Note for all you wieners who can't read good. If you like, just scroll down to the very end, where there's a brief summary called "The Skinny."
Hockey fans and hockey analysts do a bad job of evaluating defencemen. While hockey talk has a lot of fact-free white-water areas, I'm not sure any produce more foam and spray than our daily chatter about defencemen. This post aims simply to throw a few facts into the water, to act as stepping stones and maybe help us out of this endless churn.
Truth is, as hockey fans, we mostly like to talk about our forwards. And our goalies. But our defencemen? Not so much. Except when they suck. Seriously, think about how many discussions we have about our forwards - and in particular, how often these debates have strong, and specific, statistical backing. Like with forwards and face-offs. Or shooting percentages. Or how many minutes a 4th line should get. How many minutes Kadri should get. Whether Kessel is normally or abnormally streaky. Whether McClement can handle protect a lead. Hell, when it comes to our forwards, we even argue about who is best friends, who has the best moustache and who is precisely how cute.
In all this we use stats to back up our judgments. And not just goals and assists and points. It's face-off percentages, in which zone, and how many shots and goals come from winning them. And shooting % and how high it can be, or should be, and for how long. And TOI, split out across PP, 5v5 and PK. Plus Corsi and QComps and Zone Starts and on and on. This is standard fare when we talk about forwards.
But listen to how Leaf fans talk about their defencemen. And the sophistication of the stats used in those discussions.
Stat #1. Dion is a caveman. 100% caveman. Huge minutes. Total monster back there. That's a stat, right? Big Monster Minutes/60.
Stat #2. And he's been a big scorer, one of the best in the league, for years. Right? I dunno how many points he usually gets, but it's a lot. A lot, pal.
Stat #3. And he shoots the puck hard, like 100 mph. But wow, he misses a lot. Though maybe somebody said he actually did ok. I dunno, really.
Stat #4. We LOVE how Jake skates. LOVE. IT. And we LOVE seeing Rielly haul that puck. And we LOVE it when Cody weaves that shot of his through traffic. And we LOVE Gunnar because he stands silent vigil, Dion's right-hand man. Or left-hand man. Whichever. But 110% love for Gunnar. And Jake. Rielly. Cody. Gotta play 'em.
Stat #5. The rest of the D? They suck. Fire them into the sun. They can't score, they're slow as hell, I saw this picture where two of them were on the ice and they allowed this stupid goal, and then this one guy, he took a penalty, like he does all the time 'cause he's slow, and besides, we have at least 4 guys in the AHL that can make the jump right away. Maybe 5. 6 if you count Liles. Who we want bought out. Or called up. One of those.
I'm stretching it a bit, but this is closer to the usual state-of-the-art debate about the Leaf defencemen. Statistically, it just isn't in the same ballpark as the way hockey fans talk about forwards. Or goalies, for that matter.
Now, those amongst us who are more scientifically and statistically-minded [aka "mutant nerds"] have argued - convincingly, I think - that the problem stems in part from the nature of human vision and attention. Foe example. Play back the mental film of a goal being scored against us. Watch as play grinds to a halt. See that guy on our team, the guy closest to their scorer? See his face collapse and that look of dejection as he fails to stop the goal? Well, we come to associate that failure... with that guy. That damn fool defenceman.
The nature of hockey is that the guy nearest to the enemy when he scores against us is... one of our own defenceman. Our eyes see him. Our attention locks in on him. Replay after replay highlights him. Sure, the puck goes past the goalie. But when the camera zooms in on the guy who scores, and how he scores it, it's a defenceman almost always left stranded, failing. And our brains begin too connect that goal... to that defenceman. He's to blame.
Here's a breakaway goal. Look right behind the guy scoring. It's a defenceman, struggling to catch up. The guy who got beat. The goof.
A 2-on-1 goal? See that defenceman stuck in the middle? God, he chose wrong. Again.
Goal scored off a scramble? That defenceman didn't clear that guy.
Puck tipped and the goalie screened? Defenceman in the way.
Defencemen. What assholes.
Here's a useful method. Painful, but useful. Focus on one defenceman, like a hawk, for an entire game. And count the number of times you see him lose a 50/50, fail to take his man off the puck, fail to clear the front of the net, mishandle a bouncing puck, fail to get to a rebound first, fail to clear the zone with a pass, fail to get his shot through, take a bad penalty, etc.
You will absolutely, of a certainty, be able to rack up two hands worth of mistakes. And they will be far more visible than the mistakes a forward makes.
Which leaves us with these visceral images of these bungling clown D-men... but without any specific, made-for-defencemen stats available to help us sort the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats.
Seriously. Name one statistic that applies with more power to defencemen than to forwards. Blocked shots? Hits? Come on. As has often been discussed, these are pretty sad-ass stats. And in all likelihood, they're counting things which are counterproductive.
My punchline? This statistical void means that people - even statistically savvy people - often fall back on their personal preferences, their personal agendas. I can, right now, pretty much go to any hockey site in Toronto and find people who hate... Dion. Gunnar. Fraser. Ranger. Jake. Cody. And these opinions seem to have absolutely no... moorings.
Because the truth is that once your gut turns against a D-man, there are guaranteed to be 80 or 90 or 100 times a year when a goal will be scored against your team... AND THAT USELESS MEAT-SACK WILL BE STANDING RIGHT THERE! And he always just needs to be 10 feet further to the left, or to have moved more quickly, or taken the other guy, or been quicker on the puck.
And you know what makes it worse? Often - really often - you'll be right. That's why they call them 50/50 plays. Because you lose them a lot. And as a defenceman, it's tough to be both faster than all the fast forwards coming at you, while ALSO being stronger than the big guys they park out front of the net. Plus there's the problem that some D-men read the game well, and so, position themselves well beforehand. Which means they get the puck before it becomes a 50/50. Or they move the guy out front so the goalie gets a good look, and thus, no rebound. But who's keeping count of those? The events that don't happen. The dangers that don't arise.
All this... is incredibly hard for us to see, for all 6 defencemen, all through a game, 82 times a year.
Which is why stats people try to use numbers. To try to check what they see against what's been counted. To try and sort out how well, overall, things are coming together for a player. But. It's statistically incredibly hard to do for an individual D-man. So. Today's exercise.
I'm going to grab some stats that have been applied to the Leafs defencemen - OVER THE 1ST 31 GAMES - and we're going to have a look, to see what we can see. Some of them aren't likely to show much. Others will, I suspect, show us a surprising amount. I'm gonna plunk those ones down in the stream, to see if we can't use it to make more sense of our defence.
I've structured this post so you can treat it as a quiz if you like, and test yourself against the numbers. Lemme know how you do. No way I would have passed before researching this stuff.
I know you think this stat sucks. Still, we're gonna look at it. Now, I know you all know that Dion leads the Leafs D with a +12, which is pretty stellar. But - according to NHL.com - which Leaf D-man has an appalling -11? Worse than Luke Schenn. Or Ladislav Smid. Or Luke Schenn. It's name and shame time, folks. Which Leaf D-man has the worst Plus/Minus?
Answer? Sure, he's a teenager. And yes, he gets back into the play really quickly. But young Rielly hasn't always made it back into the play this year. With 24 Even-Strength goals against in just 22 games, he's running a nasty -11.
Put another way, when Rielly's on the ice, the team's GAA is 4.11. With Dion and Gunnar and Ranger and Jake, it's under 2.00.
So. People can talk all they like about how the kid's offence makes up for his defensive errors, but think about that 24 goals against in 22 games. Then match it up against 13 goals for while he's been on the ice. They don't actually equal up.
Admission. I know I've felt like Rielly's been playing better lately. I think other people have too. Well, just as a heads up, plus/minus says that's nonsense. Because Rielly's entire -11 has come in his last 10 games. Maybe irrelevant, but maybe not.
Ok, in terms of goals scored per 60 on the PP... Behind The Net says Gunnar and Ranger are the Leafs best two D-men. But. While those two should maybe get a pinch more PP time, that's likely just a SSS thing. So let's focus on the Big Guns - Cody, Jake, Dion and Rielly. Starting with Cody, you and all of TV-land know he has a lot of assists on the powerplay, as in, 11. Which is amazing, and tied for the lead with Erik Karlsson, and ahead of PK Subban. But after Cody, which Leaf D-man has the 2nd most PP points?
Answer? Pretty easy to guess, really - Dion has the 2nd most PP points. Only problem is that that second best total is only 5. And kid Rielly's already got 4. Now, since Dion's had 108 minutes on the PP, while Rielly's had just 39, that doesn't look so great. Yes, the Leafs score equally well with either at the point, the fact is that Dion's PP point-scoring is down to just 1/2 its rate from last year.
And he's only gotten 11 PP shots through on goal. In 31 games. That's about 1 shot getting through every 10 powerplay shifts.
Now. If I asked you who'd be the best future replacement for Dion on that 1st PP unit, a lot of you would suggest Jake Gardiner. But again, facts are facts. In Jake's 3 years, he's been at the bottom of the Leafs PP scoring table every year. Jake is incredible off the rush, but on set-piece powerplays... it's not clear he's found his groove. Whereas young Rielly... leaky though he may be 5v5... seems to be firing pretty well at 5v4 well already.
3. PENALTY KILLING
Lately, we've had endless blah-blah about our collapsing PK. About how our goalies are regressing, how Smithson sucked, how McClement sucks, how JVR gets tired, how much we miss Bolland, how nobody misses Bozak, etc. Hell, we've even heard rumours of the return of "fronting." To which, may I just say ... The Horror.
What we haven't really heard jack about are the defencemen who play the PK. [Surprise!] I mean, are the Leaf D-men any damn good at the PK? Well... I didn't know. Sure, I knew Dion and Gunnar played a lot [3:45 a night], that Fraser used to be good at it, and that Ranger and Franson have been playing more [now >2:00 a night.] But who is the best Leaf defenceman on the PK?
Answer. Turns out to be... Paul Ranger. And not just by a little bit. He's better, and by a lot.
For starters, we all know how the Leafs PK has collapsed and is now allowing 60 shots against per 60 minutes. Which is true, according to BTN, for Gunnar and Cody and Dion. But not for Ranger. He's allowing just 45.
Let's look more widely, at Corsi Against - i.e. Shot Attempts Against. You can see that Dion, Gunnar, Franson and Fraser are all dead bottom of the NHL, allowing an insane 102 to 108 shot attempts per 60 minutes. But not Ranger. He's allowing just 77.
As a result, his CorsiRel is +40, Gunnar and Dion are around -18, and Cody and Fraser around +0.
Now, these are huge gaps, equalling at least 5 goals less on the PK per year. Which we can already see in the Goals Against rate, with Ranger at 5.16, Gunnar a 6.59, Cody 7.19, Dion 8.13, and Fraser at 10.79. And all in all, Ranger's ranking in the Top 25 D-men in the league on the PK, in Goals Against, Corsi, QComp, etc. - while the rest of the Leaf D-men are league bottom.
Sure, there may be other possible explanations. But we're 31 games in, and Ranger has got as much PK time in as Kulie and JVR and MayRay and Cody. And 80% of his PK time has been with Cody or Fraser, whose numbers collapse away from Ranger. And he's had the same forwards as everyone else - MayRay, McClement, JVR, Kulie etc. in that order. And the PP line-ups he's faced has the same or harder Quality of Competition.
Ranger may simply be quite good at this. As he was in Tampa Bay. It's just that, in Toronto, nobody's noticed.
Sometimes defencemen get to play in front of great goaltending, or behind forwards running hot. Roll lucky on both, and you get a whopping fat PDO. Last year, Franson and Fraser benefitted from just such a huge PDO. This famously fattened up Fraser's plus/minus - and Cody's point totals. Was this reality though? Could Cody become the Leafs Larry Robinson? I know I sure hoped so. Still... this year's return to Earth, both of Fraser's plus/minus, and of Cody's scoring (ouch) gives us pause.
This year, there are two Leaf D-men getting exceptional luck. One of whom appears to have gotten ALL the luck. He's had a Top 10 On-Ice Shooting %, as well as goal-tending that's been out of this world. These have combined to give him a PDO that is so fat... I said, his PDO is SO FAT... ok ok. Basically, there's never been a defenceman this PDO fat, this far into a season.
So tell me true, who is the Luckiest Defenceman since PDO record-keeping began?
Answer? Well, earlier this week, Dion Phaneuf was running a 1078 overall PDO, with an On-Ice Sh% over 11% and an incredible .971 Save %. Think about that for a minute.
And now... think about what would happen as that starts to fall. Because it will. All those times you see Dion standing in the crease, and the goalie covering the puck, and nobody remembers any errors that led to it getting there, because... the puck stayed out. Well... more and more of those are likely to turn into scenes of Dion standing amidst the wreckage, front and center, camera on his face, a million Leaf fans groaning and looking for someone to blame.
Guess who they'll blame. Go on. Guess.
Now, I wrote that a week ago. Dion's PDO is already deflating, down to a mere 1069, with a poor, lowly .960 Save% behind him. So, even though I don't believe his PDO will necessarily fall to 1000 right away or anything, it is gonna deflate somewhat. And that's not gonna be pretty, when you think about what the media is gonna say, and all those freak-show Dion-hating fans.
However. I'd still like you to ask yourself, with this fairly powerful little fact in front of you - and in the name of your future sanity, your credibility as an analyst and your deep, personal commitment to Borje-love - is Dion actually playing that well this year? I mean, we love him and all, but... has he really been that much better than last year? Has he even been as good as in prior years? Because he has certainly been the beneficiary of incredible good luck. And once the good ship PDO turns.... look out.
5. GIVE-AWAYS + TAKE-AWAYS
Another stat you think is stupid. And it is. Because it's counted badly across arenas. And it doesn't apply very usefully to high-skill forwards who take risks, etc. But. Amongst defencemen, you really don't want that many turnovers. And we'll just compare Leafs to Leafs. And we'll look at the NET of their give-aways and their take-aways, ok? So, which Leaf defenceman coughs it up a lot, but takes it back much less?
Answer? By some quite clear distance, the winner [actually, loser] is... Gunnar. NHL.com has him down as a -26 so far, followed a long way back by Rielly with a -13, then another long yard to Dion and Cody at -6. And Ranger with the fewest, at -5. But, for what it's worth, our man Gunnar appears to be throwing up a lot more duds this year than the other D-men. and in fact, far more than he has in the past.
This one I mention because some fool of a Took started floating the idea a while back that minor penalties are a great tool for evaluating defencemen. That is, taking a lot of minor penalties means you suck. In particular, the kinds of penalties that are caused by being "too slow." You know, you're behind your man, and so you hook, hold, trip or interfere with him. I admit, I hadn't really looked into before. But, you know me, I thought it'd be worth 60 seconds effort. Which - as it turns out - was more than some had put in.
So, which Leaf has taken the most minors this year, and in particular, the most "Slow Boy" penalties? [To be fair, I thought it worthwhile to include forwards in my research, just in case they had the slowness problem as well, right?]
Answer. Well, in terms of minor penalties, Dion's on top, with 16 minors this year. Ranger's 2nd amongst the D-men with 12. Up front, Kadri has 13, JVR 11, Bolland 9 and McClement 9. And since the NHL.com site actually keeps game logs, we can look at the penalties and count up the "slow" ones.
And it turns out that the guy with the most Slow Boy penalties is... Jay McClement, a forward, with 9. Followed by Kid Kadri at 8. Followed by JVR, with 7. Who knew these guys were so slow? In fact, even if you just look at the D, poor old Ranger doesn't win. Gunnar has 7, while he's tied with Dion, with 6.
It turns out that some folks saw Ranger had a bunch of penalties, and assumed they were caused by him being slow. They didn't actually go back in look at the logs. Because in their minds, Ranger was.. like Fraser. And so, his penalties must have come because he was slow. Except the logs show that 2 of Ranger's early penalties were for shooting the puck over the glass. [Not surprising perhaps, given a return after 3 years out of the NHL. But no more slowness-related than his 4 penalties for roughing, slashing, high-sticking, cross-checking and general rough play.]
Like I said. Once a visual impression catches hold, even the best amongst us tend not to want to run those impressions hard up against the stats. Anyhow. That kid from Hamilton said it best.
Facts are simple and facts are straight,
Facts are lazy and facts are late,
Facts all come with points of view,
Facts don't do what I want them to.
All defencemen love getting powerplay time. That's an iron law of hockey. Why? Because you get loads of points on it. Much harder to score during 5v5. It's a different skillset - less time to tee your shot up, fewer forwards wide open, 200 feet to cover just to get a shot, etc. And yet, last year, the Leafs came up with 3 D-men near the top for ES points - Cody, Dion and Gunnar. But who leads the Leaf defence this year in points... excluding points on the powerplay?
Answer. Well, oddly, Ranger and Dion both have 7 non-power-play points [including 1 each on the PK], and with Ranger having done so in 60-80 fewer minutes. In a previous post, we saw some of Ranger's break-out passes, and Dion has had 2 great goals from jumping up into the rush. And it has to be said, Rielly has also shown strong play during 5v5, and has 5 points there already.
But the other 4 D-men aren't - or rather, weren't - scoring at 5v5. Nobody much expects it from Fraser, and while Gunnar can be seen ramping up his offence [and wowing us with his "Crazed Viking" break-away moves], he's most likely looking at that 10-20 point zone this year.
And for some time, young Jake was in the same category. Until he was shifted back to his old side, and apparently began watching films of how he played last year in the playoffs. Anyway, at Game 20 he was on par for a 14 point year at ES. But then, in just his last 8-10 games, he's begun running hot, at a 40-50 point pace - and has now jumped up to tie Ranger and Dion with 7 points away from the PP.
Cody, however, is still stuck on 3 Even Strength points, after 30 games. And 0 goals. Now, when he DOES get a point, you remember what he's capable of. Gorgeous point shots for tips. Jumping into the rush, like in OT against Edm. But at last year's pace, he would have had 10 points by now. So this is a significant drop-off.
Why? Well, maybe it's the slightly tougher Competition. Or uncertainty around his partners. But his overall ice-time is up. And he's playing with higher-scoring partners like Rielly and Gardiner - not Fraser. Yes, his zone starts are slightly tougher, but ExtraSkater shows it's the equivalent of shifting less than 1 face-off per game from the Ozone to the Dzone.
So a mystery, perhaps. Though here are two other odd stats I found. 1st, last year, Cody drew far more penalties than he took, a +5 over the year. While this year, he's a -5 already. So he may be rushing less with the puck, or lagging more coming back. I donno. But it signifies a change in his style of play, I believe.
And 2nd, according to ExtraSkater, Cody is taking wrist-shots only HALF as often as last year, while he has DOUBLED the percentage of slapshots he's taking. Plus, his average shot is from about 10 feet further out. To me, this looks - again - like he may be joining in the rush less, sitting back at the point more. Which would also explain why more of his shots are being blocked this year - at times with dangerous results.
Maybe this is just SSS and his game will come around. Maybe it's his pairings. Sometimes I actually think he's not well. But maybe the best advice would be to do as Jake has done... and go study film of when he was playing great. There's lots of it.
8. HITS + BLOCKS = SUCKS
What they're saying is that a lot of old-time hockey guys liked to see hits and blocked shots. But see, back in the day [i.e. before you lil bastards arrived with your giffery and your cat lolling sites], blocking shots was more of a specialist skill, where a defenceman would slide across the ice and take a shot in the gut. In other words, it was manly as hell, and to be saved for the playoffs.
Nowadays, everybody and his idiot half-brother is doing it, and the media mouthpieces seem to think it's just the thing for real defencemen to do. All the damn day. Same as what they've taken to calling "hitting." Most of which bears as much resemblance to Bobby Baun as Ava Gardner. [Or some other equivalent young actress you all might relate to. That Basinger girl, maybe.]
Anyway, I know you hotshot Advanced Stats guys are with me on this. These two modern stats suck. Look, face it. They're useless for measuring defencemen. Anyway, some of you guys hate this stat so much, you've taken to arguing that it's a better measure of suckiness than it is of ability. Because if you're blocking a shot or hitting a guy... you don't have the puck. So, I'm going with your new anti-equation.
Hits + Blocks = How Much You Suck
And yes, we all know ahead of time that Mark Fraser is going to have the highest rate of Hit + Block = Suck. But in his absence... who stepped up, or down, or into that pit and filled in with some quality hits and blocks and suckiness?
Answer. The answer is, of course, Cody Franson, 2nd in the NHL in hits now. Cody's been listening to Randy, it seems, and I know it surprised me that he was ahead of Dion. But facts is facts, and Cody rang up a right proud combined score of 5.0 Hits + Blocks per game. More than Dion's 4.7 and Gunnar's 4.4. And light-years worse than such non-suck defencemen as Paul Ranger (3.5), Rielly (3.2) and Jake (2.2.)
9. TOUGH COMP
We often hear that Dion and Gunnar face harder competition. Which - especially with a coach like Carlyle - seems likely to be true, and in an extreme form. However, the serious students of hockey stats tell me that QComp doesn't really tell us much. Same with the Quality of team-mates. They say it's a touch more important than QComp, but ultimately, not a huge deal. Now, I gotta say, I'm not yet convinced by this. So I looked at it anyway.
Leafs-wise, it's a plain and simple truth that Dion and Gunnar face the offensive monsters of other teams. I just now took 10 top names - Crosby, Ovie, Thornton, Tavares etc. - and looked at Dion's time against them this year, versus Jake's (though it could have been any of the other Leafs D.) 150+ minutes for Dion to ~40 for Jake. And it's the same for Ranger and Cody and Rielly and Fraser. Carlyle uses Gunnar and Dion harder than any D, by far.
But Carlyle does the same with team-mates, only in reverse. It's less-commented upon, but Carlyle likes to match his D-men up with certain forward lines as well. So. Which Toronto D-man gets to spend the most time with the bottom end of Toronto's forwards? By which I mean, Orr and McLaren and the AHL'ers so far, plus Jay "Bad Corsi" McClement?
Answer. Pretty obviously, even if you're just watching, Ranger gets the worst team-mates. And on the other end, Carlyle simply does not like to send Dion and Gunnar out with guys like Orr and McLaren. So, yes, the #1 pairing gets the tougher Comp. But at least they get to attempt their break-outs with Kessel and JVR and Kadri and Lupul, and with Clarkson and Bolland and Kulemin.... rather than Orr and McLaren and the latest raft of AHL'ers.
Time-wise, Ranger gets 1.2 Goon + AHL'er forwards for every 3 he has on the ice with him. Dion gets just 0.6. [Cody and Rielly are near 0.8, and Jake just over 1.0.] Which means, when you think of Ranger trying to break out, do remember that on average, he's trying to do so with 1.2 of his 3 forwards being dysfunctional. [I made a more systematic check on this through ExtraSkater, which weighs the calibre of opponents and team-mates by their ice-time. It confirms that, once again, Dion and Gunnar face the toughest competition. But again, Ranger gets the most ice-time with the worst forwards. And has had the most time alongside Fraser.]
10. THE CORSI CUP
And finally, the Grand Prize... the Corsi Cup. Pretty obviously, the Corsi winner, for Toronto defenceman, is Jake Gardiner. He's got a whopping +15.7 RelCorsi [from BTN], his Corsi On is way ahead of any other D. Jake helps the Leafs take 4 more shots per 60 when he's on the ice, while keeping opponents to 2.5 shots fewer against.
Yes, he's had some incredibly bad nights. No way around that 37 shot attempt against disaster, or some of those goals against where he's off checking clouds. But Corsi-wise, he has rocked the vets, and he's stretching out his lead in recent games.
So. Which Leaf defenceman is the Corsi Cup Runner-up? And who, pray tell, finishes dead bottom last?
Answer. Paul Ranger is 2nd in CorsiOn, a whopping 10 points up on Dion, Gunnar and Fraser, and 4 up on Franson and Rielly. His RelCorsi is also 2nd, a +5.5, as compared to, for instance, Gunnar's -11.2. Looking at shots against, Ranger gives up 3 fewer shots/60 than Cody and Rielly, Gunnar and Dion. And he generates more Shots For than Dion or Cody or Gunnar.
You might think this is because he rode Jake's coat-tails. Except that the stats say that Cody has now spent 41% of his year with Jake [vs Ranger's 49%], but without magically raising his Corsi. And in fact, Ranger has actually had a better Corsi over his last 10 games [without Jake], than in first 10 [with him.]
Now. The hardest award to hand out all day. The award for the defenceman who lags in these shot and Corsi categories.
Basically, this is not what I had hoped to see. Or expected to see. Like I said, I was repeatedly surprised as I did this. But I can tell you this. If you think the Leafs Corsi failures mean they are going to give up more goals against, and if 1070 PDO's eventually deflate, then a whole heckuva lot of these goals are going to come pouring in with Dion... and Gunnar... on the ice.
Now, I'm expecting the cognitive dissonance to be kicking in pretty hard right now, as it did for me, but let's just walk through Gunnar - and Dion's - figures.
Starting with BTN's numbers, Dion shows a nightmarish -23.1 CorsiOn. But Gunnar comes in even worse, at -24.8. That's Korbinian Holzer territory [who had a -27], and marks truly disastrous puck possession. League-wide, Dion and Gunnar are in the Bottom 10 or 20 of almost every important possession measure - CorsiOn, ShotsFor, ShotsAgainst, etc. Sometimes they have company from Cody Franson and Mark Fraser, but usually, it's these two on the lowest rung.
Switching over to ExtraSkater, same thing. Dion and Gunnar with a CorsiFor% of 39.4% and 39.9%. [And since the media apparently doesn't quite get this yet, this means that when those two are on the ice, they get less than 40% of the shot attempts against.] This makes them the 2nd and 3rd worst of all D-men, after Ladislav Smid. Same with ShotsFor%, 5v5 Close, Fenwick, whatever - the picture doesn't change. They're near league bottom.
And yes, all the other Leaf defencemen have bad Corsi and possession numbers [Rielly and Cody, for instance, are ALSO only at 40% in shots taken.] But. Dion and Gunnar are now clearly at the bottom. And the gap between Dion and Gunnar versus Jake and Ranger is pretty huge, 18 and 10 Corsi points respectively.
At this point, what do we have as explanations? Dion and Gunnar have reasonably good defensive partners. Namely, each other. And their forwards are, most commonly, the players we argue vociferously should get the most ice-time, etc. Kessel and JVR primarily, plus lots of MayRay and Kadri, Lupul and Kulemin, and time with strong Corsi guys like Clarkson and Bolland. And as we saw in the section on Competition and Team-mates, Dion and Gunnar already get the least time with the Orr's and McLaren's and AHL'ers.
So how do we explain these awful numbers? Obviously, we have to look at the effect of Carlyle's systems, which my [brief] analysis the other day of traded Leafs suggested could cut 8-12 points off your Corsi. But still. That only brings these -24's down to a -12 to -16, compared to the rest of the league. And it in no way closes the gap with other Leaf D-men. Even including QComps and Zone Starts and such, the experts say these factors can't explain more than a few points of this Corsi gap.
For me, personally, I guess I simply don't believe that the stats we have in hand today can adequately account for the impacts of extreme roles and systems, as applied by coaches like Carlyle. Neither the way he uses players in extreme roles, nor his particular methods of playing in one's own end. I actually think Dion and Gunnar have done incredibly well, considering what they face.
But. I do think it's also likely that their play has been less stellar than we've tended to say this year. But that PDO has covered up a fair multitude of sins. For instance, Dion and Gunnar have both seen their CorsiOn decline this year, and substantially so. And their shots against are now over 34 per night. Remember how Holzer allowed 34.8 shots against last year? Well, they're in that territory. Their only salvation this year has been a whopping crazy, .960 save% behind them.
Think if that changed, falling just to a .920. That would have been another 12 goals against so far, just with that duo on the ice. Think of the waves of blame that would be pouring down on them right now.
Even on offence, even with an incredibly happy 11% on-ice scoring %, Dion is scoring at his lowest rate.... ever. He's on pace for 32 points, after averaging 46 over his career. And Gunnar? Gunnar is on pace for 5 points this year. Just 5. Shots-wise, Dion is taking fewer shots than he ever has. Ever. Both during 5v5, and on the PP. And Gunnar is also taking fewer shots than he ever has.
We don't have to like it. But.
THIS. IS. WHAT. THE. STATS. SAY.
SO HERE'S THE SKINNY.
So.Here's our take-way. You know, the Skinny.
Jake Gardiner is pretty damned good, maybe on his way to great. Pick of this litter, and not just in terms of his scoring, he's the Corsi Cup winner as well. A bit prone to getting blown out defensively, and not yet nearly as good on the PP as we might like, but overall, a pretty damned fine turn up to his year. So, Mr Nonis, think hard if you're gonna trade him. And if it's not a Top young center coming back, just say no.
Mark Fraser has been bad, by pretty much every measure - and good by none. And now he's hurt, which makes it hopeless. The Leafs should sit him til he's better. Then maybe sit him some more. Good guy. But in 2013-14, it's not happening.
Morgan Rielly can score, both at even strength and on the PP. But he gives up a lot of shots, and sooner or later, that means goals against. So either pair him up with someone solid, or don't even think about putting him out on NHL ice. The WJC beckons.
Cody Franson is troubled. He is great on the PP, but his 5v5 scoring stinks, his Corsi's awful, he's giving up Holzerian numbers of shots, and there are no obvious excuses - not ice-time nor partner certainly. And he's clearly playing differently this year - fewer wrist-shots, fewer rushes. Maybe he needs to do a Jake, and watch some film of when he was successful. Then pair him up with someone to settle him down. Turns out, that can't be Fraser this time. Also, maybe give him a physical. He may not be 100 %.
Paul Ranger has been the best D-man on the PK, he's scoring well enough in 5v5 play and his Corsi's relatively good. That's a reasonable first 30 games back, nothing All-Star though. Worth noting, though, that he's done this playing the most time alongside Fraser, plus he's had a bad set of forwards. His mistakes - the bobbled pucks and holding penalties being the two most prominent [edit: and the frigging badly-timed pinches ]- definitely exist, and need to come down. But the numbers - pretty much across the board - say that these visible errors are being outweighed by another side of his game, better positioning perhaps. Facts is facts, and there's something there. Looking ahead, Carlyle should stop pairing him with Fraser. Run him out with Liles, or with Rielly if they insist on running the kid into NHL competition. But either way, try Ranger with some forwards who can skate now and then.
Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson. They look good right now, but their underlying numbers are not good at all. Not on the PP. Not on the PK. Not during 5v5. Not in creating shots or stopping them. So an awful lot is depending on that inflated PDO. I would say, it's unlikely they are at fault for all of the bad numbers, however. They're highly-skilled, and actually pretty damned courageous, to go out and do as Carlyle asks, night after night. But it needs to change. Otherwise, when their PDO turns, the Toronto media and fans will turn on them, their reputation will plummet, and their trade value will be slashed. The Leafs can change the coach, change the system, change the match-ups, change the pairings. But they need to change something, right now, or these two are gonna get ground to bits, which would be a huge loss.
Oh yeah. J-M Liles has some chops. Always has had. Work him into the line-up. And you know, Potato-man, if you sent Rielly to the WJC and then back to Junior, it'll let you give a few games to Brennan and Percy and Granberg and co. Just sayin'.