I have argued a few times in the past that I think Jake Gardiner may be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best overall defenceman.
When I make that statement, sometimes people respond in agreement, but many disagree, often citing his defensive liabilities. I have come to this conclusion by taking a cursory look at his statistics in relation to other Leaf defencemen. For example, we can easily see that Gardiner had by far the best Corsi Against per 60 Minutes (CA60) among Leafs defencemen last season, as well as the previous season, which is pretty impressive for a guy more known for his offensive ability. My intent for this article was to write a glowing article about Jake Gardiner and how he clearly is the Leafs best defenceman, but, as is often the case when you really dig deep into the numbers, nothing is ever that clear. Hockey Analytics are just not that simple, and anyone who cites a few numbers and draws a conclusion about the player probably doesn’t fully understand what they are talking about.
With that said, this article won’t solely be a glowing article about how great Jake Gardiner is. Instead, I will take a look at and compare the three Leaf defencemen who may (or may not) form the core of the defence through the rebuild. Those three are Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf, and Morgan Rielly. I will also look at a former Leaf defenceman who, rumours have it, the Leafs may have interest in bringing back — Cody Franson. Who is the Leafs‘ best defenceman? Should the Leafs keep Dion Phaneuf, or trade him? Should the Leafs bring back Cody Franson? Those are some of the questions I will try to answer below.
Let’s start by looking at Jake Gardiner. My methodology for evaluating these defencemen is to look at the Leafs on-ice statistics and compare them to the Leafs overall statistics during 5v5 play. The statistics I will look at are GF/60, GA/60, GF%, CF/60, CA/60, and CF%. These charts summarize Jake Gardiner’s performance relative to the team.
The two charts at the top are representative of Gardiner’s offensive performance relative to the team overall. Here, higher is better as it indicates a higher rate of goals being scored (left chart) or shots being taken (right chart). What’s interesting is that Gardiner is on the ice for a higher shot rate than the team overall, but for the past three seasons the Leafs goal rate is poorer with Gardiner on the ice. This indicates that, when Gardiner is on the ice, the Leafs are better at generating shot attempts but poorer at converting those attempts into goals. This could be bad luck, but when it happens three years in a row it begins to raise question marks.
The middle two charts are representative of Gardiner’s defensive performance relative to the team overall. Here, being lower is better as it indicates fewer shots and goals are being given up. This is where Gardiner really shines. In the past three seasons, Gardiner has been on the ice for a significantly lower shot rate against, which in turn resulted in a significant lower goals against rate. In 2011-12, Gardiner played a significant portion of his ice time with Luke Schenn, which, along with being Gardiner’s first season in the NHL, may explain the poorer showing.
The bottom two charts are representative of Gardiner’s overall performance relative to the team overall. Here, higher is better and ideally you want to be above 50%. In terms of CF%, Gardiner has been significantly better than the team overall, but his GF% is not nearly as conclusive. Overall, though, Gardiner’s statistics are pretty solid.
Dion Phaneuf’s on-ice statistics fairly closely mimic the team’s overall statistics, particularly on the offensive side of the game. Defensively, Phaneuf has given up shots at a higher rate over the past three seasons (under Carlyle), but that hasn’t converted into a higher shot goal rate against. Phaneuf seems to have an ability to suppress shooting percentage against; his 5v5close Sv%RelTM (which is representative of how his teammates perform with Phaneuf compared to apart from Phaneuf) over the past five seasons is 1.3, 1.8, 1.6, 2.1, and 1.0. This means he has boosted his goalies save percentage by ~1-2% in each of the past five seasons. That would make a 91.0% goalie (which is below average) post a save percentage between 92.0% and 93.1% (which is among the league leaders).
The end result is Phaneuf has consistently had a poor CF% relative to the team — but that has not always translated into a poor GF% relative to the team.
We only have two years of data for Morgan Rielly, but we can start to see a trend emerge in the possession statistics. When Morgan Rielly is on the ice, the team is better at producing shot attempts and only marginally worse at preventing them. Overall, this makes Rielly look like a good possession player. We don’t really have enough goal data to draw any definitive conclusions, but there is no evidence that Rielly is a drag on the team. I think this is an important year for Rielly in his development, as he should be getting to the stage where he should start to show whether he will develop into an elite defenceman or just a good one.
(Note: The above charts only include 2014-15 data during the period that Franson was a Leaf for both Franson’s statistics and the team statistics.)
Offensively, Franson has produced a bit better than the team overall whether you look at shot attempts or goal production, which makes sense as Franson is most known as an offensive defencemen. Defensively, Franson is the opposite of Phaneuf: Where Phaneuf gave up more shots and fewer goals, Franson gives up fewer shots but more goals. Where Phaneuf seems to be able to suppress opponents shooting percentage, opponents seem to get higher quality shots off against Franson. The net result, though, is that Franson overall has a positive effect on both shot and goal ratios.
Quality of Competition
I don’t generally put a lot of emphasis on quality of competition, but this is one instance where quality of competition may be important to consider. These charts summarize the average statistics of each player’s opponents.
I wanted to bring up quality of competition here because Phaneuf plays against relatively tough competition, and it’s tough enough that it may measurably impact his statistics. While there is not an appreciable difference in the quality of opponent between Gardiner, Rielly and Franson, Phaneuf’s opponents are, on average, significantly better offensively. In fact, Phaneuf is among the league leaders in facing the toughest offensive opponents; significantly tougher than Gardiner, Rielly, and Franson. I mentioned above that Phaneuf seems to be able to suppress shot quality against; considering Phaneuf also faces shooters that produce higher quality shots on average, it becomes all the more impressive.
I want to be a bit careful here not to overstate the importance of quality of competition. For a lot of players it doesn’t make a huge difference, but I think for Phaneuf one can easily make the case it is a bit of a drag on his statistics and should be given some consideration. When you factor in that Phaneuf also gets the worst zone starts (another minor factor for most players, but can make a measurable difference in extreme cases), I think you have to conclude that usage has been a negative drag on his statistics, especially his defensive statistics.
At the beginning of this (now lengthy) article, I wanted to answer three questions, so let me try to answer them one by one now.
Who is the Leafs best defencemen?
In terms of Corsi statistics it is almost certainly Jake Gardiner. Over the past couple of seasons, he has boosted shot attempts for the Leafs and was the best at limiting opponents’ shot attempts. This is the exact opposite of Dion Phaneuf. The majority of hockey analytics these days revolves around Corsi or other possession statistics, so the majority of hockey analytics people would probably suggest that the Leafs’ best defenceman has been Jake Gardiner. Corsi wise, the conclusion is clear.
With that said, there is ample evidence that Corsi statistics significantly undervalue Phaneuf, especially defensively, and probably also over value Gardiner offensively. Add in Phaneuf’s significantly tougher quality of opponent and tougher zone start usage, and I think you can make a case that Phaneuf is the Leafs’ best defenceman.
Gardiner, with his ability to move the puck up the ice, is an underrated defensive defenceman, while Franson has been the best offensive defenceman for the Leafs over the past several years. Rielly has been okay and seemed to improve last year over his rookie season, but I don’t think he merits consideration for the Leafs’ best defenceman yet.
So, who is the Leafs best defenceman? It is a tough call, but with Phaneuf’s ability to perform well against the toughest competition with tough zone starts, I think he gets the slight edge.
Should the Leafs keep Dion Phaneuf or trade him?
I have had mixed feelings about Phaneuf over the years. If you asked me this question a month or two ago, I probably would have said yes. With the Babcock signing and having looked at his numbers, and in particular his ability to suppress shot quality against, I am leaning towards keeping him. I am really interested in seeing how Phaneuf can perform under Mike Babcock. He may not have the offense of the best #1 defencemen, but if the high shots against totals are a result of system/style of play and not Phaneuf himself, Phaneuf may become a superb shut down defenceman under Babcock and that is what the Leafs desperately need.
Should the Leafs bring back Cody Franson?
Cody Franson has been the Leafs best offensive defencemen the past several years. In fact, he has been among the best point producing defencemen in the league. He has not been as good defensively, so in that sense he is really the anti-Phaneuf. I personally really like the offense Cody Franson provides, and he is young enough to still be productive when the Leafs can be expected to be competitive again. The challenge is Phaneuf has a big contract and Rielly may be needing one in the next few years as well. Gardiner still has four years left at a reasonable price, but after that he may deserve a significant raise. Ideally, the Leafs should try to get Franson signed to a four-year deal so it lines up with Gardiner. That will give them four years to evaluate the two and make a decision on which, if either of them, they want to keep around beyond that. I’d be cautious going longer term and potentially inhibiting the chances of giving Gardiner a new contract beyond his current one. So, if the Leafs could get Franson for $5-5.5M/season on a four year contract, I think they have to seriously consider it. If it will cost significantly more in terms of dollars and especially term, it becomes far more challenging.