Alec and I took in the Rotman Sports Industry Conference yesterday, which is of note because the Leafs VP of scouting, Reid Mitchell, was a conference speaker.
Now, personally I can’t handle when these sorts of events happen, the quotes get transcribed word-for-word, and the guy is ripped apart for saying something wrong. I’m not going to do that here.
However, there were two noteworthy things mentioned that stuck out in my mind: The first was Reid Mitchell noting that the majority of the stats the Leafs use are not publicly available or made known. At first he said 100% of them aren’t, but quickly retracted and said the majority. The second came from a question I asked regarding intangibles, which turned into an answer on team building.
First of all, the Leafs would, by my guess, be among the majority of teams to state that what they use is not available and what they have is better. For example, Dave Tippett of the Coyotes has his own player efficiency rating in which he puts a value on pretty well everything that happens in a game. Or, in Pittsburgh, anyone who remembers their appearance on HBO 24/7 might recall a scene wherein Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero are in an office grading players and assigning them a number after a game; I assume this is (or at least was) something they do after each game in an attempt to measure each game and create overall testing scores for their players to revisit when it comes to decision making time.
In fact, Patrick Burke, who has worked for an NHL team and whose dad was GM of this team not too long ago, has pointed this out repeatedly on Twitter: if a team has found something, why would they let that be known to the general public?
If you were using stats to gain a competitive edge why tell people you're using them? Moneyball was about finding value and inefficiency…
— Patrick Burke (@BurkieYCP) February 28, 2014
Now, nobody is going to argue the Leafs –- with whatever they have used or are actively using — have it all figured out because there are still glaring holes on this team. While they are a reasonably good team in the East, they still have a ways to go before they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the elite teams in this League. That said, they are obviously doing some things right, too. The Leafs are 61-41-13 between this season and last. They’ve mainly accomplished the record through goaltending and goal scoring, which, in my opinion, they’ve amped up to allow their young and inexperienced defense time to grow.
Some have made the argument that Bernier was an unnecessary acquisition due to how good Scrivens is (and Scrivens has been very good this season). To me, though, there’s no argument that the Leafs need to have two good goalies because they simply allow too many shots, make a lot of mistakes on defense, and one good goalie is probably going to get burnt out playing behind this team. Some will logically say, “how about just improving the defense instead then,” but Gardiner kind of needs to experience ups and downs in big minutes (averaging 21 a night) in order to develop, and rightly or wrongly most people wanted to see Franson in a top four role this summer after a good season and playoffs. Ranger, too, was another guy the Leafs wanted to see and had high hopes for, while Rielly has benefited from a bad defense by getting more and more ice time as the season has progressed (plus, he has also improved and earned it). Part of developing is taking the bad with the good. While Gardiner along with Rielly have had made plenty of mistakes, this will pay off down the road. For now, though, the Leafs outscore their problems and rely on their goalies to bail them out when need be.
It’s not a perfect formula nor, most likely, a championship one, but in a league that’s about goal scoring the Leafs do it well, plus they have good enough goalies able to either a) keep them in games or b) provide the big save when they need it while they are hemmed in their own zone.
Now the challenge will be backfilling around the good things they have put in place with some smart and savvy moves, plus maybe a big move to bring in a defenseman. The Leafs have one of the best top lines in the league, Kadri is a nice young center that is again in the top-30 for scoring in his position despite not playing top minutes, while Lupul can say the same despite not bringing much else to the table. Holland is another good young center in the organization who has size, skill and shown flashes of a two-way game, while the team could or should have reason to believe youngsters like D’Amigo, Ashton and Broll among others can help fill out the bottom of the roster while contributing scoring, penalty killing, and general two-way hockey.
And all that leads to the second point Mitchell made that stood out, which was in response to my question about intangibles and how much the team should really care about them if the stats say a player is good (in relation to how much his scouts value things like taking hits or laying out to block shots). Mitchell noted that Phil Kessel, for instance, isn’t really needed to take hits or grind it out because that’s not his role or what he’s asked to do, and talked about the different components of putting together a 23-man roster, which speaks to how they are building this team.
We’ve spoken so much about how the team has different roles for different lines (which is very obvious; they don’t roll their lines by any means). What it means on a larger scale is that they don’t grade players evenly on a bottom line. They grade players based on where they would be playing and where they fit. That is logical and makes sense, but it can also get you into trouble.
The Clarkson signing was done in part to bring a different element to the team and diversify the line-up as a grinding guy. I suspect the reason why the Bolland negotiations are as tough as they are is because of how the Leafs value his spot in the line-up on the whole. Are good 3Cs really this big of a deal? No. But the Leafs value what Bolland does so much, almost independent of the big picture (at least to a degree). By that token, I don’t for a second think the Leafs seriously believe Colton Orr is a better hockey player than some of the players he plays over, but they value what he does strictly as an enforcer, so he plays. That’s why, when Clarkson was out, Bodie went from AHL to L3 while Orr was idle in his L4 spot. It’s how they build. Roles.
Interestingly enough, the Leafs have kind of shifted on their philosophies, with Claude Loiselle most recently stating fourth lines should contribute offensively and having Holland play 3C to give the Leafs more of a three-line scoring look. That is different than what the Leafs had set out at the beginning of the season, when the bottom two lines were more defensive, which Scott Gordon described to me over the summer (and some will say their hand has been forced due to injury, but the Leafs could easily justify just playing Kulemin-McClement as their bottom two centers if they wanted to).
What’s unclear is their plan on defense, where they have a top pairing soaking up all the tough match-ups and then a hodge-podge group of now-five defensemen rotating through and all doing various things. In actuality, Phaneuf is locked up, they have young kids full of potential in Gardiner and Rielly, and a group of guys we would all be easily willing to move for the right price (Gunnarsson being the only other guy you might hesitate on moving).
There will be cap room this summer. There will be players that need to be locked up (Gardiner, hopefully Kulemin, even Bolland at the right price would be nice), and there will be assets to move that hopefully can land the Leafs a difference-making defenseman. Whatever they use to grade players, whatever they think of the player’s role, the defense has to be improved for the next step to be taken, and the bottom of the roster has to be filled out a little more effectively than it currently is.
First thing’s first, though. There’s the playoffs to make.
- The Leafs and sustainability is always a hot-button topic, so I’m kind of surprised there hasn’t been more noise about the sustainability of running 11 forwards and seven D. Yes, it looks okay right now when Kessel, JVR, and sometimes Lupul go on to the fourth line for an extra shift and try to tilt a matchup in the Leafs favour, but when it’s the playoffs you’re playing every other night engaging in gruelling battles and those extra shifts are really going to add up in a hurry for some players already asked to do a tonne. Maybe someone has a better memory than me, but I can’t recall one team that’s run 11 and 7 in the playoffs and actually advanced. Perhaps the plan is to simply wait for Bolland to return and then sit a defenseman, but the longer this goes on the more you have to start asking if this ultimately help or hurt the Leafs advance in the playoffs and the long-run.
- Ranger has now played eight of nine games since the Break (didn’t play versus the Habs), seven of those games the team has gone with 11F and 7D in. Here is the average TOI of those games versus each defenseman’s average TOI for the season:
- Phaneuf – 22:37; season average: 24:06
- Gunnarsson – 20:01; season average: 19:51
- Gardiner – 18:00; season average: 20:57
- Franson – 16:54; season average: 20:58
- Rielly – 16:42; season average: 17:39
- Gleason – 15:37; season average: 18:14
- Ranger – 12:35; season average: 17:58
Gunnarsson is the only player who hasn’t seen a noticeable drop off in ice time. If these ice times continue, it means the Leafs probably see their defense the same way I do; they have two legit top four D-men followed by a jumbled mix. In this stretch of playing 7D, the Leafs haven’t had one defenseman not named Phaneuf or Gunnarsson play at least 20 minutes.
- Mike Babcock had this great interview where he spoke about how at this time of the year is about winning battles, that there’s no space at this time of year and that the ice is bad.
I was at the game on Saturday and ice was brutal, but where I really got a sense of that is on Lupul’s game winner, where Gunnarsson threw a perfect saucer pass to Phaneuf and yet Dion still struggled to receive it since it bounced up on the ice. Phaneuf threw a wobbly pass to Lupul, who fanned on the puck and still scored.
- I mentioned before how Phaneuf had 10 points in the 12 games leading up to the Leafs clinching a playoff spot. In the last little bit, not only did he help set up the OT winner, but he made a great play to gift Bozak a goal against Anaheim a few nights later.
- In the Philly game, there was one play where the Leafs chipped it out of their zone and Lupul was going to chase the Flyers defenseman regrouping at his own blue line, but he stopped and moved back to where he was supposed to be for the Leafs system (which Gus has noted before here). It was interesting to see the Leafs continuing to deploy this after the Columbus game. The Blue Jackets talked about how they changed their neutral zone attack, and Carlyle noted they were going D-to-D and up, which is really how you break this down. The whole point of the Leafs’ neutral zone attack is to flush their opponents to one side of the ice and squeeze them out; they are susceptible to getting beat East-West if the opponent executes smartly. Like any system, it has its positives and negatives.
- Against the Rangers, there was a play where Hagelin hit St. Louis backdoor and he had a seemingly open net yet lost the puck. It was an almost identical play to this:
Couldn’t help but think Bernier was in St. Louis’ head.
- Reid Mitchell brought up Connor Brown having a -72 rating the season the Leafs drafted him. I never thought the Leafs cared about +/- anyway, but it’s just further proof they don’t.
- Gardiner made a nice read against Anaheim where he tried to corner in the offensive zone similar to this, but he noticed one of maybe a handful of players in the league that can skate with him was on him in Andrew Cogliano, so dumped it deep instead. A lot of people question Gardiner’s hockey sense, but I think he’s getting better at reading the play and understanding what he can/can’t do.
- What’s also being mentioned is that the Leafs could dump Gardiner like they did Schenn, but here’s the difference: Schenn played four relatively full seasons with the Leafs for a total of 310 games played before being traded. Gardiner is basically in his second full season and has played almost half of that (152 games). There is a big difference between 310 NHL games played and 152. At the point the Leafs traded Schenn, it was pretty clear he was never going to be a stud (maybe he’d turn out to be solid, but it was hard to imagine him as a “stud”). With Gardiner it remains unclear. There just hasn’t been enough time. The heat he takes is sort of similar to when Grabovski had his great rookie season and followed it up with an up-and-down, injury-plagued second season. Really this is Gardiner’s second full season (he played 12 NHL regular season games last season). Grabovski responded the following season (his third) with a career-high 29 goals and 58 points.
- One interesting note surrounding the hoopla on the Leafs blowing leads is that they have an .893 win percentage when leading after two periods, which is good for eighth in the league ahead of noted powers San Jose, St. Louis and Chicago among others. No question the Leafs have a problem holding leads and that it’s an issue, but maybe it’s overblown a little bit (and I do realize a lot of those wins probably come through OT/SO).
- On one shift against the Flyers, with Philly hemming the Holland line in, Holland had a chance to easily get it out and he tried to skate it out instead, failing to and it leading to even more pressure. When he eventually got off the ice, Carlyle gave it to him on the bench, but to Carlyle’s credit Holland did not miss a shift. I have said this a lot here lately, but it’s always worth repeating: playing the kids is great, but you have to take your lumps in doing so. It’s not easy for coaches to just trot a guy back out like Holland after a mistake, but Carlyle is doing a better job of not burying these after they mess up and that’s a good thing.
- Holland has played five games since the Olympics, has no points and only 5 SOG. He has played well and his line has had some great cycling shifts, but eventually he has to produce in order to show management that he should still be playing when/if Bolland eventually returns. That’s just the reality.
- I thought this was hilarious and worth sharing. If you’ve seen Wolf on Wall Street or even if you haven’t, you probably know this scene and hum by now.
The Leafs came out to warm up on Saturday with that playing. Just awesome.
“The whole ankle structure has a ways to go. It’s all interconnected,” Thun said, “It’s not a day-to-day type of thing. He’s just not ready. There’s two things that need to take place: one is the healing process, and then he needs to get his strength up again.”
-Anton Thud, Dave Bolland’s agent.
I can’t read that and think Bolland is returning anytime soon. But maybe that’s just me.
“We think that it does two things. It gives our offensive players a little bit more ice-time. We try to spread Phil around a little bit more, try to get some more minutes for Clarkson and Lupul … And then it takes a little bit more load off of some our defencemen. If you get into a special teams game where you’ve got lots of power-play and penalty killing it chews some of the minutes there also.”
- Randy Carlyle, on playing 7 D.
I’ve shared my thoughts on the 11 and 7 thing above. Just wanted to show what the Leafs are thinking.
“We gave up two pretty quick ones and no one really played well.”
- Jake Gardiner after the game against the Sharks.
It looked to me like the Leafs made sure they took care of business against Anaheim and took the next night off. There’s no excuse for that, but if they are good to go against LA and pick up at least a point this would be a good West Coast swing.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think, with what the Leafs currently have, they are probably better going 11 and 7 than the conventional 12 and 6 even if they played Ashton instead of Orr. They don’t have many good defensemen and it’s probably best to spread them right out and limit all of their minutes than condense them and run a solid fourth line.
2 – I think the Leafs need to split up the D more. Against Anaheim, there was a 4v4 situation and the team went Gunnarsson-Phaneuf and Ranger-Rielly. Jake Gardiner sat on the bench. Gunnarsson-Phaneuf is a solid pairing, but they are not a Keith-Seabrook or anything all that special. And yet they seem set in stone. Long term, if Gardner and Rielly are both going to be on this team, one of them will have to play with Dion while the other leads the second pairing, so it’d be nice to get more looks at these two playing with Phaneuf, especially in 4v4 situations.
3 – As a reluctant as I’ve been to say this because the Leafs have had a good power play throughout the season, I think it’s time one of Gardiner or Rielly plays with Phaneuf on the top unit while the other plays with Franson on the second unit. They are getting burned repeatedly, Phaneuf-Franson has no speed, and they aren’t producing or even gaining the zone. At this point, it’s not even a case of panicking. It’s shaking it up to try and spark results. I also think Gardiner needs to play the left while Phaneuf plays the right; against SJ and Boston, Gardiner got PP1 time and was on the right side both times even though Phaneuf is the one with the big shot. Let Gardiner walk the line.
4 – I think this team needs more of an emphasis on gaining the zone by skating it in than what they’ve been doing. Against the Sharks, I counted at least four times where JVR crossed center ice, dumped cross ice to Phil’s side, and the Sharks just broke out cleanly. How realistic is it that Kessel is going to create that turnover? It has to be low. The same story unfolded against the Flyers, where the Leafs went up and then started chipping and chasing from the second period onward. There is a time and place for dumping and chasing, and it can be effective, but this is a skating team with skill.
5 – I think Ashton needs to get into a game. I don’t know if they are ruining him with what they are doing, but they certainly aren’t helping him do anything but collect an NHL paycheck. The kid needs to play whether it be in the AHL or NHL, but taking him on this trip and not mixing him in at all would just be strange. There’s a perfect opportunity to shake things up a bit and play him tonight after getting spanked by the Sharks. He has the first rounder pedigree, he’s 6’3, can cycle, and has lit up the AHL this season. Don’t waste it by doing nothing with him but have him watch games in the press box and eat popcorn.