By all accounts Jake Gardiner had a successful rookie season. The 22 year old former Anaheim Ducks draft pick impressed fans and management alike during training camp and managed to earn himself a spot among the Toronto Maple Leafs' top 6 defenders to start the year, a spot he held down for virtually the entire season as he played in all but 7 of the year's 82 games. With his silky smooth skating and calm under pressure he managed to put up an impressive number of points - 30 - a total that managed to rank him 8th on the Leafs in scoring, 2nd on the team for defenders (behind Dion Phaneuf), and 41st among all defenders in the NHL (tied with Alex Goligoski and Zach Bogosian). Perhaps more impressively his 23 even strength points ranked 22nd among all defenders, tying him with Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, two of the game's best young defenders.
Points aren't usually the best way to judge a player, however. Gardiner had the second highest PDO on the team last season at 1011 and his on-ice shooting percentage (the shooting percentage on all shots taken while Gardiner was on the ice, including himself and his teammates) of 10.13% was also 2nd highest on the team. That number seems likely to regress. If you don't believe one year of on-ice SH% is prone to luck look at it this way - here are the Leafs' defenders last season ranked from highest to lowest on-ice SH%: Gardiner, Schenn, Komisarek, Gunnarsson, Franson, Phaneuf, Liles. I think it's clear that Phaneuf, Liles, and Franson are more offensively gifted players than Schenn, Komisarek, and Gunnarsson. That's why we need to take an unusually high on-ice SH% into account when judging a player's production.Another statistic that can influence a player's production is their zone start percentage (the ratio of shifts they started with an offensive zone faceoff versus shifts started with a defensive zone faceoff). With an offensive zone start rate of 56% Jake Gardiner had the easiest zone starts of any defender on the Leafs last year. That can help boost his offensive numbers. It can also make another statistic look better, and that statistic is his Corsi (or shot plus-minus). It's easier to get shots on goal if you start near your opponents' end and easier to prevent them if you start away from your own net. Despite his zone starts the Leafs allowed more shots on goal with Jake Gardiner on the ice than any defender other than Luke Schenn, which suggests that there are still some fairly major shortcomings on the defensive side of his game.
That being said, what really matters isn't the absolute number of shots for or against while a player is on the ice, but the ratio between them. If the Leafs allow a lot of shots while Gardiner is on the ice but create even more at the other end then ultimately he comes out ahead and the Leafs have a better chance of winning. As it happens, the Leafs more or less broke even on shots while Gardiner was on the ice.
One thing that we often talk about with young players is that they should be improving as the season goes along. It's easy to see why that might be the case for Jake Gardiner - he jumped straight from NCAA hockey to the NHL with no AHL time in between, and he was thrust into a fairly big role very early on; after playing 13 minutes in his first game and 12 in the 2nd, Gardiner was given a hugely increased role with 25 minutes in just his 3rd NHL game! We would expect a player put into that position to have some road bumps along the way.
To that end, I decided I was going to see if Gardiner had shown signs of improvement in his advanced stats as the season went on. He played in 75 games last season which I've decided to break down into 1/4 of the season stretches. This worked out to 19, 19, 19, and 18 games. Conveniently, the last 18 games were the ones which took place with Randy Carlyle behind the bench, so they may give us a bit of a look at if or how things changed once the new bench boss took over.
I decided to look at a few things. One was Gardiner's Corsi rate (what percentage of all Corsi events the Leafs got while Gardiner was on the ice) which should give us an idea of how the Leafs were doing on the whole with Gardiner on the ice. I also wanted to take a look at the changing context that Gardiner was being deployed in, both in terms of overall ice time and zone starts. Unfortunately I was getting some wonky results between Time On Ice and Behind the Net while trying to gather zone start data, so I wasn't able to collect data that I feel is reliable. However the general picture seems to be this: Gardiner got a roughly 50/50 split of zone starts for the first 1/4 of the season and got offensive zone starts at rates in the mid-50s thereafter.
So, does Gardiner show improvement as the season goes on?
|Games||Gardiner Corsi||Team Corsi||Rank (among D)
[Time on ice is only in raw minutes, not seconds, because I was too lazy to do a conversion.]
There are a couple of things that seem clear here. One is that Gardiner had a really strong middle half of the season. A Corsi rate above 50 is good, and 53.2% is excellent. The Leafs were a very strong possession team with Gardiner on the ice in the middle of the season (Cody Franson is the player tied with Gardiner for 1st among defenders during that stretch). However, his numbers are pretty poor at the season's bookends. He showed strong marked improvement while Ron Wilson was still coaching the team but then took a big nosedive once Carlyle took over. His minutes also took a big hit after Carlyle became coach, showing a diminished role for Gardiner.
I find it difficult to gauge what's really going on here largely because the effect of the coaching change seems so drastic. Did Gardiner not mesh well with Carlyle? Was Gardiner just a victim of the fact that the whole team entered a huge tailspin to close out the year? Is individual player Corsi just too subject to big shifts in just a quarter of a season to be a useful measuring stick? I don't really know. I think this chart is telling, though:
Gardiner shows a very marked improvement as the first 3/4 of the season progresses that begins before the team as a whole shows much improvement. Gardiner looks like a player finding his footing in the NHL who, like the rest of the team, isn't sure how to recover when everything goes south at once. Maybe that's just me imposing a narrative on some fairly unremarkable data, I'm not sure.
It's difficult to piece together a perfectly compelling narrative out of this information, but here's what I think we can conclude about Gardiner at the moment - he struggled when he first entered the league as he tried to make the adjustment to NHL hockey and as the coaching staff tried to figure out how to best utilise him. Once Gardiner was placed in a position to succeed - by taking away some of his defensive responsibility and letting him focus on the high-end skill aspect of his game - he was able to succeed and showed marked improvement. As the season drew to a close and Randy Carlyle took over as bench boss the team had a lot of difficulty and Gardiner was one of the players who showed a sharp decline.
That being said he's just 22 years old, has just one season in the NHL under his belt, and did seem to be turning into a pretty strong player until the whole team began to tank. If I had to place money on Gardiner's 2nd NHL season, I'd say that even though his point totals may drop a bit due to on-ice SH% regression he'll likely have a pretty strong performance from an advanced stats perspective. He may not be ready to play difficult minutes yet though, so the coaching staff will need to deploy him in more offensively-oriented situations in order to maximise his effectiveness.