Here's the #1 reason why the Leafs will be a vastly superior possession team this year -
While debate about Clarkson and Grabo and Bolland and Bozie was busily sucking the oxygen out of the room, the Leafs went out and quietly found two - not one, but two - top-end Defencemen.
This mysterious pairing will transform the Leaf defence this year - and will raise Toronto's possession statistics by more than any other single player, trade, acquisition or pick could have.
Mysterious New Leaf Defence Pairing.
And yet, this mysterious new pairing has been even more mysteriously ignored by most fans and analysts, even those who most value a possession-oriented game.
Let's look at the most under-rated acquisition first. Now a 5-year veteran, this defenceman is the heavenly answer to those of us who have prayed for a "Beauchemin-style" D-man, although with 3 qualifications:
- He is 4 years younger than Beauchemin.
- He scores more than Beauchemin.
- And his career Corsi is better than Beauchemin's.
That's right, he's a better possession player.
To give you a sense of just how good he is, and why I think he'll add so much to the Leafs possession game, let's look for a situation comparable to playing for the Leafs. i.e. Did our mystery man ever have to play for a really scrambled, bad-at-defence team?
Oh. He did? A 30th place and a 29th place team? And at just 23 years old?
Nice. Very... Leafian.
So how'd our hero do? Shot dead, right? Well....
1) POINTS & ES POINTS. Actually, he scored 10 goals and 31 points (10 points up on Beauchemin.) Which was 21st amongst NHL D-men in points/60, and 11th in goals/60. And lest you think he was just padding his stats on the power-play...
... he scored 25 of those 31 points during 5v5 play, which was 7th best in the league. He'd have tied for 3rd best in the NHL in ES scoring if he hadn't missed 10 games - ahead of Duncan Keith, Chara, Kaberle & Dion.
The year before, just his 2nd year in the league, he'd already cracked the Top 10 for points/60 at 5v5 play.
So, he's a Top 10 of all NHL defenceman in terms of scoring during 5v5, and proven capable of breaking 30 points.
Dude Can Shoot.
2) TOI. Beyond the ability to score, it turns out he can eat minutes, and in tough circumstances. More than 25 minutes a night, in fact. That was 12th in the league (18 seconds less per game than Beauchemin.) Or, for Leaf fans, it was more TOI than Dion did last year.
More precisely, in regular, 5v5 play... he was 1st in the NHL for TOI amongst D-men, at 20:24 a night. Which is more 5v5 time than NHL.com shows any Leaf D-man ever playing - Dion, Beauchemin, Kabby, Gunnar or McCabe.
The following year, his TOI remained incredibly high, even through injury, at 24:30.
So, he's also a Top 10 of all NHL defenceman in terms of munching minutes overall, including tough minutes, and #1 in the NHL for taking 5 on 5 minutes.
3) PK. He spent little time on the PP, but rather, a full 3:28 a night on the PK. The same amount as Chara, only 10 seconds a night behind Beauchemin.
And of the 54 D-men who ate more than 3 minutes a night, our guy... had the 3rd best Corsi. Just behind Lidstrom. (Beauch was 17th.) Looking at his RelCorsi of +19.8 on the PK, he was 1st in the NHL.
Or, in more old-style terms, he led all the heavy PK-playing D-men with just 34.1 shots against per 60 minutes PK.
So, again he's a Top 10 of all NHL defenceman on the PK in terms of time on ice, he's Top 3 on Corsi on the PK and #1 in terms of allowing the fewest shots against.
4) CORSI & REL CORSI. Now let's look first at his possession play during all that 5v5 time. Unsurprisingly, he had the best RelCorsi of all D-men on his team, at +9.3. Which was 16th best amongst the 179 regular NHL D-men.
None of which had a higher RelCorsi than him while facing tougher QComp.
Looking at his straight up, no funny schtuff, 5v5 Corsi score, even it was positive, at +4.75. Which is damned impressive on a 30th place team. And, again to compare to least year's Leafs, where no D-man had a positive Corsi, and guys like Dion and Gunnar got -18's and -14's, you get a sense of how well this guy played.
That +4.75 ranked him 39th in the league. But again, only 7 guys got better Corsis while facing harder CorsiQofComp, guys like Lidstrom and Chara.
And to put a personal face on it, that "tough competition" translates into his #1 opponent in minutes faced being Alex Ovechkin, #2 Eric Staal, #3 Marian Hossa, and #4 Ilya Kovalchuk. That's very hard competition, and to repeat, he was out-possessing them, on a last place team.
See That 2nd Horse? Ovie. No Question About It.
So, once more, he's a Top 40 of all NHL defenceman in terms of unadjusted RelCorsi and Corsi, but #1 or #7 when looked at through strength of competition faced.
5) SHOTS AGAINST. I found it striking to translate all this fancy-stats shite into an easier to grasp measure, like "shots against." And it seems our new guy was only giving up... 21.4 shots against... for each 60 minutes of 5v5 TOI.
Which is a number to ponder. Because 21.4 appears - to Leaf fans - to be really quite low.
Which, in fact, it is. Because for the big-minute-eating, tough-competition-facing D-men in the NHL that year, his 21.4 shots against per 60 minutes was 1st in the league. Meanwhile, Beauchemin was allowing 26.0 shots, Chara 27.3, Pronger 24.2 and even Lidstrom 22.2 per 60 minutes.
So, one more time, he's #1 of all NHL defenceman in terms of allowing the fewest shots against during 5v5.
6) WOWY. Now, it's possible that his performance might actually be the result of riding on the coat-tails of his Defence partners and line-mates. But when we look at his with or without you (WOWY) numbers, it turns out that he made the Top 8 guys he played with do better. And not just a little. The main forward line he worked with saw their Corsi rise from 45.3% to 52.8%. That's 7.5%.
Remember Bozak and Kessel and their bad possession and bad defence? Well, that forward line he was working with did worse without him than the Bozak line. He improved them to 52.8% - well above the waterline.
Wait. Did You Say... We're On The BOZAK Line?
And the next year, he raised the bar further by improving the performance of the top 17 guys he played with. All 17.
I didn't bother with comparisons here, but the fact that he improved the performance of the 8 guys he played with most one year, and the top 17 the next, is pretty stellar.
7) THE NEXT YEAR. He injured his shoulder in November of this rather stellar year, but played through it before sitting out the last 9 games (since the season was gone.) The next year, he again played through it, 3 times missing games, before being shut down for surgery after 42 games. Even hampered to the degree that he needed surgery, the same high performance levels can be seen in this next year.
He played over 24 minutes a night, and took almost 4 minutes a night on the PK. His Corsi was effectively the same, a +7.5 RelCorsi and +3.2 Corsi. His shots against were still a very low 24.3 per 60 minutes. Only points show a dip, from 31 to a 26 point rate.
8) BIG PICTURE. So. Time to ponder this one, kids. Big picture. You've got a D-man who's just 23, younger than young Jake Gardiner is right now. He's playing for a last-place team. The coach gives him more 5v5 time than any D-man in the league, and then piles the PK time on top. And how does he respond?
- He scores a lot. 21st in points/60, 11th in goals/60, and 3rd for Even-Strength points/60.
- He smokes the PK. 3rd best Corsi, 1st in RelCorsi and 1st for fewest shots against/60.
- On the 5v5, he has one of the best Corsi scores of all D-men, and does it against tough competition - Ovie and Kovie et al - while on the worst team in the league.
- In strictly defensive terms, he cuts the opposition down to just 21.4 shots against per 60 minutes.
- In doing so, he makes the top 8, hell, the top 17 guys he's playing with... play better. In possession terms, it's as though he turns his top line from Bozak's guys into Grabo's.
In short, at age 23, this guy is basically... Best in Show.
Wait a minute. Rewind. So this D-man raised his Forwards Corsi by 7.5%?
Oooh. Imagine a 7.5% Corsi improvement in Kessel + Bozak + JVR.
That would turn the Bozak brigade from being a 45.6% Corsi sink, into instead, playing at... 45.6% + 7.5% = 53.1%. I could use that.
And, oddly enough, that was the Grabo line's Corsi during its two peak years - 53%.
Ok ok, Bozak will never be Grabo. But you take my point - some defencemen seem able to dramatically improve the possession play of ther forwards. This guy is one of these rare animals.
Swear To God, Bozak.
Either Pick It Up, Or You're Glue.
9) PUCK POSSESSION MAN. Steve Burtch has already done a lot of work to spread the information that Paul Ranger wasn't just an average D-man during his time in the steaming pit that was Tampa Bay, but rather, that he was a top-flight D-man. As in, a Top 10 or Top 20 defenceman in the league.
We didn't hear that much about Ranger because: a) Tampa, and who cares?; b) Their big-name forwards sucked up TV-talk-time; c) For lazy sports announcers, Dan Boyle was the more well-known D-man; and, d) Who ever gave a damn about Corsi and possession anyway?
But here's the thing. While he played, Ranger's numbers weren't those of a #5 or #6 guy. They were, as outlined above, great. A top pairing guy. For instance, if you think possession and shots are important, then it was Ranger that you wanted over Dion, or over Beauchemin, or over a trainload of others.
10) SO HOW GOOD IS HE NOW? Well, rather than just throw out the heard-too-often view that "he'll have lost it, the league's too fast, he's ANCIENT" let's go back through the basics - physical, mental and timing:
- Physically. The word is that Ranger came to the Marlies last year in not just good shape, but great shape. But the bigger picture story is that he will almost certainly be in better shape than many of his peers. Because... they've had 3 extra years of having the bejeezuz kicked out of them by the ~100 NHL games extra they've been playing each year. Ranger, in the meantime, will suffer much less from wear and tear.
Age-wise, there's 110 NHL D-men older than him (i.e. 3 or 4 per team), and his peers are guys like Enstrom, Carle, Gorges, Pitkanan, Seabrook, Dion et al. Most of these guys are considered in their prime, rather than over it.
Since returning, his shoulder appeared fine, and the surgery appeared to have worked. This is worth thinking about a bit. Ranger played for a season and a half with a left shoulder so bad he had to sit out 6 TIMES for multiple games to give it a rest. Nonetheless, he racked up the stats we showed above, even with a busted shooting shoulder and the difficulty a bad shoulder causes along the boards, in front of the net, etc.
And though I'm a bit loathe to say it, it looks to me like Tampa was basically desparate to have him in the line-up. They played him, at age 23, an ungodly amount, and every minute a hard one. That 1st year, they waited to shut him down until just 9 games to go, whe the season was lost. And the 2nd? It's even uglier. Only after Ranger had had to sit out for the 6th time, AND the team hit a 7 game losing streak, leaving them at 15 wins and 27 losses, did they shut him down for surgery. I'm sure at age 24 he wanted to play, guy was a horse. But in terms of professional management of an injury? Not great, Tampa.
Tampa's Season. Traditional Ending.
However, the shoulder appears to be properly healed now, and has had a year's testing. Which also means that, in this one respect at least, Ranger should be in superior physical condition to where he was back then.
But he did pick up a concussion last February. And when he returned, his points/game seemed to dip, so that's a concern. However, by signing a $1 million contract, he's obviously been medically cleared by the Leafs.
But as I've argued with other players before - such as Gardiner and Reimer - it often takes more time to fully re-inhabit ones skills and bring everything back up to speed. With luck, the past 6 months or so have helped with that, but this is the #1 flag I'm raising on Ranger's return. Not age.
- Thinking The Game. Beyond the physical, a player has to be able to think the game. Just walk through the stats above, and you'll see that this guy must have had the head for the game. He was no behemoth like Chara or Pronger, nor a skates blazing guy like Coffey or Gardiner, nor a guy with a booming shot like Dion. And yet, as a D-man of 23... he could shut down Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Chara, Malkin and Sid... dominate the PK... raise the game of every player he was sent on ice with... turn St Louis and Lecavalier loose with quick passes and smart puck-handling... cut down shots against to 21 per 60 minutes... and generate basically the best possession stats of any D-man in the league.
And he did that at age 23. That's how old Jake Gardiner is today. And he did it on a last-place team. While playing 25 minutes a night. Imagine if Gardiner had a year in which he turned out not only to have 30+ points offensive chops, but also turned into a guy who could reduce our shots against to 21 per game, raise everybody's Corsi by 4 to 8 points, and who play PK like a monster. We'd be demanding that he get the Norris.
So, with this ability to think the game central to his game, Ranger is likely to have lost less than if he was reliant purely on blazing speed for instance, or the ability to hit. And more generally, the mental ability to play the game is an aspect of hockey that doesn't seem to "decay" with age as physical attributes might. If anything, older players rely more on their ability to think the game as the physical edge slides a little.
Another positive side here is that, while with the Marlies, Ranger took on the role of not just returning himself to game shape and game-speed, but also, of mentoring young guys like Gardiner, Blacker, Holzer, Rielly et al. This bodes well for his ability to think the game, as, in order to teach, you often have to sharpen your own thinking first.
- Getting Back Up To Speed. I've heard a lot about how, by sitting out 2-3 years, somehow Ranger won't be able to handle the "quickness" of the game. And I'm sure, that when you're out of the front-line fray of any activity, you lose a beat. But. Every single hockey player faces this challenge, usually, multiple times in their career. When they first come up, they have to raise their game from the AHL or Junior. A lot of players have to speed up - or even completely revamp - their game because they're coming in from a European league. And a lot of them have done this at ages well beyond the usual 20-22 year olds. We just had an entire league locked out for months, making the off-season an exceptionally long one. For players coming off injury, there's often full-year recovery times.
But for Ranger, he's already shown can handle the speed of the game as you adjust from Junior or the AHL. So the raw ability is certainly there. And he doesn't have to dramatically adjust or change his game, as so many entering the NHL are forced to try. He can simply aim to be what he already is. And he's not coming back after a lay-off from a broken leg or back surgery or other life-changing injury.
One last thought here. Every single defenceman in the NHL, including every one who was any good and had a career lasting more than 5 years or so, has had to face precisely what Paul Ranger is about to. Namely, they've had to face a decline in their reaction times. For a lot of skills, the decline is underway from 18 on. For others, they've peaked by 25 or 26. And yet...we still find great defencemen playing the league, at a very high level, past the grand old age of 29. In short, every player has to handle some decline in their reaction time and overall speed.
So I'm not as sure as some seem to be that Ranger can't handle the jump.
Residual Issues. I suspect the main issues here are not going to be straight-up age or physical conditioning, as Ranger is just 28-29 years old, and in good shape. Nor should his ability to think the game or respond at speedbe an issue. The main issues I have left ticking in the back of my mind are:
Mental. He left the game once, but at this point, all we can say is that he has diligently worked his way back into contention, signed a contract, and appears ready to raise his game once more. Now, maybe Carlyle going berserk or Ranger feeling like an injury is being mistreated or pressure from the fans or personal questions will make him decide to leave, I donno. But right now, he's back, committed, working hard and seemingly wanting to play.
The Concussion. This one, as I said, I worry about, just as for Grabo, Gardiner, Reimer and others. However, the fact is that almost every hockey player now gets a series of concussions during their careers. We'll just have to wait and see, same as with them.
Or Maybe I Just Wanted To Be Big In Japan.
Ever Think Of That?
Because Now I Am.
11) SO... WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE? COMPARABLES? I think that if his concussion is healed, and Carlyle recognizes what he has, then the Leafs have picked up - from thin air - a damned fine Top 4, and maybe a Top 2, defender. He's in his prime age-wise, his stats and credentials are top-notch, and he's just taken a full year to work himself back into the game, get back up to speed and get his head into the game.
In terms of comparables, I'd say he's likely to prove he can be (by season end, after working through the kinks) as good as Carl Gunnarsson. Just to back this, I'd note that Ranger has always had more offense than Gunnarsson, his Corsi has always been higher, his TOI on the PK has been higher, and his overall results better, whether measured on traditional or fancy stats. Which means, if - as we suspect - he may have lost a step on his offence, or is slightly slower to pick up his man at home, then his numbers would likely fall back to Gunnar's range.
And I love Gunnar. So this is a great pick-up, even if he comes in at this level.
Gunnar & Ranger. Peas. Pods.
Also: Carlyle's Minions.
And if Ranger hasn't lost that step, then we have someone who's more comparable to... a Beauchemin. Or perhaps, in another close match in terms of age, points and Corsi -- Fedor Tyutin of Columbus.
Could the Leafs have done as well through any conceivable trade for a defender this off-season? Not that I can see. Ranger's 28-29, whereas guys like Scuderi and Ference and Roszival and Ference are 34-35, and cost millions more.
I think we got the best guy, and at a great price.
12) WHAT WOULD I EXPECT FROM HIM THIS YEAR? Obviously, there are a lot of ifs and external factors in this. Assuming his concussion is healed and he doesn't run into any major injuries, and if Carlyle recognizes he has a quality D-man but doesn't use him in a maniacal manner, then I would expect the following from Ranger:
- Scoring at a 20-30 point rate.
- An ability to play 20 minutes a night.
- At least a 2nd pairing role on the PK.
- A notably strong possession game, with a positive Corsi.
- A WOWY impact that lifts the Forwards he's with, whether the Kadri-Lupul or Kessel-Bozak line.
- And, if paired with Gardiner, a steadying influence there.
13) FINAL THOUGHTS. As I said, I think the Leafs moves on Defence will result in a significant lift to their possession game this year.
This is the 1st of 3 posts on the nuts and bolts of this issue, all taken from the defensive end - and not intended to be a complete picture of the team.
In this 1st one, I have tried to show the type and rough degree of improvement Ranger could bring to the Leafs game. In particular, I have tried to emphasize that Ranger is the kind of defender who improves a team's game both because he is solid defensively (21 shots against, PK ability, etc.)... but also because he is a strong and fast puck-mover, able to score points himself, as well as spring top-flight forwards into action.
There is as well another defender who will lift the Leafs possession game, to be discussed as Reason #2 - to be followed by a final, but not unrelated move, Reason #3 which will further boost the Leafs possession game for the defensive end.
Hi-Yo Silver(stick)! And Away!
14) FOOTNOTE. And yes folks, we all know that Paul Ranger was in the system before Dave Nonis, so he doesn't get all the credit. Though he did out-bid other teams and sign Ranger this Summer. So that as good.
And also, we all know that Randy Carlyle is insane, a Beelzebub of a man (if truly a man) who will: certainly not include Ranger on the roster; or if he does, sit him in the press-box; or if he does play, give him insane minutes; and then likely make him fight Colton Orr for food.
And also, yes, I am aware that the puck possession powers of Grabo and Mac have been lost, and I lament the rejection of Grabo instead of Bozak, and Clarkson's term is too long and Bolland is full of unknowns. I get all that.
I just wanted to talk about something we really haven't bothered much about, something which seems to me the start of a story which could potentially turn out much brighter than we'd imagined.