Bear with me and read through this. I know it is a topic that has been beaten to death, but I would like to add another perspective.
Some of you have probably noticed that my Twitter feed and recent postings have had some form of hockey analytics mentioned. A part of that reason is that I wanted to share a different perspective on my feed as well as chronicling my growing interest in the puck possession trend. But the main reason is because I have finally filtered out the negative personalities behind some of the metrics and focused more on the measures being used.
It is no secret that at the puck possession level, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a frustrating example of a team that rope-a-dopes throughout the game, often spending too much time in their own end trying to regain the puck rather than actually producing offense. Which is kind of the conundrum – the Leafs are an offensive powerhouse, having finished 10th and 6th overall in goals per game in the last two seasons, without actually putting a lot of pucks on net and being soundly outshout almost every game.
Hockey doesn’t really glorify statistics the way football and baseball do. The sport idealizes certain numbers like 50 in 50 or the hat-trick, but until recently, hockey hasn’t really found a way to measure time of possession. I remember when I played the EA’s NHL series on the XBox 360, there would be a post-game analysis that showed exactly how long I had the puck. I always found that number fascinating because I would often get frustrated by how often I DID NOT have the puck. Which is part of the grand theme here – I wanted to improve my possession time because it meant that I was getting better at the game and that the opposition would have less of a chance of scoring those stupid goals I stood no chance of defending.
The discussion and analysis of possession isn’t exactly new to hockey vernacular either. Many of you know of the Edmonton Oilers’ 1980s dominance – a lot of ink was used to describe their game, often referring to their ability to possess the puck for minutes on end, frustrating their opponents. As hockey expanded into the 1990s, the Detroit Red Wings took over as the league’s most dominant hockey team – their puck possession was often highlighted as one of the core reasons for their success.
In fact, going back to 2003, well before the advent of Corsi and Fenwick, I found an article that aptly explains just how the Red Wing teams dominated their opponents:
At a time when defenses still are strangling offenses on a daily basis, the Red Wings are playing an Edmonton Oilers, circa 1980s, puck possession style of game. Although time of possession is not an NHL statistic, the Red Wings are presumed to be the league leader. They fly with the puck about the ice, back and forth, like they are doing yo-yo tricks.
“It’s an awful difficult game to play, and here we have four lines who can play the same way,” Schneider says. “You don’t have two lines who can do it and two others who just fire it in and try to get it back.”
Schneider says Los Angeles coach Andy Murray “was as open a coach as anyone” in terms of wanting his defensemen to jump into the offensive flow. However, since joining the Red Wings, Schneider is carrying the puck more now than he ever did. Detroit general manager Ken Holland says the team’s puck possession really dates to 1996, when coach Scotty Bowman pushed for and acquired Slava Fetisov and Larionov and put together the Russian Five that also included Vladimir Konstantinov, Fedorov and Slava Kozlov.
“I think the rest of our guys practiced with these guys and watched these guys hang onto the puck and hang onto the puck, and pretty soon even our checkers got to the point where they could cycle the puck and hang onto it,” Holland says. “That’s just our game … a lot of guys have been playing it since 1996.”
You see, hockey isn’t just about scoring goals. It’s about preventing them too. Owning the puck is one of many ways to prevent goals, and quite possibly the best way to do so. When you have the puck, the other team cannot score. Just as much as I love watching a Leafs player stiff arm his opponent trying to drive through the boards, I love to see my own team take advantage of their puck skills to play keep-away or make a pretty pass.
Of course, that’s not all. Now that Corsi has had several years to accumulate data and tweak its statistical merits, there’s more statistical development coming along. @mc79hockey actually went through a lot of trouble to find a way to quantify the value of a faceoff by using the time after a faceoff to determine a winning or losing influence on a shot attempt. A happy coincidence because we happen to have a pretty polarizing centre playing on the first line in Tyler Bozak. The link above positively quantifies Bozak’s faceoff value, but of course, it would be nice to have him finish off a brilliant Phil Kessel pass more often than not.
Coincidentally, I was reading up on faceoffs a while ago and found an article from 2002 that I have been saving specifically for a post like this one. This article goes into great detail of using Yanic Perreault as an example of the value of faceoffs. At the very least, faceoffs are a valuable commodity – something that Bozak should be getting more credit for, especially given the scarcity of the Leafs offensive zone faceoffs in recent seasons.
In addition, there’s another metric being tracked called zone entry. This is actually a fascinating question and answer session from Eric T. of Broadstreet Hockey detailing the many benefits of tracking zone entries:
• How involved is he in gaining the zone: if the team enters the zone with him on the ice, what are the odds he’s the one sending it in?
• How successful is he at gaining the zone: when he brings the puck in, how often does he carry it to possession rather than dump and chase?
• How good is he with the puck in the offensive zone: when he carries the puck in, how many shots does the team get?
• How good is he off the puck in the neutral zone: what is the team’s carry-in percentage when he’s on the ice?
• How good is he off the puck in the offensive zone: how many shots per carry-in does the team get when he’s on the ice?
• How good is he at puck retrieval: how many shots per dump-in does the team get when he’s on the ice?
• How good is his neutral zone defense: what is the opponent’s carry-in percentage when he’s on the ice?
• How good is his defensive zone defense: how many shots per carry-in do the opponents get when he’s on the ice?
Overall, the main point of this article is that as much as we love to hate those who run around on social media insulting anyone who disagrees with their approach, there’s a lot to like and a lot to gain from having a statistical outlook on the sport’s possession influence. I am not trying to convert anyone here. But I do want to see people become more open-minded about the real promise possession proxies have in hockey – there is no disadvantage in following the evolution of statistics in sports. However, I do understand where @Burtonboy12 was coming from when he said he just wants to be able to watch hockey without drowning the entertainment in numbers that don’t always reflect the outcome.
On Morgan Rielly:
Yesterday, we got an article from Pierre Lebrun that quoted a Western scout suggesting that he had nothing more than second pairing upside. Not so fast, Mr. Vancouver scout. Rielly’s performance last night showed exactly why he was drafted fifth overall.
Once Rielly got the first period nerves out of the way, when he had the puck on his stick, he was making more positive things happen than negative ones. There was one play in the second period where he had two forecheckers barreling towards him on the left side of the boards, little time to make a play, and actually fired a precise pass to a breaking Leafs forward across the ice that resulted in an odd-man rush. The breakout skill is badly needed on this team.
In addition, we saw at least three breakouts on Rielly’s part that all resulted in a scoring chance. He gained the zone with ease and highlighted promising distribution ability on the point. I think he’s here to stay. It’s only been one game, but if the offense is at the NHL level, the only way Rielly will learn defense at the NHL level is to stay with the team.
Great win last night. Here’s hoping the boys go for four in a row on Tuesday.
First off, can I just say how excited I am about this coming season? Last year, I predicted that the Leafs would be a lottery team. I can only think of a handful of times I was happier to be wrong. In many ways, the 2013 Leafs finally defined the four tenets of Brian Burke’s promise – truculence, pugnacity, belligerence, and testosterone. There are few things more gratifying as a fan than to be able to puff out your chest the day after a win and say, this is my team.
A shortened season may have saved the Toronto Maple Leafs’ from the much touted ‘regression’ theorized on social media, but they did make the playoffs – and by doing so, ended the embarrassing drought of eight seasons without a post season appearance. A lot has been made of the reasons for the Leafs success last year, with much of those accolades going to James Reimer for his brilliant regular season performance, but there were some concerns of whether the Leafs’ defense could be credited for any of the team’s improvements.
In this post, I will explore the Leafs’ defensive roster, last year’s performance, and the expectations going forward. Warning: I will be using fancy stats. I realize that I can be critical towards those using Corsi and Fenwick as their dominant analysis, but much of my criticism has to do with context.
The Leafs opened the season without one of their promising mainstays from the year prior – Jake Gardiner. A concussion sustained prior to the end of the lockout forced Gardiner into an uphill battle to recovery that he would not overcome until much later leading into the playoffs. In addition, Mike Komisarek continued to underwhelm and was later sent down to the Toronto Marlies. The defense also featured several unknowns including Mike Kostka, Mark Fraser, and Carl Gunnarsson’s hip. Overall, the defense struggled with a combination of inexperience, injuries, rookies, and a new defensive system that advanced the puck pressure in the Leafs’ zone, but hurt the team’s ability to break out in the process.
Let’s start with the negatives to get them out of the way.
First off, the Leafs were thoroughly outshot last season. Further, let’s cut to the absolute truth – being outshot is usually a bad thing. I think when the argument between shot quality and shot quantity arises, the disconnect is that lowering scoring chances and shots are a necessary component of defense – something that the Leafs struggled badly at over the last several years, bad goaltending aside. It’s probably a chicken and egg problem – does limiting scoring chances lead to lowering shots, or does limiting shots lower scoring chances? Since I have not seen much work done on that theory, let’s move on.
The Leafs were historically bad with the shot differential. It was posited that historically, the team would be hard pressed to be even worse than they were last year. Since 2008, only one team gave up more shots per game than the 2013 Leafs – the 2008-09 Florida Panthers. Curiously, the Leafs were also bottom four in shots for – another wrinkle in the shots differential debate. Since 2008, the 2013 Leafs were 15th from the bottom for shots for.
If it sounds like I am being negative, it’s because I want to make sure I am offering fair and impartial analysis. I dislike beating a dead horse as much as anyone, but sometimes, the statistical issues raised have merits beyond the contextual beliefs we should also be adhering to. Historically, the shot differential was bad enough that the Leafs were (and I eye-balled this quickly) 5th from the being the worst team in shot differential since 2008.
The initial regular pairings were difficult to understand – starting Mike Kostka on the top-pairing with Dion Phaneuf was a season-long source of concern for many in Leafs Nation. While Kostka did admirably against the competition he faced with Phaneuf, he was consistently outmatched and struggled to move the puck. Oddly enough, Kostka’s Corsi Rel was surprisingly just above average – his Corsi On was also second on the team. A further look suggests that Kostka was on the ice more for offensive opportunities with the Kessel line, which explains some of the shot differential discrepancies.
Then we have Korbinian Holzer. I am hesitant to place complete blame on the player for his awful performance given that he was a rookie, playing extremely difficult minutes, and the alternative option to Kostka, given that Cody Franson was already providing the offense on the sheltered pairing. Further, Holzer’s statistical outputs were appalling. If shot differential is, at the very least an inferred proxy for possession, then Holzer’s entire season was one spent almost entirely without the puck. Holzer’s quality of competition was roughly third on the Leafs. But his Corsi Rel was an absurdly bad -24.2 (which is the statistical determination of how he performed on the ice vs. the team performance when he was off the ice). Putting in more layman terms, the Leafs were an infinitely better team when Holzer was off the ice. In fact, when I looked at Corsi Rel throughout the rest of the league’s defensemen who have played 20 games or more, Holzer was last. To say that Holzer was awful this season wouldn’t be critical enough.
Let’s add some positive context here. I have often felt that Holzer was forced into a difficult situation due to the organization’s need to add a physical element to Phaneuf’s right and to buy time for Gardiner’s recovery, who was slowly coming into form with the Toronto Marlies. If I am correct, Holzer was the sacrificial lamb to the league’s best so that Gardiner could develop and recover to management’s expectations. Whether this is a reasonable presumption, I don’t know.
Other disappointing features on the defense would be J.M. Liles, Komisarek, and Gardiner’s slow recovery, which I documented here.
MLHS has expended a lot of effort of going over the positive things that have happened last year, so I will be brief here.
In a weird way, the Leafs’ unsteady rise to the playoffs parallels closely to the fan-base’s growing recognition of Phaneuf’s value to the Leafs. Not only did Phaneuf provide the shutdown defense needed to keep his team in the game, but his offense was top-ten among defensemen in the NHL. If you need further context for how good Phaneuf was last season, check out @MLHS_Mike’s Phaneuf for Norris post.
Quick recap: Phaneuf produced at a rate providing top-ten offense league-wide, facing the most difficult quality of competition among defensemen in the NHL, and carrying the burden of covering for the mistakes of Kostka and Holzer.
Without Phaneuf, the Leafs might have been a lottery team.
In addition, Cody Franson was a surprising positive. Two seasons ago, Franson struggled to acclimate to the team speed, often incurring the wrath of Ron Wilson. Typically, the knock against Franson was his below average defense, unwilling to use his gifted physical attributes, and his inability to quickly box out players below the goal line. Last season, not only did Franson finally start utilizing his size in the defensive zone, he finally broke out in the other end finishing with 29 points in 45 games – good enough for 8th overall among defensemen. While currently on a holdout, there’s a lot of untapped upside here – re-signing Franson is paramount to the Leafs success on special teams going forward.
Mark Fraser also surprised with his team commitment and work on the penalty kill. Overall, while the season was full of positive notes, the Leafs defense was a pretty good microcosm of the divide in Leafs Nation.
So the last season summary that was longer than intended; it’s time to look at the expectations the Leafs defense might have.
I thought I would start by plagiarizing Petrielli’s line by line format for the defense. I will write with the expectation that Franson will re-sign with the Leafs though. As tedious as the process is for both player and team, it’s just as frustrating for the fans because we all want the best players playing on the ice.
First Pairing: Phaneuf – Gunnarsson
One unique twist to the growth of analytics is that they provide far more depth to their statistical charts. A good example of this is David Johnson’s website at www.stats.hockeyanalysis.com – we can pull data from Johnson’s site to see how the Leafs performed when Phaneuf and Gunnarsson were a pairing.
In a way, the Phaneuf – Gunnarsson pairing is actually a nice microcosm that explains the disconnect between tradition viewing and analytics – the results show what happened, but the question unanswered is why the results are what they are.
I wanted to focus on Phaneuf here because he’s the anchor of the Leafs defense and the team’s best defenseman. Starting with this chart we will focus on some of the glaring obstacles between traditional viewing and analytics. Note that you can chart the data using a graph – which makes the data easier to read.
The graph shows Phaneuf’s 2013 GF% season data and then compares his performance when paired with a certain player. Here, we have a pretty significant gap between Gunnarsson vs. Holzer and Kostka – the GF% of 68% indicates that when Phaneuf is paired with Gunnarsson, the Leafs scored at a rate of over 2 goals for to less than 1 against. Conversely, when Phaneuf is paired with Kostka or Holzer, the Leafs are scoring at a rate of less than 1 goal for to more than 2 goals against.
But Phaneuf’s overall Corsi For % (CF%) was absolutely brutal. That little number, that 41.9%, is one of the major reasons why so many online supporters of hockey analytics are critical of the Leafs – the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that Carlyle’s hockey decisions were running contrary to hockey trends. For 2013, Phaneuf’s CF% was not better with Gunnarsson; in fact, they were worse.
Going off course for a moment here, I want to explain why I was looking CF% — and analytics as a whole. During the summer, I got into an argument with someone who had the scoring chance data from the Leafs’ 2013 season – rather than share the data, he decided that it wasn’t noteworthy after spending the entire season publishing it.
Yet the Leafs defied that correlation with a scoring chance differential that conflicted with the shots differential data he had. While scoring chances and shots differential have been shown to be statistically linear (or very close to it), there’s also quite a bit of evidence that the Leafs season was also an outlier in that the measures of their negative possession would unlikely be duplicated.
Corsi and Fenwick are unique in that they don’t really track anything significant by individual shots – but taken as a whole, we’re able to get a good outline of the player and team’s performance in a specific situation against a specific player with a specific line-mate and so on and so forth. So while shots differential can be an excellent substitution, if not a replacement, for the eyes, so can scoring chance data. If the sample size of scoring chance to shot ratio is significant enough to draw a correlation between the two, then it is reasonable to assume that going further into the data would show that the variance of scoring chance data from player to player is likely a lot wider and provides ample player to player context. Certain players like Zdeno Chara can play defense at a high level, and they likely affect scoring chances in a positive way.
Unfortunately, I don’t have that data and I will likely never get it. Which is why I’m using CF% — it’s not perfect, but at least it gives me one side of the argument rather than nothing at all.
I will drop these two links for people to view on their own time.
The correlation of shot quality and quantity – shows a strong connection with Corsi and Fenwick
On-Ice Shooting Percentage – is it sustainable?
Does the Phaneuf – Gunnarsson pairing work even though their possession numbers were awful together last season?
The many issues were the difficulties in adjusting to a new system that not only took away a break out option, but required excessive communication between three players (D – C – D) rather than two. The system isn’t an easy one to master either – three players around the net or below the goal-line can be a confusing mess, especially when the puck isn’t on your stick. Having no lasting control of the puck around the net or below the goal-line limits the number of retrieval solutions and clogs the avenues a player can reach – which means the wingers have to stagger around the boards and near the points instead of being able to take off for a break out pass, which highlights the issue with shots against – less time to break out means less shots taken.
It’s a classic case of cause and effect.
More narrowly, I like to think the inexperience of Phaneuf’s partners and the forward group’s slow grasp of the system was to blame for the Leafs’ difficulty in retrieving the puck and moving it forward. Phaneuf’s best possession numbers with the Leafs have been predominantly with Gunnarsson: In the seasons previous to last, the Phaneuf and Gunnarsson pairing carried a reasonable CF% of 49.2%, 50%, and 54.9%.
This is a strong pairing. In the case of Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, there’s no real disconnect between traditional viewing and analytics – everyone can see that Phaneuf and Gunnarsson are a strong first-pairing and they have the offensive numbers and a history of decent shot differential averages to back it up. Going forward, we should expect a small regression as far as offensive totals per game goes, but we can expect a minor to substantial improvement for possession numbers from this pairing.
Second Pairing: Gardiner – Franson
This pairing is probably the only surprise of this post. I loved what I saw in the playoffs from both Gardiner and Franson. It was a surprise to everyone that watched the first round how dominant the Gardiner and Franson pairing was. And against the Boston Bruins no less.
Small sample sizes aside, hockey fans know that Gardiner’s skating is not of this Earth. His ability to skate himself out of danger and control the puck at high speeds are breathtaking. You might recall several instances in the playoffs where Gardiner decided to giddy up and throw on the afterburners, flying past the neutral zone traps the Bruins laid out for him, and creating a torrent of scoring chances.
Then we have Franson’s immense size and tremendous offensive abilities from the blue-line in. A wicked short shot, brilliant play-making potential, and an ability to control the point like no one else that plays the Leafs’ man advantage.
The surprising thing about this pairing isn’t that they were successful in the playoffs, but that we actually have more than 250 minutes of the two playing together back in 2011-12. That sample size isn’t exactly insignificant.
While the GF% was an excellent 57.7%, it was the CF% that surprised me given that Franson’s 2011-12 season was already pretty decent at 51.3% — the pairing worked together for a CF% of 53.6%. Turning that the data around on Gardiner’s 2011-12 season, he carried a CF% of 49.9%.
The pairing seems synergetic from a scouting standpoint too; immensely talented and fast Gardiner with Franson’s growing physical snarl and offensive precision. Defensively, they seem to have the potential to tighten their defensive coverage, but of course, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sheltered from difficult match-ups in order to best utilize their offensive tools.
Last season, I spoke often of Gardiner’s issues; whether it was in regards to Carlyle’s decision to sit him or the resulting fallout on social media. On one hand, there’s physical video evidence showing the many mistakes Gardiner made on his way out of the dog house. On the other hand, we have hours of Gardiner’s ability to skate himself out of trouble and create a chance. The best way to reconcile these two conflicting cases of both statistical theory and video evidence is to watch the results of Gardiner’s dominant play vs. his performance during the season – they aren’t remotely the same. To me, the issue lies not in the mistakes, but the interpretation of whether the statistical evidence that supports Gardiner’s ‘actual’ performance lines up with what we’re watching.
Last season, Gardiner ‘regressed’ against significant weaker competition. I paraphrased regressed because the numbers weren’t significantly different. And that’s the issue – Gardiner struggled to take a step forward. He was supposed to take a step forward. Sure, the coaching decision to sit him might not have helped, but we can’t ignore the mistakes, or the well-documented concussion he sustained prior to training camp. Nor can fans ignore the fact that he was left in the minors because he needed to get his timing back – it didn’t come back for quite some time, even after he was promoted.
To me, Gardiner represents the dividing line of glorifying aesthetically pleasing players vs. the ugly work that’s needed to support it. If Gardiner pulls his game together, there’s no real challenge that the second pairing can’t overcome.
Third Pairing: Fraser – Ranger
The life of a third-pairing is generally this:
a) You’re expected to not screw up;
b) You’re not going to be paid well relative to the rest of the league;
c) You’re expected to do the dirty work necessary to make life miserable for the opposition;
d) You’re probably going to bleed;
e) Make them bleed anyway;
f) Don’t screw up.
Fraser and Ranger provide both experience, toughness, and the smarts necessary on a third pairing. Technically, you might see some teams throw their rookies into the mix here, but not the Leafs – not unless Morgan Rielly proves to be ready. For the Leafs, they need stability, consistency, and mistake-free hockey from their third pairing so their top four can take risks and make mistakes that stems from those offensive risks they need to take.
Let’s talk about Fraser for a moment here. Fraser is a pretty decent third pairing option. He’s not flashy and has no measurable offensive talent, but he is a great representation of being a serviceable player who doesn’t really hurt your hockey team while providing both on-ice protection and toughness. This is the kind of player everyone can get behind – even the grumpy mathemagicians. Fraser embodies the dividing line between a hockey player and a ‘pure’ fighter.
Fraser had a remarkable season last year. In a way, he defied the expectations of his career and produced a season of proficient penalty killing and yeoman work on even-strength. I found it kind of funny that he ‘out produced’ Phaneuf in all notable categories, including goals for per 20, goals against per 20, and CF%. Of course, the context lies in two parts – one, he was paired with Franson, and two, he was facing pretty weak quality of competition. It is a unique quirk, but one already fleshed out quite a bit over on the Leafs Nation and Pension Plan Puppets.
On the other hand, Ranger is a much more difficult player to figure out. I caught a pretty good tweet from @schocker17 which encapsulates the growing excitement fans have for Ranger.
Ranger never really left. He never regressed. He never seriously hurt himself nor struggled with the rehabilitation process. He just dropped what he was doing, had his existential crisis, stayed in touch with the game from a distance, and quietly came back. Cam Barker, Ranger is not.
Steve Burtch from Pension Plan Puppets has building a case for his Shutdown Index (SDI) and has made several subtle references of his excitement for Ranger’s impact. I can’t find the section, but it was inferred that over the last several years, Ranger’s SDI score would rank him in the top-five had the minimum minutes needed to join the list been lowered to around 2,500 (another interesting tidbit is that Franson ranks very highly on this metric). Basically, if the metric is an accurate measure of a good shutdown defenseman, then Ranger will be the most significant addition to the Leafs’ defensive corp.
For the record, Burtch’s SDI work is really interesting. You should check it out sometime – Part 1 and Part 2.
Overall, the combined pairing shouldn’t be expected to score much, nor expected to see a lot of time against difficult competition, but they will be expected to make life difficult for the opposition. Penalty kill work will be a significant chunk of their duties, but we can also expect to see Ranger moved up a pairing and onto the power-play if he transitions seamlessly back into the league.
The Rest: Rielly, Liles, Holzer
I have made it known that I think Liles is as good as gone. He no longer fits in the top four and his defensive game is pretty poor. Last season, he produced at a CF% of 44.8% and a GF% of 47.1%, which is pretty disappointing for someone expected to produce, especially against weak competition. Another wrinkle is the concussion he sustained when Paul Gaustad caught him with his head down – the concussion parallels sharply with Tomas Kaberle who never was the same player after the head shot he sustained from Cam Janssen. If there’s potential for Liles improve, I don’t see it.
As I have already explained my dislike for Holzer, I don’t think I need to emphasize too much of my expectations for him. I think he is sent down to the Marlies, which the odd call-up here or there in event of an injury. In addition, I also expect him to be moved during the season; he no longer fits the team’s need for a quiet upgrade on the third-pairing. The Leafs already have Fraser and Ranger in the third pairing and the downside of playing Holzer isn’t really worth the risk of exploring the upside here.
However, Rielly will have a lot of ink spilled at his expense, with many writers, bloggers, and fans wondering what the best course of action is for his development. Already 6’1 and an athletic 205lbs, Rielly brings in a mix of good size, incredible skating ability and an unlimited array of offensive trickery from the back-end. Aside from the contemporary skill-set Rielly brings, he’s also a cheap alternative to Franson, providing the holdout lasts beyond training camp. Rielly is caught in a numbers game though; if Franson returns, the odds are against Rielly making the team. There’s no cap space and he would not get the minutes he would need to develop.
Other potential call-ups might be Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, and maybe Petter Granberg. I don’t want to spend any time on a long-shot because given their total NHL experience of no games played, it’s a little difficult to expect anything more than a cursory call-up for a show-me or an injury replacement.
As a rule, I try to temper my expectations going into the season. On the other hand, there were signs of huge steps taken by the defense during the playoffs. Of course, a sample size of seven games should never be used as a bargaining tool to confirm personal biases, but it is worth noting that the defense played to a role that has long been expected of them given their collective skillset.
A healthy roster, especially with Gunnarsson’s recovery from whatever hip issue ailed him last season, is a good omen for a team looking to improve on its defensive coverage and breakout proficiency. In addition, the growth of Franson and Gardiner, the return of Ranger, and the developing steadiness of Phaneuf’s two-way game should be a contributing factor. Moreover, understanding the nuances of the defensive system in place should resolve difficult situations – that same defensive coverage will improve if the forwards are more aware of their break out angling and board coverage.
I think this is a team ready to become playoffs regulars. Whether they take the next step to become contenders depends entirely on the defense being up to the task of using their impressive versatility to suppress shots against and scoring chances. I don’t think a duplication of last year’s shots differential is reasonable to expect.
This is a defense on the rise and there is more help coming.
So I wanted to try and bridge the many events of the Leafs off-season into a giant post – unfortunately, after I get one of the topics off my chest, I am probably going to wing this (sorry Alec). I haven’t had the time to really break down my own thoughts because my summer has been all about being as lazy as I could possibly be – I’m a little surprised that I haven’t gone a day without taking a shower yet. So I hope everyone is enjoying their summer, getting sun, and trying out new beer.
Scoring Chances, Being a Douchebag, and Circle Jerkin’
At the end of the Leafs season, there were some questions about the path management would take to improve the possession weakness that had plagued the organization all season long. By any metric available to the public, the Leafs were soundly out-shot, out-possessed – this is indisputable by shots taken, shots attempted, and in the recorded cases, puck possession time.
In perhaps one of the greatest hockey interviews ever by our own Alec Brownscombe, Leafs assistant coach Greg Cronin declared that he did not believe that the team was out-possessed at all. Skepticism aside, it did give the fan-base some clue of what the team tracked as far possession was concerned – scoring chances. I took a quick look at Cam Charron’s scoring chance work throughout the season, but couldn’t find anything beyond 36 games. But at the 36 game mark, the Leafs did actually out-chance their opponents 474-469. Edit: I erred on my interpretation of these numbers — the original included special teams. The actual numbers available to us are 392 against and 355 for on even-strength. However, this isn’t the chasm inferred via shots total against. But it does leave me wondering what Cam’s final scoring chance counter was.
The Leafs out-chancing the opposition doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But it does give credence that the coaching staff actually knows what they want out of their line-up, how to get it, and what they are tracking. Oddly enough, the narrative that Carlyle and Co. don’t have a clue what they are doing come from the lowest denominator of an internet arm-chair general manager from that other place. You might get a good look here and wonder why SkinnyPPPhish has difficulties understanding that Ben Scrivens’ save percentage was well below the league average from 10 and 20 feet out while improving as the shots were pushed out. This was repeatedly pointed out, but I guess this is a last resort to draw attention to less circle-jerkin’ in a comment section and more open-mindedness about the devil in the details.
And by the way, James Reimer was above the league average for save percentage in the 10 and 20 feet distances, which kind of busts the myth the goals given up were a little high. In fact, if you consider the shots given up with Reimer in net in the 10 and 20 feet area of the ice, he was slightly below the league average of roughly 6.974 shots per game – he took 6.94 whereas Scrivens took 5.5 per game and gave up 20 goals. So the evidence clearly points to Scrivens being less than stellar with handling scoring chances while Reimer was significantly above league average.
Now, I wanted to actually find out what exactly the scoring chances were against Reimer and Scrivens. Thanks to Greg Sinclair, I went to check www.somekindofninja.com to check out the scoring chance data we have available. As some of you know, the blogging community has explored the scoring chance data by using a home-plate area of the ice just in front of the net. Sinclair’s site has added the home-plate area search feature to our benefit:
James Reimer: 34 goals, 262 shots: .870%
Ben Scrivens: 25 goals, 128 shots: .805%
At this point, I think we can quickly bust whatever point SkinnyPPPhish was trying to make with his super fancy stats, pie charts and tables, general douchebaggery, and move on with our lives. Scriven’s scoring chance performance at even strength was abysmal – his performance is likely why the Leafs went ahead to acquire Jonathan Bernier (as well as insurance against a Reimer injury). While it’s not entirely fair to throw the Leafs’ short-comings at one player’s feet, Scrivens did have a rough season.
If a skeptic wants my data, I can provide the excel spreadsheet via email – just tweet or DM me on Twitter and I’ll fire off the attachment.
All told, I am going to undertake a project on my own to track scoring chances this coming season. Just for the Leafs and their opponents – I’m going to also try and locate who was on the ice at the time of the scoring chance and see where it takes me. Here’s a great refresher on the definition of a scoring chance.
I will get into more details once I have it mapped out for the season.
The re-signing of Tyler Bozak is extremely questionable to me. On one hand, it is so goddamn tiring to have mediocre centre options on the first line. I want a bona-fide number one centre who can dish the puck, shoot the puck, and make life a living hell for opponents with Kessel and van Reimsdyk flying down the wing playing shotgun. Bozak is nothing close to creative or even a good possession player – but he does defend with good effort and the face-offs do have some value to the line. I do hope that he can continue refining and expanding his game, but he’s going to have to be a little more selfish about shooting when he has the opportunity to.
Bozak’s contract is listed at 5-years / $22,000,000. On the surface, it’s terrible. Long-term, I don’t anticipate an issue. James Mirte did some conservative research on the rising cap. While the numbers are low, it’s entirely possible that within a few years, Bozak’s contract would fall into the middle or lower-tiers of a second line centre – perhaps even a third-liner. Whatever the future may be, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the horrid contract some have purported it to be.
Conversely, the Clarkson signing is extremely intriguing and very worrying. The Leafs were already dealing with a bevy of talent on the wing, but adding Clarkson to the mix only makes them even more versatile. The Leafs can bring a speed game, a skill game, or a physical game. And it’s nice to have a player who can play hockey and throw down with some fists.
However, 7-years / $36,500,000 for a power-forward who will soon be on the downswing of his production is just too much. There’s some hope that he can sustain some sort of productivity in the later stages of his contract, but it appears to be a three or four year investment. My big hope is that Clarkson brings the possession game that many on social media have demanded – at the very least, the Leafs might not win a game next year, but at least their Corsi and Fenwicks are positive and we can all pat ourselves on each other’s backs and say, “We did It, guys! We have positive Corsi!”
For the record, I am really pleased with Carl Gunnarsson’s re-signing and the contract. A very underrated player and I hope his hip issues are behind him. As for Paul Ranger, whatever personal issues have plagued him in the last four years, I hope he’s ready and committed to helping shore up the team’s defense.
The Leafs have some three remaining RFAs to re-sign. Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, and Mark Fraser are the three. I’m actually not that concerned about Nonis and Co.’s ability to re-sign all three since I anticipate that J.M. Liles will be traded anyway – but if Franson or Kadri are traded, all bets are off. My guess is that Fraser will be awarded less than 1M, Franson 3.1M, and Kadri 3.5M – all will be given a bridge contract.
I have a lot of faith in Kadri’s abilities and I hope that his ceiling comes sooner rather than later – the team needs his skill on the first line and I hope he’s up to the task.
More stuff coming later – someone will add links to the post. I’m off for a week. I will try and get more content up when I get back. Enjoy your weekend!
Lupul misses the Canadian Men’s Olympic hockey try-out — aims to improve