So Who Drives Production?

On the surface, most Leaf fans would argue Phil Kessel.  He leads the team with 5 goals and 7 points, and he's definitely the team's most highly skilled offensive forward.  Tyler Bozak is the Leaf's nominal top centre ice man, and Kris Versteeg the team's best "2-way" forward. But a look at statistics that indicate some other qualities of play leave a bit to be desired.  Maybe it's just the Leafs depth that's doing the damage in this early season run of productivity?

Following the Leafs game on Monday against the Islanders, after the first 5 games of the season, Mikhail Grabovski (34.2) and Clarke MacArthur (32.0) had the 6th and 7th highest Relative Corsi numbers in the NHL amongst forwards that have played 12+ minutes a game over at least 5 games.  Nikolai Kulemin (30.6) at 21st in the NHL isn't far behind.  They also all have a reasonably difficult Corsi Rel QoC to face up against.

Their peer group includes the following NHL 2 way forwards (listed numbers are for 5 on 5 play):

Name Team Corsi ON Corsi Off Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC
Stoll Kings 29.12 -4.05 33.2 0.107
Williams Kings 28.68 -5.14 33.8 0.361
Zetterberg Red Wings 25.59 -5.48 31.1 0.577
Grabovski Maple Leafs 25.39 -8.83 34.2 0.099
Datsyuk Red Wings 25.19 -5.52 30.7 0.890
D. Sedin Canucks 24.33 -3.75 28.1 2.616
MacArthur Maple Leafs 23.98 8.04 34.2 0.173
Semin Capitals 20.89 -3.14 24.0 1.887
Comeau Islanders 20.27 -15.13 35.4 1.255
Van Riemsdyk Flyers 19.54 0.91 18.6 0.120
H. Sedin Canucks 19.43 -1.93 21.4 2.607
Connolly Sabres 17.21 0.84 16.4 0.279
Kulemin Leafs 15.59 -4.76 20.4 0.356
M. Koivu Wild 14.70 -14.11 29.9 3.160
Backstrom Capitals 14.39 -1.69 16.1 2.552

Perry

Ducks 14.65 -17.42 22.1 2.667

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and Kris Versteeg:

Name Team Corsi ON Corsi Off Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC
Downie Lightning 0.99 14.34 -13.30 1.730
Kane Blackhawks -3.43 -7.40 -8.03 1.786
Weiss Panthers -7.17 11.14 -18.30 1.272
Kessel Maple Leafs -10.14 6.07 -16.20 0.919
O'Sullivan Hurricanes -11.02 6.73 -17.80 1.538
Bozak Maple Leafs -17.10 10.26 -27.40 1.362
Versteeg Maple Leafs -17.62 10.11 -27.70 1.575
Sutter Hurricanes -31.36 3.70 -35.10 1.025
Tavares Islanders -43.40 0.00 -43.40 0.756

This isn't particularly worrying as obviously Bozak, Kessel, and Versteeg are on the ice to produce offensively, but it does illustrate the greener side of the trio's game at 5 on 5.  Versteeg's defensive skill set isn't compensating for the lack of defensive acumen on the part of Bozak and Kessel in their own zone.  The trio are sacrificing far more shots than they are obtaining, and that IS of some concern.

If one follows the two lines during the regular run of play, it becomes relatively obvious where this situation stems from.  When Kessel, Bozak, and Versteeg are on the ice, they often end up playing in their own zone without the puck, but they will occasionally break out as the puck is head-manned to them as they quickly break up ice.  The young speedy trio then race ahead full of vim and vigour, and (often in the form of a breakaway or two-on-one) they tend to fire a quick shot in the direction of the net.  This shot has often gone wide, or ended up as a quick save for the opposition, with little to no rebounds.  They don't drive the net, they're undersized, and they don't play the puck down low particularly effectively.  When they do shoot, it is often a very obvious, clear cut chance, but it is also rarely the sort of chance that comes off of a broken play.  It doesn't help that the top line were totally dominated in the game against Pittsburgh or that the NY Rangers actually didn't seem that perturbed by them as a unit.

As a result of this, their puck possession is typically sacrificed to the other team.  Alternatively, with the Leafs second unit, while they too also get offensive breaks down ice, they are far, far more effective at controlling the zone offensively.  They play most of their shifts in the opposition end and tend to fire numerous chances on net, although to be fair, a lot of those haven't been going in.  If they miss the net, or if the play breaks down, they also pressure the puck well enough to often get it back before it leaves the zone.  The Grabovski, Kulemin, MacArthur line is quick, but it also possesses more size and physicality so they tend to dominate possession when they're on the ice in some part because they're facing weaker opposition.  This was most obvious against the softer second unit of Pittsburgh who had a hard time containing the Leafs secondary trio.

How can we verify any of this in another fashion?  By exploring the Zone Shift numbers for both lines so far. The three skaters on the top unit have the following Zone Shift numbers:

Kessel (-6), Bozak (-11), Versteeg (-13)

This means that with respect to shift starts and finishes, they are generally finishing off shifts in their own end, despite beginning the majority of their shifts in the offensive end.  Again, on the other side of the coin is the line of MacArthur, Grabovski, and Kulemin, who are posting the following Zone Shift numbers, despite starting more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone:

MacArthur (+7), Grabovski (+12), Kulemin (+8)

This indicates that generally the Leafs second line is finishing off their  shifts in the offensive zone, and controlling the play against the opposition.  If these trends continue, two things may happen.  Wilson may decide to play the Grabovski line against the top opposition of the other team more often, thus freeing up the offensively inclined Bozak, Versteeg, and Kessel, or other teams may put tougher defensive units out against Grabovski's line to counter an obvious strength on the Leaf team.

This is not intended as a slight on the Kessel, Bozak, Versteeg line, as they are obviously facing tougher competition than the Leafs second line but it should highlight that the second unit is getting the job done from a puck control and offensive production perspective.  This accentuates the offensive depth the Leafs are developing and hopefully further implies that the Leafs are not a one trick pony up front.  Balance may be needed on the top line and more shots need to hit the net on the part of Versteeg in particular but there's no harm in having a second line that's this productive.

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