Note: this piece was written before the Saturday game against Boston.
Overall, I've been thrilled with the work Mike Babcock has done in Toronto so far this season. Possession numbers and scoring chance numbers are better pretty much across the board, and it appears that excellent work is being done with some of the Leafs' key young players like Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nazem Kadri (even if Gardiner and Kadri aren't really that young anymore). Good players are being given the chance to shine, and even the bad ones are at least better than they were last year. Having said that, Babcock has made some curious personnel decisions so far that I am at a loss to explain, particularly with regards to his defence.
One thing that we know about Mike Babcock is that he generally prefers to have defencemen play the side of the ice that is their handedness, so any conversation about player deployment should probably begin with pointing out who plays where:
|Jake Gardiner||*Dion Phaneuf|
|Matt Hunwick||*Morgan Rielly|
|Martin Marincin||Roman Polak|
|Scott Harrington||Frank Corrado|
* indicates players playing on their off-side.
It appears that emphasis is necessary on preferring that defencemen play their natural side, because Babcock seems content to have Phaneuf play his off-side (which, of course, he has done for a long time), but also because Rielly has been shifted from playing some of last season on the left to the right this time around. OK, so it's not a hard and fast rule, but having right-handed defenders has obvious advantages, and so you would think that Babcock would be more than willing to give Corrado a shot, in oh, say, Roman Polak's place.
Let's just take a look at the 5v5 numbers from Behind The Net for a moment:
|NAME||GP||TOI/60||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi QoC||Corsi Relative||Corsi On||On-Ice Sh%||On-Ice Sv%||PDO||Pens Taken/60||Pens Drawn/60||Off Zone Start %||Off Zone Finish %|
So... Polak gets the second-best zone starts, plays against weaker competition, and also has the second-worst possession stats? Um, OK. Oh, and also, his PDO is likely to regress in an unpleasant direction.
Let's have a look at his 5v5 WOWY numbers (from David Johnson's Hockey Analysis) while we're at it:
|With Polak||Without Polak|
|VAN RIEMSDYK, JAMES||55:57||51.3||210:57||59.6|
This actually isn't as bad as I thought it would be. Only 16 out of 23 players have worse CF% numbers with Polak, but this is still bad. Polak is, on the other other hand, a mainstay on the Leafs' penalty kill, and ranks 79th in Corsi On out of 187 defenders who have played 10 games this year at 5v4, which is respectable.
The other thing perhaps worth adding about Polak is that his play just doesn't pass the eye test, these days. He's big and strong, to be sure, but he isn't quick, and this limits the time he gets to make decisions with the puck in his own end. Speaking of Polak's ability to handle the puck in his own end, does it not seem to everyone else that he's bouncing the puck out off the boards/glass an inordinate percentage of the chances he gets? One of Babcock's great successes this year (in my own opinion) is getting the Leafs to make effective, quick, short passes in the defensive zone that lead to more zone exits with possession. Polak runs counter to this strategy, and it shows in his numbers. So let's get back to Frankie Corrado.
Now, I need to admit right off the bat that I have never seen Corrado play. But there are a number of reasons to think that he might be a good fit for the Leafs' lineup. Corrado is a right-handed shot, and, if his box score stats are any indication, is a conservative defenceman, less concerned with scoring than with strong positional play. Hockey's Future describes him as a "responsible lower pairing two-way defender", which roughly coincides with his numbers. They also have this to say:
Corrado exhibits poise and control uncommon for a young defenseman. He has tremendous speed and closes gaps very well with it. He has strong recovery speed if he makes a gaffe with the puck. Corrado identifies simple plays and effectively sees them through. He can be counted on to move the puck safely out of the defensive zone.
So Corrado is another defence-first kind of player with exactly the skill-set that Babcock seems to value and also need, and his strengths also appear to match Polak's weaknesses. Moreover, Corrado is only 22, and is missing out on development time with Babcock by not also playing in games under his tutelage (though of course he would still work with him in practice). So the question remains: why isn't Corrado getting any playing time, particularly when it would appear that he could help the team?
Is it because of Polak's work on the penalty kill? Does Babcock still want a certain number of big, mean defencemen? Does he think that Corrado needs to practice with the team for longer before actually playing? Is there an injury we don't know about? Is the team trying to trade Polak? Is there internal disagreement between Babcock and the management team about Corrado's abilities? We can speculate, but ultimately, we don't know. For now, however, I'd like to see ol' Frankie get a chance.