The Toronto Maple Leafs started the year in a promising fashion. Despite season long possession struggles, the buds managed to be in line for a second straight playoff appearances. However, an eight game losing streak crushed the hopes of the league’s biggest fanbase. After that, the fans and the media have been looking for scapegoats, the likes of which have switched from the teams captain, their back up goalie, the coach or even some shots at the core.
@Hope_Smoke tweeted out this quote from Dreger in regards to the reaction to the Leafs collapse.
Darren Dreger makes it clear here that he is talking about specifically the coach and potentially management, but it really worries me that the vague term of “significant changes” could extend to shaking up the core of this Toronto team.
Many articles online have been pointing the finger at the core of Toronto. This article from rantsports.com puts the bulk of the blame on the building blocks of the Leafs. Author Michael Roberts writes:
“However, the real issue for Toronto isn’t the coaching — it’s the Maple Leafs’ core group of players who are proving they aren’t mentally tough enough to endure playing in the hockey crazed market of Toronto.”
The author’s argument throughout the article is that the problem with the Leafs is not coaching but instead core players. I disagree with this assertion. The Leafs problems stem not from core players and their ability to be “mentally tough” but instead, I would assert, from poor coaching and to an extent the depth of the roster as well as player valuation leading to poor decisions on who to play in individual games as well as in the long term.
The core of the Toronto Maple Leafs are very talented hockey players. For the sake of this article, I will be defining the core of the Leafs as Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. I would include Morgan Rielly but I feel Rielly is still very young and doesn’t necessarily fall into the criticism mentioned as frequently as other building block players. These are the guys the Leafs are or will be building around for years to come. And I think that’s perfectly fine.
That core is one that can lead a playoff team; I truly believe that. It’s not the core that is the problem. The problem is the coaches and the depth of the rostr that needs to be reshaped, not the core.
However, these mentioned players are being held back by poor lineup decisions and a lack of depth leading to Toronto’s star players being played with team mates that are essentially acting as anchors. Each star player has these anchors across the league, however in Toronto they are especially prominent due to a large amount of responsibility given to them under Carlyle. Examining how well a player is performing based on his results with certain players compared to others can reveal a lot about the chemistry or make up of a team — it can also reveal who is carrying the possession play and who is holding it back.
The forward core that Toronto seems to be building around consists of Kessel, Kadri and Van Riemsdyk. Although Kadri seems to be often criticized and centres like Bolland and Bozak have been getting much more positive media attention, it is logical to select Kadri as a part of the core over the other two as Kadri is both their best centre and the youngest.
For that reason, let’s start with Kadri. He has the most obvious “anchors” as I refer to them. Joffrey Lupul (who is not the anchor I am referring to) has been along Kadri’s wing all season, while the other winger slot has been in a near constant state of change. Among the most notable to fill that other winger role is David Clarkson. Clarkson has been criticized heavily by the Toronto fan base after signing a massive contract, only to play very poorly in his first season wearing the blue and white. Additional to Clarkson, Kadri has spent a lot of time with Mason Raymond.
Let’s take a look at Kadri’s results with and without these two players. The below graphs, and most in this article, are expressed as a shot attempt % or a corsi for %. These essentially mean that is the percent of shot attempts that are for that player’s team while they are on the ice. (The with or without analysis available at stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
As we can see, Kadri creates significantly more shots for his team when playing with Raymond over Clarkson. More interesting than that, however, is how poorly Clarkson makes Kadri play. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has stuck Kadri with Clarkson for 240 minutes on the season. Without the ten game suspension at the beginning of the season, this total would likely be much higher.
This shows that Clarkson is entirely acting as an anchor to Kadri’s possession statistics and therefore to part of his overall contribution to the Leafs team. Meanwhile, there are other options in Mason Raymond that are often being overlooked in favor of a “grittier” player such as Clarkson, even though Clarkson is detrimental to the play of Kadri.
Here we see two things; a core player, Kadri, is playing worse due to a lack of depth in the Leafs lineup, but is also playing worse because of coaching decisions. Again, I would assert that it is not the Leafs core that is at all the problem but instead depth and coaching decision.
Moving onto Kessel and Van Riemsdyk, these two have made for a dynamic duo on the top line alongside Tyler Bozak. However, although it is often advertised that Bozak and Kessel have great chemistry, Tyler Bozak is acting as an anchor for that top line — albeit less dramatically than with Kadri and Clarkson.
This demonstrates that Kessel without Bozak is only marginally worse than he is with him. Top line centres make their wingers significantly better, or at least they should. Bozak does not show this ability. Kadri, as well, performs much better with Kessel than Bozak does, a full 2 percent higher. The results are similar with Van Riemsdyk.
Again, the top line wingers are actually better with the second line centre than with their top line centre. When a first line centre is not making his wingers significantly better, there is a problem. Let’s look at some other top centre/winger combinations and see how they fare with and without each other.
I’ll use randomly selected centre/winger combinations. I’ll look at Mikko Koivu/Zach Parise, Kopitar/Carter and Voracek/Giroux.
We see that top line centres make their wingers incredibly better. This just isn’t present in the Leafs top line.
I am not trying to blame the individual players for struggles. It is not Bozak or Clarkson’s fault; I actually really like these players. My point is merely that they are playing roles that they are not quite good enough to play. Clarkson is not a second liner, at least not in this system. Bozak is not a first line centre. Due to poor coaching decisions and a lack of depth, core players have looked worse than they deserve.
It is not the core forwards fault this team is struggling. If anything, they are playing very well. Instead, there are anchors among their linemates that hold them back from their full potential. Given proper linemates and better coaching, this forward core can lead a playoff team, especially as the mentioned core is entering it’s prime and will only improve over the next couple years.
Let’s take a look at the defensive core in Toronto. I see that as Phaneuf and Gardiner — some may disagree and say Franson would be in there, but I am reluctant to include half of the Leafs Defenseman as the core, although I will mention him in my analysis of the other two.
Phaneuf is the captain of the Leafs and has received a lot of criticism for his play of late — which, aside from a few mistakes, I don’t agree with. Regardless, Phaneuf’s numbers are actually fairly impressive when you consider his zone start ratio. Phaneuf offensive/defensive zone start rate is 38%, meaning he starts in the defensive zone an incredible amount more than the offensive. Even so, his relative Corsi — percent of shot attempts for his team while he’s on the ice — is only -2.7%, an impressively small amount less than the rest of his team despite playing all the hardest minutes..
Per extraskater.com, Dion faces the hardest quality of competition and hardest zone deployment of any defensemen in the league. Any player who can lug around those types of minutes and not be devastating possession wise is a valuable player.
As well, Dion has been playing nearly all of his minutes with Carl Gunnarsson. Let’s take a look at how he fares with and without Gunnarsson.
CF% is corsi for percent. Elite teams typically have around 55%, while weak teams have around 45%.
I imagine that both Phaneuf and Gunnarsson are playing slightly easier minutes when not together, but that doesn’t overly harm the point I am making here. Phaneuf’s shot attempts for percent is 44.2 when he is apart from Gunnarsson. That’s roughly 2% higher than the team average. Meanwhile, without Phaneuf, Gunnarsson has a 41.4%.
In itself, that doesn’t prove a large amount due to a lack of context in the without section, but it does show that in the Phaneuf – Gunnarsson pairing, Phaneuf is carrying the possession play. Gunnarsson is holding Phaneuf back from a possession play standpoint.
Let’s see how Phaneuf fares with other teammates.
Again, we see Phaneuf having success with skilled linemates. With all mentioned but Gunnarsson, Phaneuf’s on-ice shot attempt percent is better than the team average. Again, he’s likely seeing easier assignments and easier deployment, but it doesn’t stop the fact that Phaneuf demonstrates the ability to be a very effective possession defensemen when given appropriate teammates. That’s not meant as a blow to Gunnarsson; I’m merely saying that while Gunnarsson seems fit for 5th defencemen type duty, he is holding Phaneuf back due to being slotted in alongside Toronto’s top defensemen.
Next let’s take a look at Gardiner’s totals with certain players.
Gardiner demonstrates the ability to be a very effective defensemen from a possession standpoint when paired with good linemates. Ranger is acting as an anchor. When Gardiner plays with Ranger, his possession stat are significantly worse. When he is not with Ranger, he sees nearly a 4 percent increase in possession rates. Again, a less skilled linemate forced into a position due to lack of depth is holding back skilled core players.
With Franson, Gardiner’s numbers are very impressive. With Rielly, their amazing — he demonstrates a 10% better possession percent than his teams totals, although he and Rielly are likely getting pretty sheltered starts and easy team mates. Still, Gardiner shows potential to be an extremely effective defensemen that can be a key part of a playoff team.
If this team retains the core defensemen of Phaneuf and Gardiner and builds around them — including building around Franson and Rielly — this team is in very good position.
Conclusion and identifying the real issue
The problem with the Leafs is not the core. These players mentioned are incredibly skilled and can lead a playoff team with appropriate additions around them. Priority for the Leafs should be adding either a top two or top four defensemen and adding forward depth. In time, Kadri will develop further and become even more useful, perhaps even filling that number one centre role. Long term, it cannot be Bozak in that role. He is not a top centre in this league and masquerading him as one is not beneficial for the team.
The real problem is not the core, it is the coach and systems. I have given countless examples of strange decisions by Carlyle so far in this post, such as giving gritty players that he values highly such as Clarkson or Ranger more ice time than they perhaps deserve — although this could partly be attributed to a lack of depth. Tyler Dellow wrote a post that can be found here http://www.mc79hockey.com/?p=6818 that demonstrates that Carlyle’s system does not work at all for free agent signing David Clarkson. This could easily be unique to Clarkson, but it could also potentially be true for many Leafs players, but we simply do not know it because they have not played elsewhere.
Additionally, James Mirtle of the globe and mail tweeted this chart regarding Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle’s possession stats during his time coaching the Maple Leafs and the Ducks.
Even in a lineup riddled with skill in Anaheim, Carlyle and his systems struggled to put up impressive possession numbers. His possession is trending downward and has been for years. This is not an impressive chart for a coach that is apparently “defensively minded” and yet allows an incredible amount of shots against, all while coaching skilled teams.
I understand the disappointment from Leafs fans; I have my fair share of it, too. But don’t put your blame on our core players. We should be proud to call them ours — we have many up and coming stars as well as a current one in Kessel, a top player in this league. This core is one we can build around and one we should build around. Put your blame where it’s deserved.
And if you want to, follow me on twitter @LukaRyder