When Kyle Dubas was named GM of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, one of the first things he did was buy every member of the front office a copy of Jonah Keri’s ‘The Extra 2%.’
For those of you who have not read the book, it archives the Tampa Bay Rays rise to prominence after a near decade of failure. Baseball Prospectus wrote a review summarizing the plot:
[quote_box_center]The book’s title refers to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg’s philosophy that rather than attempt to lap the field—an unrealistic goal, given the team’s financial realities and the challenge posed by sharing a division with baseball’s behemoths—he and his subordinates should merely seek to gain a 52-48 edge on the competition.[/quote_box_center]
While I cannot tell you firsthand whether or not Dubas passed out the book again, the Leafs so far are following the same script.
As the book tells us, when the Rays changed owners and a new way of thinking began, they did not try to lose, but they also did not try to win. The reason being: In the big picture, what is the difference between winning 65 games and winning 71? The goal is to win 92+ to get into the playoffs and be a contender. Everything needs to be aimed towards that goal, and everything else is just semantics. While I am not yet ready to deem Leafs management that clever or assume this is definitely a case of methodical long-term thinking, this past summer they looked at the same core that’s been around for three spectacular collapses in a row and added only bit parts.
It is too early to infer the Leafs are trying to tank — and they are a simple Phil Kessel / JVR / Kadri / Lupul / goaltending hot streak from changing their early outlook — but there’s better odds of them being mediocre and trading away veterans than of them contending for solid playoff positioning this season, if early indications mean anything.
One of the first hires the Rays made had nothing to do with the on-field product. They hired Darcy Raymond to ramp up their customer service and fan entertainment. The Leafs have already hired Steve Edgar to try and fix their in-game experience, including — always a popular topic of discussion — the empty platinum seats to start each period.
They have also replaced their PR staff, and have given the assistant coaches more of a voice on radio interviews (along with some media training), which is a far cry from the embarrassment of the past year.
Of course, a new manager overhauling a struggling organization is not entirely new. Brian Burke once did the exact same thing in Toronto, bringing in his own management team, changing the jerseys to get away from the worst Leafs jersey in the history of the franchise, and completely blowing up the roster. Nothing is too ground breaking yet.
Where things really sync up is on the analytics side. Here is another excerpt:
[quote_box_center]”When Friedman signed on, he joined the D-Rays as director of player development. Nominally, Chuck LaMar remained the team’s GM and the man in charge of baseball operations. But from the start, Sternberg groomed Friedman to take the reins so that when the ownership change was complete, a capable new GM would already be in place. Until then, the D-Rays would separate into two cliques: LaMar and the old guard on one side, Friedman and a small but growing generation of business and baseball minds on the other. When the time came to explore long-term contract possibilities with [team star] Crawford, it was Friedman, not LaMar, who took charge.”[/quote_box_center]
Sound familiar? In mere months, Kyle Dubas has brought in his own team (creating a clear divide in the organization, as Carlyle has taken multiple jabs at analytics thus far), long-term contract talks with Gardiner did not begin until after he was hired, and he now runs the Marlies.
The Rays did, however, believe in letting success speak for itself and keeping others guessing about their analytics versus inviting the media to see exactly how they are doing everything.
But the challenges facing the Leafs compared to the Rays, and to a lesser extent the Oakland A’s, are drastically different. For one, there is a hard salary cap in hockey and the Leafs are right up against it with multiple bad long-term contracts that need to be cleared. There is a mediocre core locked in, and in order to take a step forward they might have to take a step back.
The main, most important difference is that the Leafs are not operating on a shoe-string budget. A salary cap world brings on an entirely different set of challenges and overall playing field. But that does not mean the Leafs do not have advantages. According to Capgeek, the Leafs had a top 10 cap hit last season and yet were one of only two teams in that group to not make the playoffs (Washington being the other). Where some of the teams we read up about face money challenges, the Leafs’ challenges include how to take advantage of their financial power in this cap system. The Rays and A’s are trying to compete in an unfair game against the Yankees and Red Sox; the Leafs are supposed to be the hockey equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox.
Mark Hunter’s hiring is perhaps the most inspiring acquisition yet. As The Extra 2% notes, “Many of the Rays’ best subtle advantages result from old-fashioned player development and instruction more than data crunching.” Although I’ll note a lot of that instruction is data driven — in a league where top end players, true franchise changers, are hitting the market less and less — the real success of the team will lie in drafting and development unless they can manage a series of trades to get themselves into contention (ask Brian Burke how that went). The positive, at least, is that there are some foundational pieces in the organization and the upcoming draft is supposedly one for the ages.
Keri warns about being a historic team with big expectations, writing, “No point in plugging holes– unless you work for an owner who won’t tolerate losing. Or a fan base that won’t. Or a demanding, always-in-your-face press corps that will roast you alive.”
Eight games into the season and there have been jerseys thrown on the ice, the media has begun heating up, and going on Twitter after a game (to me) is unbearable. It might get really ugly here. Really, really ugly.
As I have written before, though, Shanahan is on a different timeline than the fans of the Maple Leafs. This is year one for him, but fans and media are going into year ten of the richest franchise in the league being one of its most consistently mediocre. The key will be blocking out the noise and continuing to improve that 2%.
– Watching Joe Colborne’s hot start (8 points in 10 games, 17minutes/game, 50% at the dot) is a good reminder to not give up on Peter Holland just yet. Eight games in, Holland has one assist playing 9 minutes a night with 7 SOG and some PK time; it hasn’t been inspiring. With Holland, though, you have to go back to the fact that his AHL production and pedigree holds up well compared to now-productive NHLers. In the AHL last season he had 15 points in 11 playoff games, but what particularly stood out was the 9 in 7 he put up against eventual champions Texas. The Marlies were the only team to take them seven games, (Texas won the Finals in five) and Holland carried the team on his back in that series. He showed some promise in the NHL last season, too. He was pointless in the 17 games in which he saw under 10:30 of ice time, but had 11 points in 26 games with decent ice time. The only thing it is safe to conclude is that it is too early to give up on him. Look no further than Joe Colborne, or countless other ex Leafs, as examples.
– James Reimer save percentage so far: 914%. Jonathon Bernier save percentage so far: 904%. Last season the average save percentage league wide was 914%. Not a lot has gone right for the Leafs so far, but if there was one big reason for hope this season or a reason you’d maybe bet on them, it would have been their goaltending. It will eventually get hot, but so far it just has not been good enough and this team is not good enough to win with average goaltending.
– In the first Leafs Notebook of the season, I discussed power play zone entries and how they are an issue with Phaneuf and Franson on the ice together. While that is still true, what the power play comes down to is Phil Kessel, and every single good team that has done their homework is shutting it down for one simple reason—they don’t let Kessel set up on the half wall. Patrice Bergeron came right down on him and did not worry about Dion Phaneuf up top for a second while the Bruins defender (Hamilton, McQuaid) pinched up from the home plate region at the same time. Kessel is an elite scorer and if he is given time on the wall he is going to burn teams, as we have seen for years. Smart teams are picking up on it (the Habs did it, too; the Leafs one PP goal that game was off of the rush). With Kadri on the top unit there is a one timer dynamic in the slot for Kessel that Bozak can’t provide based on handedness alone. They also have had the odd shift together on the PP and created. The Leafs do need to find a solution to this, as even though it is early the Leafs PP is in the bottom third of the league.
– David Clarkson has been getting a lot of praise in the media early on but there are two things to note here: 1) He had a career worst shooting percentage last season and, as was written here and in many places over the summer, some sort of bounce back was to be reasonably expected. 2) He is on a 30 point pace. Let’s hold back on these articles.
– Not that the Leafs gave up anything monumental for Matt Frattin, but it is very strange to acquire a player, sign him to a two year deal, and never really play him. In the first game of the season Frattin played on a line with Peter Holland and Daniel Winnik, logging just over nine minutes of ice time as their line actually contributed some solid cycle and zone time (both Holland and Frattin were positive possession players that game). He did not play after that until Brandon Kozun got hurt, after which he came in and played under 3 minutes against Detroit, took a penalty, and hasn’t been heard from since. This is a season after acquiring Peter Holland and losing a 2nd round pick instead of a 3rd because he crossed the 25 games played threshold by sitting on the bench and playing under 10 minutes a night.
– It is not unheard of for coaches to not like what is being acquired and to not play them as a result. In Washington, Adam Oates essentially ran Martin Erat out of town by sticking him on the fourth line after then-GM George McPhee acquired the top six forward in exchange for one of their prized prospects (Filip Forsberg) plus spare parts. He later stuck another trade for a player on the fourth line in Dustin Penner. Matt Frattin and Peter Holland don’t have the pedigree of either of those two veterans, but the same theme of acquiring these guys and in turn not playing them (or playing them in limited minutes) is becoming a bit of a trend. Although the difference is that Carlyle seems to favour the veterans more than refusing to play what is acquired for him, the point is that he doesn’t look to be on the same page as management.
– One of the most troubling aspects of the Bruins game was the gap and separation between the forwards and defense off the breakout and in the neutral zone. The Bruins were able to clog up the neutral zone and create turnovers, and as the game wore on the team began stretching the ice looking for homeruns instead of sticking to the process and exiting/entering zones as a unit. This is not exactly a new development, though.
[quote_box_center]“The two biggest adjustments were one, when you’re moving the puck and you’re breaking the puck out there is more of an advantage when you’re playing your strong side because it’s always on your forehand. I found that part of it a positive. The other big adjustment, as a d-man, you’ve got shutdown areas on the ice where you like to focus on pinching guys off and angles and different spots that you’re used to going to and that was an adjustment switching from one side to the other. And seeing and receiving rushes was a little bit different on the left side.”
– Dion Phaneuf, on the two big adjustments to playing on the left.
I would never expect a player of Dion’s stature to admit to struggling, but the last sentence there about receiving rushes was a slight crack. He does struggle off the rush defensively on his left side as his stick positioning doesn’t naturally cut off forwards from driving wide on him, but he is improving.
[quote_box_center]“It’s tough to say. I know how I train in the summer and I’m ready whenever the coach calls me, I’m going to go out there. I feel fine, I feel like I have legs…it’s a double edged sword. There are times when you say you split it up good, but you get tired when you don’t get out. There’s a fine line between feeling like you’re into the game and splitting it up. I haven’t felt winded.”
– JVR, on whether the over-reliance on the first line has led to fatigue issues that hit the team late in periods and in games.[/quote_box_center]
You can make of this what you will, but it doesn’t sound to me like he fully embraces getting the tar played out of him. JVR averaged 21:03 a night last season, compared to 19:15 so far this year.
[quote_box_center]“He really knocked on the door hard in this training camp and I think if it hadn’t been for that little foot injury he got at the wrong time there he might still be up there.”
– Dave Morrison, on Josh Leivo. You can listen to the whole interview here.[/quote_box_center]
He’s no saviour, but I am interested to see A) How long they keep Leivo with the Marlies, and B) If they trade someone to make room for him eventually.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think, if I’m Randy Carlyle, I do not die on the hill with that first line continuously playing together and everything staying status quo to start every single game (which it essentially has so far). They A) Aren’t good enough for that, B) Haven’t earned that respect, and C) Won’t get the job done. Ultimately it will probably be fruitless and not make a huge difference, but don’t go riding the same old horse into the ground. You do sympathize with a lousy situation wherein Carlyle has Bozak and Kadri as his top two centers and he has to try to outfox Claude Julien, who has Bergeron and Krejci as his top two guys. On principle alone, however, I wouldn’t go down just playing these guys over and over again and hoping for different results.
2 – Conversely, I think changing the lines once you’re down and out is a fruitless endeavour. There won’t be a “eureka” moment if that is what you are hoping for. Changes have to be implemented at the start of games if you are going to go down that route and they have to remain intact for at least 10 days, if not more, to get a real indication of how it is going to work out. If you are going to try Kadri with Kessel, for example, you can’t switch it back after one game.
3 – I think the gap between Bernier and Reimer is not nearly as big as other people think, at the moment, and I would treat the goaltending situation as such. Put Reimer in next game and if he plays well (even if they lose), go back to him again the following game.
4 – I think sending down Percy was the right call because 7 D night-in and night-out is unsustainable. He can be the 1D for the Marlies and play in every situation, and they need to at least try to form a fourth line. I am curious to see either Ashton or Frattin re-enter the lineup.
5 – I think the talk about “blowing it up” is a little premature, but I do not think the talk about getting bad contracts off this team is. People ask where you start with this group, and it starts with clearing cap space; in trading away some of these contracts, even if you are getting virtually nothing back, it is addition by subtraction. They can’t let pride get in the way (hello, Mike Gillis).