Two of the longer term concerns entering the 2013-14 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs were the contract statuses of their star players Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. GM Dave Nonis made good on Kessel’s desire to negotiate before the season, and now the Leafs leading scorer will be in the fold until 2022. Having taken care of the time sensitive work, now Nonis’ sights will be set on re-signing the Leafs captain to a long term deal. But what’s it going to cost? Let’s take a look.
For his part, Phaneuf has said he’s open to negotiating a new deal midseason, having done so in Calgary back in 2008. And why not? The Flames overpaid to lock up a young, budding star defender that had already reached the 20-goal and 60-point plateau by the age of 23. He’s never managed to repeat either feat since, and was shipped to Toronto two years later as a high-priced disappointment. Since coming to Toronto, he’s lost and re-found some measure of his scoring touch, while regularly lining up in the toughest defensive assignments. His role has changed, the cap has risen, the rules have changed, but his paycheque has remained static since then.
To look at what Phaneuf should get, I looked into the last four seasons of data on defensemen (2009-10 through 2012-13). Amusingly, these happen to be the four worst years of Phaneuf’s career from a statistical standpoint, but probably better reflect his scoring output as the seasons roll on. Yes, in an eight-year career, two Phaneuf’s worst individual seasons saw him feature 10th and 12th in league scoring among defenders. So please understand that I used the word ‘worst’ in a relative sense here.
In 277 games over the last four seasons, Phaneuf ranks 23rd in points scored with 134, good for .48 points per game. More impressively, he ranks 8th in goals (41), power play goals (18) and time on ice (6916 minutes). It is in that last category where there’s some interesting salary correlations, as six of the seven players ahead of him in TOI over the last four seasons also have higher cap hits (Weber, Chara, Bouwmeester, Doughty, Suter and Boyle). Only Duncan Keith, signed to a phony 13-year, $72-million deal that pays just 5% of his total salary over his final two seasons, has a lower annual cap hit and has played more hockey than Phaneuf.
Now, ice time is hardly a perfect measure of Phaneuf’s worth, and I think most would agree that at least five of the seven players ahead of Phaneuf on that list are better defensemen than the Leafs captain. But what we can extrapolate is that is that defensemen who play as much as Phaneuf does tend to get paid as much as Phaneuf does. They also tend to have both a leadership role and a ‘play in all situations’ role with their club, much like Phaneuf does. So while I’d be hesitant to say that Phaneuf is the league’s 8th best defenseman, he’s certainly in the top 20.
But one of the greatest difficulties in projecting Phaneuf’s future cap hit is understanding the vast shift in his playing style since coming to Toronto. As alluded to above, he has been tasked with defensive zone starts and top lines every shift he’s skated in Toronto. In his early days, Phaneuf saw over 5 minutes a night on the power play, and was given sheltered minutes at even strength. This season, Phaneuf finds himself in an elite pair of defenders (the other being Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson) who average at least 3:30 in ice time on both the penalty kill and power play per game while facing the league’s best forwards.
At this point, I’d like to remind Leafs fans of Phaneuf’s idol and potential career model, Scott Stevens. While known for punishing hits and staunch defensive play for the New Jersey Devils, it’s sometimes hard to remember that he was once a pure scorer. While never among the ranks of Larry Murphy or Paul Coffey offensively, Stevens still tallied 900 points in his career. His best season was 1993-94 when he finished with 78 points. Then came the first of Gary Bettman’s lockouts and a new game format that encouraged stifling defensive play. In 10 more seasons, Stevens would only crack 30 points once more, yet he became the most notable defensive presence of the “Dead Puck Era.”
Similarly for Phaneuf, the offensive dynamism that made him rich seems to have been replaced by defensive prowess. It’s not that Phaneuf has lost that offensive side to his game, it’s that his role and usage limit his overall number of offensive chances for in favour of limiting offensive chances against. Phaneuf could never score 40 points again, but he’s significantly more reliable, responsible and positionally sound than he was in his halcyon days as a scorer. As both James Mirtle and I said on Monday, Phaneuf is without a doubt the most irreplaceable player in the line up.
Many have argued that Phaneuf’s current cap number looks out of place citing his capgeek comparables, and have been using Jay Bouwmeester when forecasting Phaneuf’s next deal. The St. Louis Blues defender and former linemate of Phaneuf’s is in the last year of a deal that pays him $6.68-million annually. He also recently signed a five-year extension with the Blues that will pay him a mere $5.4-million. And for seemingly little reason, that’s what Phaneuf should get. Or so the thinking goes.
But there’s several factors that make me believe there’s no chance that Phaneuf can be re-signed for JayBo’s modest number. Firstly, there’s little similarity in their game, beyond the fact that both log a tonne of minutes. Over the past four seasons, Bouwmeester has 30 fewer points than Phaneuf; 22 fewer goals. While a top defenseman in his own right, Bouwmeester has to fight for third billing behind standouts Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. It’s hard to ask for a raise when there are two other guys at your work who do your job better than you. Phaneuf does not have to suffer that workplace competition, and might never in a Leaf uniform. Also, George W. Bush was still president at the start of the last season where Bouwmeester recorded 40 points. Finally, Phaneuf is also a year younger than Bouwmeester, still closer to his prime and still able to crack 40 points.
So what does it all mean? What is Phaneuf worth? Most would agree that he’s not worthy of Ryan Suter’s $7.4-million paycheque, despite Phaneuf having 59 more points over 600-game careers. He’s also worth more than Jay Bouwmeester’s future cap hit of $5.4-million.
If I had to stake a guess, I’d actually say that Phaneuf will see a slight raise ahead of next season. He’s still only 28, and has been healthy most of his career. He’s proven capable of playing 25-minutes a night and more likely than not to score 40 points a season. There’s a dearth of options internally or externally that the Leafs could acquire to immediately replace and improve upon what Phaneuf does.
The only way I could see him re-signing at his current price tag or for less money is if the Leafs are willing to offer Phaneuf an eight-year deal. But if I had to give a more accurate range, I’d say that the Leafs and Phaneuf will probably end up coming to terms on a deal in the 7-8 year, $47-56-million deal. That would put his annual cap hit at a reasonable, $6.7 to $7-million cap hit on a deal that would expire when Phaneuf was 36 or 37 years of age. Should the Leafs want shorter term, expect the AAV to go up accordingly.
While it might sound unreasonable, nothing about NHL player’s paydays are ever reasonable. And ask yourself, what would you rather have? Phaneuf at 6.9 million, or to spend the next few seasons trying to replace him?
Highest Scoring NHL Defenseman
For combined seasons, from 2005-06 to 2013-14, playing defenseman, sorted by descending goals scored.
I was perusing Twitter Saturday morning when I came across this gem from @hockeynight:
How strong is the rivalry between the @MapleLeafs and @NHLBlackhawks? You’ll see tonight 6:30pm ET. #hockeynight
— HockeyNightInCanada (@hockeynight) October 19, 2013
There are few words in the sports world that are as overused and over-debated as the word “rivalry”. What does it mean? From thefreedictionary.com:
n. pl. ri·val·ries
1. The act of competing or emulating.
2. The state or condition of being a rival.
OK, in that case, every single matchup in sports is considered a rivalry, because every team is in an act of competition with every other team. But we, the sports fans, know better, don’t we? Do you have the same sense of anticipation and animosity in a Tuesday night game in Florida as you would on a Saturday night at the Bell Centre? Of course not! All rivalries are simply not created equally. So then, what are some qualifiers we need to come up with to choose the true rivalries from the fake, made-for-TV ones?
1. History. This is what makes Leafs-Habs games the best of the year in my opinion. Sure, the teams haven’t played in a playoff series in a while (1978-79, to be exact), but some rivalries never die, and that’s the case here. Its roots are in the old battles between English and French Canada, and even though the feud isn’t the same, there remains a bit of political tension between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Other rivalries such as Habs-Bruins and Blackhawks-Red Wings were started back in the Original Six days, and remain to this day.
2. Geography. There’s the Battle of Ontario and the Battle of Alberta. How about that vicious three-way rivalry between the Rangers, Islanders and Devils? Or the battles between the two Pennsylvanian tenants: the Flyers and Penguins? California may not be a traditional hockey hotbed, but there’s plenty of ill will tossed around between the three teams hanging out in that state. They even have their own blog (http://www.battleofcali.com) dedicated to hating on each other.
3. Division and Conference. I think we can all agree two teams who are not in the same conference can’t really be considered a rivalry. You just can’t truly build up a hatred for a team you only get to see once or twice a year. I don’t think you necessarily need to be in the same division to be considered a rival, but it certainly helps. What’s that thing people used to say? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Well, it’s like that, but the opposite. In my case, the four teams I hate the most (Habs, Bruins, Sens and Sabres) are all in the same division as the Leafs, so that’s handy.
4. Playoff History. Is it still considered a rivalry if one team continually beats another in the playoffs? At any rate, at least those four consecutive playoff series in the early 2000s between the Leafs and Sens helped both fan bases hate each other in new and creative ways. There was the time Daniel Alfredsson hit Darcy Tucker from behind . Or the time Daniel Alfredsson pretended to throw his stick in the crowd to mock Mats Sundin (I’m still not really sure why we got so upset about that, but anyway, we did). Or the time Tie Domi knocked Martin Havlat unconscious with a late, blindside hit. During those days, the Battle of Ontario was at its fiercest. Canucks-Blackhawks is another example of a rivalry being taken up a notch thanks to a few memorable playoff battles.
Anyway, those are a few qualifiers I can think of right now. There might be some more I’m forgetting.
So let’s revisit that @hockeynight tweet. Is Leafs-Blackhawks a certifiable rivalry? I’m writing this on Saturday afternoon, so maybe something happened in the game last night which made everybody in Toronto and Chicago instantly hate each other with a newfound passion. But barring an incident of that magnitude, Leafs-Blackhawks should not be considered a real rivalry.
Was it a rivalry back in the 60s? I’m sure it was. I remember reading about the playoff series the two teams battled it out in 1967, starring Bobby Hull, Dave Keon, Stan Mikita, George Armstrong, Tony Esposito, Johnny Bower and company. But unfortunately, the expansion era seems to have killed it. I can’t even remember the last time the Leafs and Blackhawks played against each other. Hence why teams in separate conferences can’t really be rivals.
This isn’t an indictment of HNIC. They’re trying to sell ad revenue and attract eyeballs, so they’re going to play up those old Original Six battles like none other. Part of the reason we love hockey is the history, so those battles should be celebrated. Let’s just not pretend they’re reason enough to call these teams rivals.
Maple Leafs: Hall of famer Allan Stanley dies at age 87
Stanley was a member of four Stanley Cup-winning Leafs teams in the ‘60s. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. Obituary by Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star.
LEAFS POSTGAME – THE BLACKHAWKS ARE DECENT
Mike freaking Kostka. Recap from Steve Dangle of The Leafs Nation.
David Bolland and the bar where everyone knows the Maple Leafs forward’s name
Now all I want is a plate of chicken wings and a glass of orange juice. Thanks a lot, Sean Fitz-Gerald.
The Chris Pronger Effect: Examining the Impact of Flyers’ Captain’s Absence
To what degree are the Flyers’ problems tied to the loss of Pronger? Jonathan Willis of Bleacher Report takes a look.
NHL Corner: Saturday, October 19 2013
Get caught up on some news and notes from around the league. From Dale Lamontagne of Editor In Leaf.
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.