FanPost

Give Your Head A Shake. Or... Why The Leaf Possession Game Will Rise - Reason Le Deux.

POP QUIZ, FUCKERS!

Ha. Never expected a quiz, didja? Ok. This is the Professional Hockey Player Evaluation Test (TM), which you must pass in order to read any further.

Its purpose is to see if you can select a better hockey player than Leaf management has. If you cannot, then, frankly, you should be traded to the Hab fan-base. [not norm: a fan-base which is very small. and unattractive. don't go there.] [fraidy ed: might want to mention risk of hab fans setting fire to their cars.][not norm: no need. ppp readers don't have cars.]

The Quiz consists of 5 test cases. Each case pairs two potential acquisitions, matched according to age and style, all statistics made comparable, etc. [pedantic ed: all? no way you can match every factor, norm. you just got lazy didn't you?] [not norm: did i mention that it's sunny outside, and the streets are paved with hot and cold running blondes?] [ed: got it. so... maybe i should dial in some tunes for people, so they don't get all focussed on the the missing details.] [not norm: try carlos. he always makes their brains go away.] [ed: done. hockey = the game of love.]

Santana & Michelle Branch - "Hockey: The Game of Love."

Feel better, everyone? I know Carlos feels better. Which means... so should you. He's that mellow.

Ok. The test. And may the Wendel be with you.

1. CHOOSE A VETERAN NHL WINGER.

Player 1A. He averages 18 goals and 40 points a year, taking 1.5 shots/game. He had a positive RelCorsi every year. In his last 3 years he ranked 2nd, 1st and 4th in RelCorsi for team Forwards.

1B is the same age, etc. Two years ago, he had 7 goals & 13 pts, taking 0.8 shots/game and ranking 14th of team Forwards with a RelCorsi of -8. Last year, he had 5 goals & 15 pts, taking 1.1 shots/game and ranking 13th of team Forwards with a RelCorsi of -13.

Choose 1A or 1B.

2. CHOOSE A VETERAN NHL PUCK-MOVING D-MAN.

Player 2A. He averages 45 points/year, taking 1.9 shots/game. He also averages a +6 RelCorsi, and has led his team's D-men in RelCorsi in 3 of last 4 years.

2B. Two years ago, he had 15 pts, taking 1.1 shots/game. His RelCorsi of +2 was 4th best of team D-men. Last year he had 32 pts, taking 1.5 shots/game and had a RelCorsi of +3, the 5th best of team D-men.

Choose 2A or 2B.

3. CHOOSE AN OLDER AHL D-MAN TO FILL IN A TOP 6 ROLE.

Player 3A. He had 16 goals & 53 pts last year in the AHL, on 2.3 shots/game, with a +17 plus/minus.

3B. Player 3B had 8 goals & 20 pts last year in the AHL, on 1.9 shots/game, with a -1 plus/minus. In the playoffs, he scored at a 16 goal and 36 pt pace (extrapolated to 82 games), on 2.3 shots/game.

Choose 3A or 3B.

4. CHOOSE A YOUNG AHL D-MAN PROSPECT.

Player 4A. Had 33 goals & 63 pts in the AHL last year, taking 3.4 shots/game.

4B. Player 4B had 4 goals & 55 pts in the AHL, taking 1.9 shots/game.

Choose 4A or 4B.

5. CHOOSE A YOUNG NHL D-MAN.

Player 5A. Had a 15 goal and 43 point pace in a partial season, taking 1.2/shots per game.

5B. Player 5B had a 0 goal and 27 point pace in a partial season last year, taking 1.0/shots per game. In the playoffs, his scoring rate extrapolated to a 14 goal and 68 point pace, while taking 1.5 shots/game.

Choose 5A or 5B.

It's probably easier to understand now why I suggested that anyone unable to pass this test should be traded to the Habs. Because... anyone in their right minds would take Player A over Player B in each of the 5 cases.

Now, here's the rub. [idiot ed: the rub? like A535 rub?] [not norm: christ man, it's a way of speaking. "here's the rub, which we've reached." "the rub" = the problem. it's a phrase people use, ed, when they're actually clever, and not just faking it.] [chastened ed: oh.]

The rub is that in each case, Player A is... also Player B. The only difference between the A and B cases is the A case shows the player's performance before his concussion, while the B case shows their performance after.

[ed: insert mind-blown gif here?] [not norm: no way, cliche. we need something even more mind-blowing.] [ed: like... the Nuge dressed like a hippie?] [not normal: sweet.] [basking ed: * basking in rare feeling of... of... having done something right *]

The Amboy Dukes: Journey to the Center of YOUR BLOWN FUCKING MIND.

Now, with questions of the probability of the concussions recurring and of any associated financial risks being set aside, we still face the challenge of forecasting the concussed player's likely future performance. Now, a good way to explore this... is through the case studies.

Player 1A and 1B is, of course, Colby Armstrong. Sure, he had some haters here. [witty ed: who didn't? after all, THIS. IS. PPP.] [not norm: should i have read that in sparta voice? 'cause i read it in nerd voice.] Nonetheless, Colby had straight-up good possession stats in his Atlanta years. For instance, he finished ahead of Kovalchuk in Corsi every year, and against harder competition. [not norm: hey... ed?] [ed: yeah?] [not norm: just FYI, in Atlanta... Colby also had a better Corsi than Clarke MacArthur.] [ed: * dissolves in tears at the glory that might have been *] In fact, even in his 1st year in Toronto, Colby's RelCorsi was positive, behind only the Grabo line's, and ahead of players such as Kessel.

We tend to forget all this because $3 M X 3 years was way too much for what he brought, and Armstrong filled no pressing needs, and he had no high-end offense. at. all. Still, facts is facts, and he out-Corsi'ed the shit out of both Kovalchuk and Kessel.

Then Armstrong took that clout to the head. He'd had other injuries, but they hadn't ruined him. For example, in year 1 with the Leafs he was on his usual 37 point pace. Then came the concussion. Even after sitting out 6 weeks, his points and goals collapsed to 13 or 15 on a full season, his possession play fell into a hole, and his shots disappeared, going from 1.5 to 0.8/game. It's worth noting the decline in shots following the concussions, a seemingly odd, but useful signal.

And so, Colby Armstrong's NHL career came to an end. [ed: and the swedish fiasco began.]

Player 2A and 2B is John-Michael Liles. Once again, lest we forget, Liles was a shit-hot offensive D-man in Colorado, scoring 40-50 points pretty much every year, and QB of the powerplay. But again, perhaps surprisingly, he also ran up damned fine positive possession/Corsi rates during 5v5 play. Even in his 1st year in Toronto, he was hot - he was on a 51 point pace, with a positive RelCorsi, and shooting like mad - a 169 shots/year pace.

And then, just one week after Colby, Liles too got concussed. And again, please set aside the insane contract renewal thingie for the moment. When he came back after his own 6 weeks off, he fell back to a 15 point/year pace, and his shots per game basically halved, from 1.9 to 1.1/game. In short, he went off a cliff.

But last year, after some more months off, Liles rebounded - at least partially. He may still sometimes have looked "off" a bit, but he came up to a 32 point pace, and was taking 1.5 shots/game. This was still a notch below his old level - but he still runs a good RelCorsi and 30 points a season isn't disastrous.

Player 3A and 3B is.... Paul Ranger, pre- and post-concussion in the AHL last year. Interesting that while you can see the sharp initial decline in his post-concussion stats From a 53 to a 20 point pace), he appears to have rebounded by the time the play-offs rolled around, with his goals pace rising back to 16/year, his points to 36, and his shots returning to 2.3/game.

Now. With Player 4, shit is about to get real.

[ed: hey! HEY! i'm not at all sure that the best thing for our readers is to suddenly get all "real" on them. these are veritable KIDS, not norm.] [not norm: what's that? not normal kids, you say?] [pseudo-intellectual ed: no no. "veritable" kids. it's a word i found. in a book. it comes right after "conflate." smart-sounding, ain't it?] [not norm: "vegetable" kids? i'm not sure i'd be quite harsh on them. sure, they live in basements, their footwear reeks of failure, and they suck at angry birds, but.... ] [ed: can i just put on some music? something soothing?] [not norm: only if it's sexytime.] [ed: so.... janet?] [not norm: oh yeah. i'd give $240 worth of pudding to hear that girl.]


Janet Jackson = $240 Worth Of Pudding.

Player 4A and 4B is.... Jake Gardiner in the AHL last year. 4A is pre-concussion, 4B is afterward. Looking just at his points totals, you might think he was back up to full speed. But. His goal-scoring rate collapsed, falling from 33 to 4... and his shots per game as well, falling from 3.4 to 1.9 per game. Seen in isolation, maybe we can explain away why his shot/game rate fell - changed pairings, rust after a lay-off, etc. But seeing this pattern across multiple players, it raises the case that the impacts of these serious concussions can linger well after a player returns. [not norm: i'd love it if someone with a better knowledge of concussions, and/or with a stats-bent, chimed in on whether work has already been done on this.]

Turning to our 5th player, he is... Jake Gardiner again. But looking at his NHL performance this time. 5A shows the 2nd half of his rookie season, when he'd gotten adjusted and really begun to perform at a Calder candidate pace - i.e. a 43 point pace for the 2nd half of his rookie year. [not norm's confession: as one of the earliest "jake for calder" promoters on ppp, i felt this guy was an exceptional talent. which also means that i'm likely quite biased in his favour.]

Whereas 5B shows how Gardiner did returning to the NHL after his concussion, and shows quite a contrast with his 15 goal and 43 point/year pace. Again, we see a sharp decline in goals, from 15 to 0, and a fall in both points and shots. I would argue that these numbers, seen alongside the exact same pattern of decline in his AHL stats, confirms that he wasn't yet completely back in the flow, or performing as well as he could.

Now, this sounded a bit goofy when I argued it at the time, but I think watching Jake's performance in the playoffs showed us all exactly what he plays like when he's fully on form - rushing and shooting and playmaking in the same top end style we saw in the 2nd half of his rookie year. Maybe even better. But noticeably different than he had been during the first weeks of his post-concussion return to the Leafs.

To look at the numbers again, in his 12 rocky, regular season games, he only had 4 points - 3 of which were on the PP (or in the 2 seconds immediately after.) Which means his stat-line was really just 1 (or 2) ES points in 12 games, and no goals.

Now, some of you are going to argue that he was fine, great and dandy upon his return to the NHL in March. Well, I would encourage you to note that, in fact, this kid who ripped it up at ES the year before, getting 23 of his 30 points in 5v5 play, had just 2 formal assists in 12 games at ES last year. Which meant, his points/60 performance was the equal of such notables as Korbinian Holzer & Ryan O'Byrne. Go take a look. And just 1/2 that of Franson, Gunnar and Liles. For me, while slumps and such are possible, only 1 or 2 assists at ES in the NHL, and the same greatly reduced pattern in the AHL, says he wasn't back on his game.

Contrast that again to the playoffs, where in just 6 games, he had 5 points, 3 at ES, and his shots per game rose sharply, to 1.5/game.

And if I may draw the dividing line even finer, note that Gardiner got 2 of his 4 points on the last night of the season. Which means, he may well have taken the last step in his recovery, that step where all the pieces fall back into place, in that last week. But whether it's seen as 4 assists in 12 games, or 2 assists in 11 games, I can't see much of a case for him being fully back during the regular season.

[not norm notation: though normally i don't talk about drummers, goalie-tenders, i believe we saw something similar with reimer's concussion. he had a .921 save % as a rookie, and then began with a .912 early the next year. then came the concussion, which the leafs didn't want to talk about, but when he came back, he only played at a .889 rate. ultimately, after a 2nd time-out, he returned and put up an improved .904 rate to close out the season. and then, after a summer off, reimer appeared to re-up his game, to a .924 save % last year. which means we likely have a healed and happy drummer goaler in the band for the team, which should lead to a goaled album.]

Concussions are, of course, extremely variable in impact, ranging from, say, a Marc Savard and Chris Pronger at one end, to players who return without missing a beat - such as Lupul, perhaps, who came back and posted a high point/game rate, with plenty of goals and shots. I wanted to highlight a group of Leaf players whose severities fell in-between, but whose performances diverged sharply after their concussions. With them, the question for management becomes not just "Will they get another one?" but also, "Will they ever return to their previous high levels and development trends?"

[not norm: as a personal note here... which may bore some of you, so you folks can just skip on ahead eh, no need to dally here for mere personal notes... bye-bye!!! .... hey... pssst... are they gone yet?.... the haters?.... anyway, fuck those guys, cause this is the most interesting part of the post. ok, in real-life, for trues, i have had, across my wide-ranging, highly-variable and rainbow-coloured sporting career, a grand total of 19 concussions. this is true. only 2 came in hockey, and neither during actual game-play. anyway, 3 of the concussions came during the last decade, when - being more aware of the problem - i could pay more attention to my "recovery." when i returned to work at my job [ed: right. now you're clearly lying. lieing? liaring? jesus, i hate being an editor.] as i was saying, in my job, i'm actually required to be quite creative. as in, chew up masses of data, see how they link up and test the strengths of their connections until eventually... i can spy some sort of patterns. i then have to create something new out of it, new ways to run things. anyway. be that as it may, during my last 2 post-concussion recoveries, i noted that while i could talk to people, navigate, watch tv, read, write and answer questions at work... i could not string together the multiple steps required to really create anything new. this went on for about 3 months, and was incredibly frustrating. to be yourself and feel normal, but not be able to put your finger on what's missing. it was very hard, from the inside, to even SAY that something was missing, because it was just.... a lack. compared to what i knew i had once been capable of. and then one day... boom. it was back. like waking up back in the world. i was fully recovered, and instantly returned to tormenting my colleagues with the type of multi-paged productions you all have come to know and [ed: fucking despise.] [not norm: totally fucking love. a lot.] in sum: there's a gap between being officially able to function, and meet some minimum test and being fully yourself.... ok. we should probably head out of this side-note and go talk with the losers that skipped on ahead. but, all in all, wasn't this the best part of the trip? the trip, the best part. i really like. [return of ed: i'm not cueing up that fucking doors song, no matter how long you go on.] [not norm: "yeah, i'm proud to be a part of this number."] [sagging ed: you're gonna start quoting that bit about 'when i was back there in seminary school' next, aren't you?] [not norm: you CANNOT petition the lord, with prayer!] [sad-eyed ed: ok. when all else fails, i guess we can whip the horse's eyes....]

The Doors: This Is the Trip, The Best Part.

Ok, the reason I raised the concussion issue is that it powerfully affects how 3 of our defencemen - Gardiner, Liles and Ranger - are likely to perform this year. And if their recoveries are actually well along, and they're playing at or near their full capacities, then we should see a second source of improvement in Leaf possession stats this year.

Let's look in a little closer at Gardiner. Instead of just taking his NHL career summary line of 87 games and 34 points, and running a projection off that, let's break it down a bit finer.

For starters, in Jake's case, it actually breaks down very sharply into 4 very sharp stages, which give us 4 very different trend-lines.

Stage #1. As a rookie, he was clearly a 21 year old kid coming out of college, slight build, just a handful of AHL games as warm up, and naturally a bit hesitant in finding his way around. Also, he'd likely been advised to play it a bit safe to start the season. As a result, how stat-line showed him to be a potentially nice little D-man, but nobody was writing up his Calder hopes. Taking just those first 35 games, up to Christmas, his scoring rate was just 21 points/year, with 0 goals, and he only taking 0.4 shots per game.

Now, I know most of you are ignoring that shots/game stat. But it turns out, for defencemen, you shouldn't - because it tracks incredibly well with the number of points a D-man is likely to get. For example, can you guess how many NHL defencemen in the last 20 years have taken just 0.4 shots per game? Well, I'll tell you. In 20 years, only 14 guys have shot that infrequently over a full season. And the median points they got while shooting that rarely was... 8. So, clearly, Jake needed to shoot a helluva lot more. Now, on the plus side, what the assist numbers showed was that even though he hadn't yet geared his shooting, he was obviously a pretty high-end skater, who could pass and make plays and generate offence that way. So, that was Stage #1. Let's move ahead in time.

Stage #2. After Christmas, and in particular, after J-M Liles was knocked out with his concussion, Gardiner was asked to step up. And he did. In fact, as the year went on, you could see Ron Wilson using Gardiner more and more often as his "run-and-gun-and-please-get-us-back-into-this-game" weapon. And his point totals showed it - he went from a 21 point pace to a 43 point pace. Worth noting, his shot rate triples from 0.4 to 1.2/game. He's got some confidence now, he's got the green light and he's decided to shoot. As a result, he not only scores his 1st NHL goal, he scores 7 of them - in just the last 40 games.

Now. If you're projecting - and with really young players, it's often a matter of their progress over months - do you work off his having had a rookie year trend of 21 points? 43? Or the average, 30? And off 0 goals, or 14? Or the average, 7?

It matters because there are a fair number of good talents in the league, but really high end talent is rare as hell - and you build a team around it. For instance, over the last 20 years, there were 38 good young D-men of Jake's age who got 20 points in their rookie year. There were even 18 guys who got 30 points. These are good and very good young players. But only 1 got more than 14 goals and 43 points. [ed: bonus question, kids! who was that young defender?] [not norm: dion.] [ed: * shoots self *] [not norm: you missed.] [ed: JUST LIKE DION! HA!] [dion: * glares *]

Put another way, if you look at the list of 21 year old D-men who scored 20 points it's made up of guys like Luke Schenn and Barret Jackman. At 30 points, you find Zack Bogosian and Wade Redden. But the list of 21 year olds who can get 40 points are players like Weber, Kaberle, Doughty and Pietrangelo.

So with 2 distinct levels of performance from Jake's rookie year, management would still be pretty unsure of what they had going into 2012-13. Let's roll the film and see the next stages of Jake's career.

Given the NHL lock-out, Jake's development shifted over to the Marlies, where he was firing on all cylinders, just as he had during the 2nd half of his rookie year with the Leafs. Not only did he play at a 63 point pace, but even more impressive, he had a 33 goal/year rate, and was taking a whopping 3.4 shots at net in an average game. For comparison, do you know how many NHL D-men have shot at that rate in any season over the past decade? [ed: 25? 127? no? 4?] [not norm: jesus, ed. you're reading this post ahead of time, you have access to the internet, and you still manage to fuck it up.] [ed: internets?]

Ok, the answer is... none. Over the last decade, no one's had an NHL season where they've shot that frequently. Which is useful to know, because it shows that Gardiner can shoot, and will shoot, even if it was just in the AHL. So at this point, you're probably most likely to conclude your evaluation of Gardiner by looking at his higher scoring rate, the one where he shows he can and will shoot the puck.

Stage #3. And then... just before Christmas of last year, he got concussed. And got his own 6-7 weeks out [not norm: 6-7 weeks apparently being the de facto standard Leaf post-serious-concussion time off.] When Jake came back to the Marlies though, it seems that while he was still able to pick up assists, his goal-scoring collapsed, to a rate of just 4 per year. And his shots per game... nearly halved, from 3.4 to 1.9 per game.

So. Remember the debate? And was Jake Gardiner in fact "fully" recovered when he was called back up to the NHL? If we hate Randy Carlyle, then the answer is "yes." [ed: FREE JAKE! FREE JAKE! FREE CAKE!] But as a caution, note that we're seeing his shot rate, halved, and look at that goal rate decline (33 to 4.) He's technically passing the tests, but I argued at the time, his game hadn't yet gelled - the flow and the confidence wasn't back yet. He wasn't fully back.

Proof in the pudding? I think it's here. Even after his NHL return, he wasn't back at his full capacity. Even after that 2nd call-up. His NHL pace fell from 43 to 27 points a year, he got 0 goals and he was back down to 1.0/shots per game, and as discussed, his ES points/60 were appalling. O'Byrne-esque. To me, all this taken together says he wasn't yet back to playing at full bore.

[ed: speaking of bores.... oh wait. i probably shouldn't have come in there.] [not norm: don't you have something positive you can bring to this dance, ed? like... music, maybe?] [grasping-at-straw ed: * grasps at straw. * falls off chair *] [not norm: look... how about finding us a song... a how-hard-it-is-to-be-coming-of-age song... yeah... like, for an innocent young defenceman, who makes it in the bigs, only to get knocked down... but who then... gets back up! All inspirational at the end, like. got anything?] [ed: oh. sure. i got the one. the bieber one, right?] [not norm: dear wendel in heaven. NO. NOT THE BIEB. WE NEED TO GET GARDINER OFF THAT SHIT.] [sulky ed: don't care. playing it anyway. you're not the boss of me.] [not norm: fortunately though, i AM the only one here who knows html.] [sulkier ed: I DO SO KNOW METAL. I KNOW METAL BETTER THAN ANYONE. LIKE... I LIKE... STYX!!] [not norm: excuse me for a minute folks, i gotta minimize any damage our friend's video can do. also, i think i found something better.]

Justin Bieber - Baby.

The Hours: Ali Jake Gardiner In The Jungle.

Stage #4. And then came... the playoffs. With the full-on return of Jake Gardiner. One we hadn't seen play like this since.... well, since before his concussion. And what did the full-on Jake look like? Well, he scored at a 14 goal and 68 point pace, took 1.5 shots/game, and at times looked... dominant. And all this, against one of the toughest teams in hockey, while playing 24, 26 and eventually even 27 minutes a game.

So what do we have here?

The kid who scored 30 points, and then a 27 point pace, but who won't/can't shoot often enough to make him a serious offensive threat?

Or the kid who didn't just step up within his first months to a 14 goal and 43 point pace, but who then tore the AHL up at a 33 goal and 63 point pace, then racked up 5 points in 6 games against the Bruins, and was happy to fire the puck?

My provisional conclusion is that we're looking at the latter. Which makes a big difference when we then add in the other pieces of the Jake evidential ouevre. [ed: i like eggs too.] [not norm: yes, ed. yes, you do.] Anyway, let's look at the rest of the picture.

1. HIS CORSI AND POSSESSION PLAY. So, Gardiner can score. And in terms of possession play, his RelCorsi has been positive both years, and in the playoffs, at +2.6, +30.1 and +13.0. His straight-up Corsi has also been fairly good, at -0.3, -1.2 and then -10.3 in the playoffs. A good sign, but we should avoid putting too much weight on it, as he was playing (and rightly so, I think) in quite sheltered roles. i.e. The RelQofComp he faced was 6th of 8 in his rookie year, then 9th of 10 last year, and finally, 4th of 8 in the playoffs. And even then, he's allowing a lot of shots against. 30.2 in his rookie year, 2nd worst of the D. Then an improvement to 28.2 last regular season, but way back up, to 38.6 in the play-offs (worst of the D-men.)

So while his RelCorsi has come out positively, it's mostly because he can generate offense, and has faced weak competition.

2. HIS DEFENCE. On defence, then, Jake still has some problems. If you watch the games, you can see he's still simply not comfortable playing defence yet. Obviously, he gets caught up-ice from time-to-time, but usually his skating allows him to catch back up. But in his own end, he doesn't have a good sense of where he should be positioned, how far he should pursue, when to block shots, etc. Added to this, he is still also a very slight build, and finds it hard to muscle guys away from the net, or to move them off the puck along the boards. And when things get chaotic around the net, he can sometimes revert to simply "swatting" the puck away without looking. [ed: should i show them that video from game 7 overtime?] [not norm: if you wish to die, then, yes.]

The thing is, much of this can be learned. It might be useful, for instance, if he just sat and watched tapes of slighter, but faster and more mobile defencemen from around the league, and learned to improve his use of his stick and his positioning.

3. HIS PARTNER. Given his high-end offensive skills, and obvious defensive weaknesses, who Jake is to be paired with is a big deal. Looking back, 1st year he was paired most often with Luke Schenn. Which worked pretty well for Luke. But maybe not so great for Jake. For instance, Jakes WOWY stats show that his Corsi rose by 7 points when away from Schenn. Who he played well with was... Cody and Dion, where his Corsi rose to 54 and 61. In his 2nd year, he was paired most often with - doubly ironic this - J-M Liles. He did alright with Liles, not great. Again though, his Corsi went up by 4 paired with Dion, but sunk badly with O'Byrne. And in the playoffs, he had time with Franson and with O'Byrne, the former being perhaps the better idea.

Looking ahead, while pairing Jake up with Franson has appeal, the difficulties are obvious. Franson too has mostly played against very weak competition (weaker than Gardiner's in both regular seasons.) Plus, you're concentrating a lot of offensive power in the same pairing. I'll come back to this in the 3rd part of this series... but for now, let's assume Jake can be given lots of minutes, against mixed levels of competition, while not being paired with a pylon. [ed: or o'byrne.] [not norm: i just said that.] [ed: or schenn.] [not norm: just said that too.]

4. HIS OFFENSIVE POTENTIAL. While we've all been wowed by some of Gardiner's offense, it's worth noting that he still has some pretty obvious gaps in his offensive game. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though, as it shows that - if he can improve in any of these areas - then he can move his game even higher. Take his shooting, for instance. The quality of his shot, his willingness to shoot, and his ability to get into shooting position all looked very weak in his first 35 games. What we then saw, however, was that even without packing on the pounds, he had a damned good shot, he was willing to shoot, and it turns out he could position himself well enough to get 1.5 and even more shots off per game. So, for starters, we'd hope to see a high shot-rate this year - at least 1.5, and ideally, 2 or more per game.

So what other weaknesses are there in his offense? Well, while he has the speed to rush the puck and enter the zone, he often carries the puck wide. Only rarely does he drive to the net with it. Nor have we seen much in the way of a finishing move from him. As opposing defenses realize this, they may well just let him go wide, and focus on picking up his team-mates coming in through the middle. To counter this, Gardiner may have to start taking the puck to the net himself, and force opposing defences to go with him. With his skating and ability to maneuver, we should be able to see him sweep around - and through - some defences, but he then needs to take the puck to the crease.

5. DURABILITY. This is perhaps the biggest unknown going into the year. As Gardiner becomes more widely identified around the league as a threat, other teams are going to aim to punish him. They'll do this in the Leafs crease, for instance, where he can expect more punches to the face and sticks to the back. When he rushes, he'll see some players targeting him as he swings round the net. All this, after a bad concussion and slow recovery, leaves a large unknown, even if he is healed and operating at full-tilt at the start of this next season.

6. POWERPLAY TIME. Gardiner has been given a fair bit of PP time as he's come into the league, rising from 1:58 to 2:27 per game in the regular season. Truth is though, he hasn't done all that much with it, scoring at a rate well below a Dion, Franson, Liles or even Gunnar. Now, he did flash a bit more ability in the playoffs, but as discussed, Gardiner's strength on offence has been more off the rush than in fixed plays. If this stays the same, we can expect he'll stay on a 2nd PP pairing, leaving more PP time for Dion or Franson. However. If his shooting continues to improve, and he uses his mobility along the blueline, we could see him add a whole new arrow to his quiver.

7. WHAT WILL GARDINER'S PRESENCE IN THE LINE-UP, WITH A GOOD DEFENCE PARTNER, DO FOR OUR FORWARDS? AND FOR OUR TEAM POSSESSION PLAY? That, my friends, is a piece I'll save for Part 3. [ed: hint hint - it's REALLY fucking good. just you wait!] For now, I'd just conclude with this. If Jake Gardiner gets the ice-time we expect this year, alongside a reasonable partner, and just his defensive play continues to improve as he learns the ropes, then and his Corsi will rise, just from that.

But more important - and probably most exciting - in terms of his offense, the numbers show us that even if Jake's PP time doesn't rise, and even if his shot rate remains flat at just around 1.5, then we can still expect to see a new addition to our 40 points per season stable of D-men. Alongside Dion. And perhaps - stunning thought this - since he'll be getting most of those points at ES, there'll be enough PP time that we could see Cody at 40 points too.

In short, this year's Leafs could well have 3 defencemen with 40 points. When was the last time you saw that, folks? [ed: * flipping wildly through pile of old hockey news *] And their partners could well be NHL-capable players, who get points on their own but can also play solid defence, such as Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser. With J-M Liles as a solid, offensively-minded fill-in.

Which should also give a better sense of why I think the Leafs possession game stats will be vastly improved this year, even given their losses upfront. [See Part 1 for yet another mention of how I noticed that the Leafs lost some guys upfront - like Grabo and Frattin, whom I loved - but just didn't write about it here because this series is on their DEFENCE.]

But anyway, it's time to close. It'll be a few days before our concluding part. So... say "goodnight," ed. [ed: "goodnight ed!"] [not norm: i love it when he does that.] [ed: and let's close with a song!] [not norm: i await your selection. with fear and trepidation. in that order.] [ed: JAKE SAY... HOW YA LIKE ME NOW? HUH, FUCKERS? HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW?] [not norm: well... damn. my work here is done.]

Jake "The Heavy" Gardiner: How You Like Me Now?

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