have one of the league's best top fours, but it's starting to age, and perhaps shot-based metrics don't do Vlasic and Braun justice. With Martin out of the lineup, Burns has played with both Ryan and Dillon, but it hasn't worked all that well.

17. Tampa Bay Lightning
Top Pair: Victor Hedman 3.7 (26th), Jake Dotchin -3.2 (53rd)
Second Pair: Anton Stralman 1.8 (22nd), Mikael Sergachev (NR)
Third Pair: Braydon Coburn 0.8 (18th), Dan Girardi -8.1 (48th)
Ranked Depth: Andrej Sustr -0.4 (23rd), Slater Koekkoek -3.1 (36th), Jamie McBain -6.8 (41st)

Years ago, the Lightning had a terrible blue line, then made some shrewd signings and trades to instantly build a competitive top four. When it began to atrophy, they managed to fill it in with quality young players like Dotchin, Sergachev, and Koekkoek. Well done. Their two top veterans, Hedman and Stralman, have been split up, so that each of them can play with one of the new young players. Tampa Bay uses veterans on the third pair, and usually dresses Koekkoek, as a carefully sheltered seventh defenseman.

18. New York Islanders
Top Pair: Johnny Boychuk 3.3 (27th), Nick Leddy 2.3 (32nd)
Second Pair: Calvin de Haan 2.4 (18th), Adam Pelech -1.9 (35th)
Third Pair: Thomas Hickey -0.2 (22nd), Dennis Seidenberg -5.8 (44th)
Ranked Depth: Scott Mayfield 1.8 (14th), Seth Helgeson -5.7 (38th)

You could fiddle with it a little bit, but the Islanders essentially strike me as a perfectly average blue line. Yes, Mayfield and Pulock have probably pushed their way into the third pair permanently, but for now I'll stick with the established NHLers. 

19. Colorado Avalanche
Top Pair: Erik Johnson 8.7 (9th), Samel Girard (NR)
Second Pair: Tyson Barrie -2.1 (36th), Patrik Nemeth -3.4 (42nd)
Third Pair: Nikita Zadorov 4.4 (5th), Mark Barberio 1.7 (13th)
Ranked Depth: None

Colorado used to have a terrible blue line, but they have made it rather respectable thanks to Johnson, and a few sneaky clever moves. The exact depth chart isn't easy to sort out, but when Nemeth is in the lineup, he plays with Barrie, and Girard has played with Johnson since being acquired from Nashville -- he ranks third in even-strength minutes per game among the team's defensemen.

20. Toronto Maple Leafs
Top Pair: Morgan Rielly 4.5 (22nd), Ron Hainsey -0.4 (43rd)
Second Pair: Jake Gardiner 1.8 (23rd), Nikita Zaitsev -5.3 (51st)
Third Pair: Roman Polak -3.4 (30th), Andreas Borgman (NR)
Ranked Depth: Martin Marincin 5.0 (3rd), Connor Carrick 1.2 (18th)

This being the team's greatest weakness, I'd consider selling high if I were the Maple Leafs, and maybe move Auston Matthews for an elite defenseman. I guess it would probably be a disaster from a marketing perspective, however. There may be some argument about which of Toronto's top pairs is the number one pair, but I went with those playing the toughest minutes. 

21. Edmonton Oilers
Top Pair: Adam Larsson 2.8 (31st), Andrej Sekera 0.9 (36th)
Second Pair: Darnell Nurse 3.7 (10th), Kris Russell -8.6 (58th)
Third Pair: Oscar Klefbom 0.9 (16th), Matt Benning -4.5 (37th)
Ranked Depth: Brandon Davidson 7.7 (2nd), Mark Fayne 2.6 (7th), Eric Gryba 1.9 (13th), Ryan Stanton -14.5 (52nd)

Edmonton's tricky to evaluate because their top defenseman has been out all season, and because their four best defensemen are on the left side -- except Larsson can play both sides. I decided to keep the next two pairs together, but really had a hard time deciding which one should be classified as the second pair. 

22. Los Angeles Kings
Top Pair: Drew Doughty 7.2 (13th), Jake Muzzin 5.1 (18th)
Second Pair: Derek Forbort -3.0 (41st), Alec Martinez -4.3 (50th)
Third Pair: Christian Folin -1.8 (27th), Kurtis MacDermid (NR)
Ranked Depth: Kevin Gravel -2.2 (31st)

The Kings probably have one of the league's top defensemen, but only one really good defenseman beyond that. The obvious error in my pairing classifications is Forbort, who was demoted to the third pair with Folin after over a full season on the top pair with Doughty. But, it just doesn't make sense to classify him as a third-pair defenseman, and then put a borderline NHLer in the top four.

23. Florida Panthers
Top Pair: Aaron Ekblad 0.6 (39th), Keith Yandle -1.5 (48th)
Second Pair: Mark Pysyk 3.1 (13th), Mike Matheson -0.5 (30th)
Third Pair: Alex Petrovic 3.7 (7th), Ian McCoshen (NR)
Ranked Depth: None

The Panthers have invested a lot of money and favourable playing conditions in their top pair, but without justifying results. The lack of experience depth could also be an issue.

24. St. Louis Blues
Top Pair: Alex Pietrangelo 1.0 (35th), Jay Bouwmeester -4.1 (55th)
Second Pair: Colton Parayko 6.2 (6th), Joel Edmundson 0.0 (27th)
Third Pair: Robert Bortuzzo 1.0 (15th), Carl Gunnarsson -8.9 (50th)
Ranked Depth:  None.

I'm actually not sure why St. Louis is doing so well this season, given how many aspects of their lineup appear to be rather mediocre. Pietrangelo is having a heck of a year, but this perspective is based on a weighted average of several seasons. When Bouwmeester is in the lineup, he almost always plays with Pietrangelo, his long-time partner. While there's no established third pair, Gunnarsson and Bortuzzo are more established defensive options than Vince Dunn.

25. Montreal Canadiens
Top Pair: Shea Weber -0.3 (41st), Jordie Benn -1.6 (49th)
Second Pair: Jeff Petry 6.4 (5th), Karl Alzner -3.4 (43rd)
Third Pair: David Schlemko 0.8 (19th), Victor Mete (NR)
Ranked Depth: Eric Gelinas -0.9 (25th), Joe Morrow -13.4 (50th)

Imagine if they still had Subban, Sergachev and maybe Markov! Instead they have Weber (who recently injured his foot), who doesn't really have an established top-four defensemen with whom to play. He started off with Mete (who was loaned to the world juniors), and then moved to Benn.

26. Ottawa Senators
Top Pair: Erik Karlsson 9.3 (8th), Johnny Oduya -3.1 (52nd)
Second Pair: Dion Phaneuf -5.7 (53rd), Cody Ceci -7.2 (56th)
Third Pair: Frederik Claesson 3.1 (11th), Thomas Chabot (NR)
Ranked Depth: Chris Wideman 4.3 (5th), Matt Borowiecki 2.3 (9th)

I had to rank the Senators this low, but they appear to be a one-player team. There appears to be some promise in the third pair, but I'm not even sure who's on it from one game to the next. Since this is essentially their lineup for the most recent game, we'll just go with it. 

27. Philadelphia Flyers
Top Pair: Ivan Provorov -2.4 (51st), Andrew MacDonald -4.5 (56th)
Second Pair: Shayne Gostisbehere -3.9 (48th), Robert Hagg (NR)
Third Pair: Radko Gudas 11.6 (1st), Brandon Manning 3.5 (8th)
Ranked Depth: None.

In the long run, I think the Flyers will be great, thanks to all the crazy abundance of solidyoung players. In the short run, the presence of MacDonald on the top pair is a clear signal that this is a potential weakness. Coach Dave Hakstol has tried a few different things in the top four, like Hagg with Provorov, and Manning with Gostisbehere. But, this deployment is essentially the form in which the top four has settled, except that Manning is currently injured, and Gudas is playing with Travis Sanheim on the third pair. 

28. Detroit Red Wings
Top Pair: Mike Green -1.4 (47th), Danny DeKeyser -3.9 (54th)
Second Pair: Jonathan Ericsson 2.8 (15th), Trevor Daley -7.5 (57th)
Third Pair: Nick Jensen 3.4 (9th), Niklas Kronwall 4.1 (34th)
Ranked Depth: Xavier Ouellet 3.7 (6th)

This is the exact lineup for the last game, so there shouldn't be much argument about its construction. Green has had a variety of partners this season, including Kronwall and Ouelette, but he's clearly the No. 1 defenseman in terms of cap hit and ice time, and DeKeyser has been with him ever since he got back from injury.  

29. New Jersey Devils
Top Pair: Andy Greene 0.8 (37th), Steven Santini -9.8 (60th)
Second Pair: John Moore -3.4 (44th), Sami Vatanen -3.8 (46th)
Third Pair: Damon Severson 5.2 (4th), Will Butcher (NR)
Ranked Depth: Ben Lovejoy 1.7 (15th), Dalton Prout 1.7 (16th), Mirco Mueller -2.7 (34th), Brian Strait -10.5 (45th)

Good trade. They really, really needed Vatanen. I thought that his arrival would push Moore to the third pair, but it looks like it's Severson instead. That makes for a strong third pair, but one of the league's weaker top fours.

30. Vegas Golden Knights
Top Pair: Nate Schmidt -1.1 (46th), Luca Sbisa -8.6 (59th)
Second Pair: Brayden McNabb 6.2 (7th), Deryk Engelland -6.2 (54th)
Third Pair: Colin Miller 8.8 (2nd), Shea Theodore -5.8 (43rd)
Ranked Depth: Clayton Stoner 2.5 (8th), Jon Merrill 1.2 (17th), Jason Garrison -4.9 (37th)

The apparent weakness of the blue line is one of the reasons why I can't figure out why Vegas is so competitive this year. Engelland is currently playing with Theodore on the second pair, but McNabb, who was his partner from the first half the season, is more established in that role. I wasn't sure what to do with Merrill, who is the odd man out, even though he has a history of top four play, and is currently subbing for the injured Sbisa on the top pair.

31. Buffalo Sabres
Top Pair: Marco Scandella 0.7 (38th), Rasmus Ristolainen -5.4 (58th)
Second Pair: Zach Bogosian 3.6 (11th), Jake McCabe -2.3 (37th)
Third Pair: Nathan Beaulieu -1.1 (25th), Josh Gorges -5.1 (41st)
Ranked Depth: Justin Falk 2.2 (10th), Zach Redmond -0.1 (22nd), Matt Tennyson -11.0 (47th)

Given all the injuries, it's obviously impossible to construct an accurate picture of Buffalo's blue line, but Ristolainen is clearly the team's No. 1 defenseman, a role in which Scandella served when Ristolainen was out, and they have played together when both in the lineup. Bogosian played with McCabe in the brief period he was in the lineup, and McCabe ranks first among the team's remaining defensemen in average ice-time at even-strength. The third pair is probably the most arbitrary selection of all, but not an entirely unreasonable choice.


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