Thanks to @mORRganRielly for the following submission:

Jake Gardiner sucks.

No, just kidding.  He’s pretty awesome.  He is an immensely gifted, up-and-coming defenseman, but he does have a little bit of learnin’ to do.  In light of his recent scratch, I wanted to take an opportunity to delve more into his role with the Leafs and the relationship of his play against the overall performance of the Leafs defense over the course of the season.  To that end, I will be looking strictly at even-strength play rather than specialized roles like the power-play or the penalty-kill.

I have had this thought for awhile that the Leafs haven’t played very well since their win against Philadelphia on February 11th — you may remember that game as the one where Reimer was injured.  The game before that was the hilarious and cathartic beat down of the Montreal Canadiens in their own barn.  The Leafs‘ play since those two games has been inconsistent and their industry has since fallen flat.  As nice as it is that we have continued to accumulate wins and points, I felt that the team hasn’t performed as well as the score-sheets indicated.  To that end, I felt that the best way start analyzing the Leafs‘ play is to approximate, if not distinguish, their proficiency by measuring their even-strength performance in both goals for / against and shots for / against ratios.

With labourious effort, I manually recorded the data by going over each game sheet since the beginning of the season.

I split the data into two major categories.  One, to determine the Leafs’ even strength proficiency up to the date of their win in Philadelphia on February 11th, and the split afterwards.  There’s more, but it’s all self-explanatory.

First set (13 games):
Record: 8 – 4 – 1
ESGF: 24
ESGA: 18
Ratio: 1.33
Leafs ESSF: 21, 19, 16, 33, 14, 18, 27, 19, 28, 17, 13, 23, 17 (265)
Opps ESSA: 14, 15, 21, 30, 35, 28, 17, 30, 31, 21, 21, 21, 33 (318)
Ratio: 0.833
SF/G: 20.38
SA/G: 24.46
Total Shots for: 363 (27.92)
Total Shots Against: 409 (31.46)
Ratio: 0.888

First set (22 games):
Record: 11-8-3
ESGF: 53
ESGA: 55
Ratio: 0.963
Leafs ESSF: 18, 24, 26, 23, 23, 25, 21, 21, 27, 18, 26, 21, 17, 21, 25, 29, 25, 21, 13, 16, 27, 28 (495)
Opps ESSA: 26, 26, 35, 12, 27, 34, 22, 32, 26, 28, 41, 21, 33, 26, 22, 30, 27, 26, 33, 21, 39, 16 (593)
Ratio: 0.834
SF/G: 22.5
SA/G: 26.95
Total Shots for: 603 (27.41)
Total Shots against: 752 (34.18)
Ratio: .801

Particularly interesting is since the Montreal / Philadelphia games, the Leafs’ even strength’s goals for / against ratio that has dropped from 1.33 to 1.05 as of last night; that would be a 0.963 goals for / against ratio since then over 22 games, which would be good for 18th overall as opposed to 12th).  What’s more, while the Leafs’ even-strength production has climbed, so too has the goals against them in the same period — a very concerning 2.42 even strength goals per game to 2.5 goals against per game.  This tells me several things — not are all necessarily connected:

1) The Leafs’ are taking more chances to score when falling behind (d-uh!) — they have a .500 record when giving up the first goal;
2) The defense has a little more work to do as a unit — backed by CORSI.  I will explain later in this post;
3) The offense has been getting fortunate bounces;
4) The Leafs penalty-kill has saved the team’s backside more than we’re aware of — they are very damn good (4th overall for efficiency).

To go into this data further, I took a gander on the CORSI wild side by checking the Leafs’ even-strength goals for and against per 60 minutes.  The results are interesting.

As it stands right now, the Leafs have a +0.3 goals differential per 60 minutes of even-strength play.  Further analysis of their power-play vs. penalty-kill proficiency shines more light on the Leafs’ luck this year.

The power play has a middling +5.5 goals differential (13th overall) compared to their penalty kill’s -4.7 differential (9th overall).  It is fortunate the Leafs have been near the bottom of the league for minor penalties taken because it seems clear here that anything more and the Leafs aren’t as far ahead in the standings as they are today.  Unfortunately, unless I go through each game-sheet again, I can’t really tell you what, if any, impact the special teams have had for the splits — that seems to be a project for another post.  It is unfortunate I have stop here and just assume that the core reasons the Leafs are even in playoffs position has almost everything to do with the penalty kill and timely goal-scoring and almost nothing to do with the defense.  Which segues to my next point: What’s going on with the defense and what’s with the benching of Gardiner?

Holzer vs. Gardiner

In the interest of following some of the comparisons posited on twitter, I directly compared Holzer and Gardiner to see if I could tease out any information from the same pool of data.

Holzer Effect (22 games)
Goals for: 0, 1, 3, 1, 4, 5, 0, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 4, 2, 2, 2, 1, 4 (51)
Goals against: 2, 2, 0, 1, 0, 2, 2, 0, 0, 3, 1, 2, 1, 4, 4, 2, 4, 4, 4, 4, 3, 4 (49)
Ratio: 1.04
GF/G: 2.32
GA/G: 2.23
Leafs: 19, 28, 17, 13, 23, 17, 18, 24, 26, 23, 23, 25, 21, 21, 27, 18, 26, 21, 17, 21, 25, 22 (475)
Opps: 15, 31, 21, 21, 21, 33, 26, 26, 35, 12, 27, 34, 22, 32, 26, 28, 41, 21, 33, 26, 22 (553)
Ratio: 0.85
SF/G: 21.6
SA/G: 25.14
Shots/Goals Against Graph | Shots/Goals For Graph

Gardiner Effect: (7 games)
Goals for: 4, 4, 4, 2, 3, 1, 2 (20)
Goals against: 1, 4, 2, 3, 2, 2, 2 (16)
Ratio: 1.25
GF/G: 2.86
GA/G: 2.28
Leafs: 33, 14, 25, 21, 13, 16, 27 (149)
Opps: 30, 35, 27, 26, 33, 21, 39 (211)
Ratio: .706
SA/G: 30.14
Shot/Goals Against GraphShots / Goals For Graph 

From the looks of both players’ data sets, the results seem very clear.  The Leafs score more and give up negligibly more with Gardiner in the line-up.  However, what’s interesting to me is how one-sided the proficiency is to the opposition with Gardiner in the line-up.  A porous 0.706 shots for / against ratio suggests that the Leafs spend a lot more time in their own end, yet Gardiner continues to finish the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone.  What’s odd to me is how low the team’s shooting percentage is with Gardiner on the ice and owning the highest relative CORSI — I can’t tell if it is due to a freakishly high accumulation of shots not leading to goals with Gardiner on the ice or the fact that he’s spending more time in his own end only to finish in the offensive zone by setting up for a low percentage shot that’s quickly called by the referee.  My interpretation of this data is that while Gardiner starts the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, it is because the coaching staff knows that with his skating ability and puck skills, he will finish the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone — he diffuses the opposition’s offensive game   This is essentially the risk and reward that necessitated Gardiner’s call-up.  He is one of two defensemen in the active roster who is showing consistency in this regard.

Sidenote: It’s quite obvious that sending down Holzer was the right thing to do all things considered.  Not only was he completely thrown to the wolves, his confidence is probably extremely fragile at the moment.

And with all things being considered here, it’s worthwhile to note that Gardiner is being highly sheltered by the coaching staff whereas Holzer was not.  Gardiner’s CORSI Rel QoC is the lowest on the team (even lower than Cody Franson and Mark Fraser).  When given more responsibilities against players like Matthias or Bergeron, the results are a little disappointing.


Quick breakdowns:

Shawn Matthias’ Goal:

Gardiner gets caught playing the puck and not moving his feet; rather than taking the body and forcing Matthias wide, he gives up a strong position to take away the net by following the puck instead.

Patrice Bergeron’s Goal:

Gardiner takes a good position on Hamilton to cut him off but doesn’t compensate for Hamilton’s sudden shift — instead of skating hard into the check, he glides in and misses an excellent opportunity to take a strong body position to rub Hamilton into the boards and make it harder for him to get the pass off.

If you haven’t read Seigel’s Leafs Report on Gardiner’s benching, I suggesting you do so here.

The two goals above are essentially two of (likely many) reasons why Gardiner was benched.  Both were game-tying goals.  One of which ‘potentially’ cost the Leafs a very important point they should have had (they lost in the shootout).  This goes back to what Carlyle emphasized with Gardiner:  “At a slight 184 pounds, Gardiner doesn’t have the benefit of size to out-muscle opponents, but as Carlyle instructed, his positioning can stand to be more effective. “I’m not going to crush anybody out there usually,” Gardiner said, “it’s more of having good body position and being really good with my stick.”

The other comments from Gardiner are quite enlightening to explaining Carlyle’s thought processes:

“I think Randy wants me to hit guys more,” Gardiner told on Thursday morning, “not necessarily hit them I guess, just finish my check, rub [the opposing player] out at least. I did it last year, but I didn’t really think about doing it as much as I probably should now.”  …. “Guys are a lot more skilled,” he said of the difference between the two leagues, “and it’s harder to close on guys. It’s definitely something I need to work on.”

If you ask me, it’s less about hitting and being physical, but using the body to take away offensive opportunities.  One such example is perfectly summarized by Gardiner’s lacklustre attempt to take out Hamilton on the boards.  It is less about punishing Gardiner and more about educating the prodigy before the wheels fall off.  I don’t think I need to remind anyone how kid gloves and a lack of communication worked for Luke Schenn.


Context and Summary

It’s good to see Gardiner take accountability for his miscues.  I think more importantly, it shows Carlyle’s willingness to emphasize to Gardiner what was wrong and what he wants from his young defenseman.  In a season of ongoing development, I strongly believe that many of the head-scratching moves on Carlyle’s part is a balance of both giving this young team an opportunity to win while emphasizing theory and practice.  This season’s goals haven’t changed — development, but put in a line-up with the best chance of winning.  Coincidentally, Carlyle touched on this very subject today in James Mirtle’s recent article on Gardiner’s benching.

I also feel that it is important to note that much has been made of Holzer’s numerous chances in light of Gardiner’s benching.  Part of the issue was compounded that the Leafs needed to see Holzer in both difficult and sheltered situations; and in doing so, they somehow continued to win games.  By winning games, management likely felt that they would be able to buy time for Gardiner’s development and concussion recovery with the Toronto Marlies.  In that context, Holzer was a necessary sacrifice for the franchise’s long-term view.  Now that Gardiner is here, and no longer being waiver exempt, the Leafs need to ensure that while playing time is necessary, so is placing importance on every facet of Gardiner’s physical, intellectual, and psychological development.


The Defense and the long-term view

As you saw from the breakdown of the defense’s CORSI and even-strength numbers, the lack of a pure puck-moving defenseman who can diffuse offenses with a precision pass or skate his way out of trouble is something that the management and scouting team foresaw when they drafted Morgan Rielly.  There’s simply not enough puck movement getting the Leafs’ out of trouble in the top-four and to that effect, Carlyle has been forced to adapt by instilling a bend, but do not break philosophy to the defense.  As such, the Leafs spend more time in their own end with only Liles and Gardiner positively affecting the outcome of starting in the defensive zone; however, as with any undersized or inexperienced smooth skating defensemen, there are risks attached every time they take the ice.  Some of you have seen my character limited defense of Carlyle on this subject and I feel this is a good opportunity to post this:


Carlyle has made it clear that he prefers to assign roles and the limited talent is part of the reason why this philosophy has been instilled.  It is not about assigning punishment over miscues, but instilling a sense of responsibility rather than taking risks with the puck.  The team simply does not have enough size or high end skill throughout the line-up to compensate for the defenses’ inexperience and overall lack of defensive polish.


The Importance of finding Dion Phaneuf’s counterpart:

As I was writing this post, the venerable James Mirtle posted this article on Phaneuf.

The article summarizes how important Phaneuf is to this team.  It also speaks to the growing need to find Phaneuf a partner who can eat up 20-23 mistake free minutes and lessen the burden of responsibility on the lower pairings.  The team has been forced to use a hobbled and increasingly ineffective Gunnarsson in the top-pairing.  The results have been a little ugly of late and the time is now to find someone who can slide in comfortably as Phaneuf’s counterpart.  In this end, I would be looking for a good skating defenseman with high-end defensive comportment who can allow Phaneuf to go back to his hard-hitting hard-shooting roving ways without having to baby-sit.

Finding that partner also accomplishes several other things:

1) It lessens the responsibilities on the lower pairings;
2) It eats up minutes and allows Carlyle to shorten the bench in late-games;
3) It maximises the offensive chances that Franson, Liles, or even Gardiner will inevitably get with offensive zone starts or against weaker competition;
4) It may lower shots against and particularly scoring chances against;
5) It allows the goaltenders more recovery time in between whistles.

Find that partner and the Leafs have a very deep defense with a multitude of weapons they can throw at their opponents.

Who do the Leafs look for?  Well, one name that has been bandied about is Jay Bouwmeester.  With a cap-hit of $6,680,000, Bouwmeester has one more year on his contract before he becomes an unrestricted free-agent.  Not only does he fill the requirements needed for Phaneuf’s counterpart, he buys development time for Gardiner, Franson, and Rielly on the left side and allows Carlyle to ‘specialize’ the roles each defenseman would get.  I would certainly look hard at Bouwmeester if he is, as rumoured, available.



Overall, as it stands today, the defensive outlook has a positive hue, but remains a very long work in progress.  As indicated by many who have watched Gardiner over the last year, he remains a defensive work in progress who needs more defensive polish before Carlyle can throw him to the wolves like he did with Holzer.  Unlike Holzer, Gardiner commands more attention and care from coaching staff and management due to his impressive skill set and pedigree.  The Leafs are caught in the crossroads of wanting to develop and win.  After so many years on the outside of the playoffs, the franchise wants to ensure that the men they have patrolling the blue-line are as prepared and battle-ready for the stretch drive and (hopefully) the playoffs.

In time, I think those who dislike Carlyle’s management of the defense will come to appreciate the conciseness and communication he has brought while ensuring the franchise continued to put its best line-up on the ice every night.  Although generally outmatched, the Leafs have turned the corner by becoming as resilient and as stubborn of an organization that has come prepared to play with industry and line-matching.

With a team so short on experience as the Leafs, assigning roles and a sense of responsibility is everything.

– @mORRganRielly

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