After grading the Leafs forwards last week (see post here), we're back with a look at the Leafs defenders, goaltenders and the coach himself. Once again, I've used roles as best I can, although that gets quite difficult with defencemen--especially the Leafs defencemen, who are heavy on puck-movers and whose ice-time is a muddle after their 3rd D. But God help me, we're going to attempt it.
Once again, with the stats: Regarding the stats: the P/60 (points per 60 minutes), CF/60 (shot attempts for per 60 minutes), CA/60 (shot attempts against per 60 minutes), CF% (percentage of shot attempts for team while on the ice), CF% Rel. (how the team does in shot attempts with player on vs. when he's off), and xGF% (expected goals for%) numbers are all 5v5 and score and venue adjusted, care of Corsica.
I also included one additional number I thought said something interesting about each player, and their rank among the seven defencemen that have played meaningful time this season.
I've quoted a couple of smart people I manage to wrangle into giving me a comment for this piece, but the grades given are from me, so I'm the one to yell at. So: the defencemen!
Hang on a sec. Two things before we start.
One: the Leafs are the highest-event team in the NHL, both generating and giving up huge numbers of shot attempts, chances, and goals. If you take the old-school view that the defencemen are strictly about defence and that's it, you're going to have to give almost all of them bad grades. I don't think this is fair. I still think the defencemen bear a fair bit of responsibility for the Leafs defence, which is bad, but at the same time the aggressive, push-the-pace style of the Leafs that encourages defencemen to pinch and carry the puck is going to lead to more action. All those shot attempts going on are a feature, not a bug.
Two: defence is very hard to judge objectively. People tend to remember defencemen in a purely negative way: the mistakes that lead to goals against. Again, if I do it this way, I'm going fail the lot of them. The Leafs defence does more than just screw up and give the puck away (though they do that too.) I'm trying to avoid slamming guys just because I remember that one time they blew a coverage and looked confused as the puck went in, and to be more holistic when possible.
Good? Great! Go time.
Morgan Rielly: B
1st Pair D
Role: Elite defenceman, we hope; probable Leaf captain; all-situations player; why isn't it spelled "Reilly"
|Morgan Rielly||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||1||2||1||1||2||3||3||3||3||5||1||4||4|
One Other Number: Rielly is tied for fifth in the NHL in even-strength points for defencemen. The question for Rielly is always going to be defence, but we shouldn't take his outstanding offence for granted.
Evaluation: Mike Babcock and the Leafs very much want Morgan Rielly to be The Guy on the Leafs defence. To judge by the interviews he's giving and the chatter around him, he's being groomed for the captaincy. He's easily the Leafs leader in ice-time, and the musical chairs on defence in the early going have partly been motivated by a desire to find Rielly an appropriate partner. He's signed to a very reasonable deal for the next six seasons, marking him as a clear part of the core. (Rielly and Nazem Kadri have the only Leafs contracts that won't end before the Phil Kessel retained salary does.) Unless we make a major acquisition, Rielly is the 1D of the future.
And it's going....okay? Rielly is a phenomenal athlete and has great offensive instincts. He also gives up a ton of shots against. The Leafs as a whole seem to be made in his image this year--dynamite offence, bad defence, slightly net positive--but this problem extends back before this. His CA 60 is almost exactly the same as it was last season, though his CF60 has improved to even greater heights. Every set of numbers seems to paint a similar story with Rielly; xGF and scoring chances both show him as one of the best offensive defencemen in the league, with regrettably poor defence.
Arvind has looked extensively at Rielly in recent months, and he's increasingly suggested we need to adjust our expectations for Rielly. As he put it: "What do we want out of our top pair? For the best teams in the league, their top line and top pairing take it to the opposition. So if we have one that treads water, that's fine, but it's below par for what a top pair needs to be." Morgan Rielly is the basis for an excellent second pairing, and he can quarterback a powerplay (though Babcock has played him there less this season, apparently for didactic reasons.) But is he a top-tier 1D? As of now, no.
It's easy to forget Rielly is still only 22, and he's clearly trying his best to become the player the team needs him to be. In fact, some of his defensive difficulties this season, to judge by the eye test, have been from trying too hard. Several times he's seen a scoring chance developing and made a kamikaze rush for the puck, which either works heroically or leaves him horribly out of position. For example, here, he zooms across the neutral zone trying to beat Charlie Coyle in a footrace, despite being the last man back. Coyle gets to the puck first and passes around him to spring Eric Staal, who scores on the breakaway.
If Rielly can work at knowing when to be aggressive and when to be conservative--and it's worth remembering that Babcock is teaching a bunch of offence minded players a pace-pushing system--he may yet become the franchise defenceman Brian Burke hoped for in drafting him. He's a great skater and passer, and he does a huge amount to fuel the Leafs offence. The question isn't whether Rielly is a good defenceman. It's whether he can become a great one.
Best Moment: This is a really fun goal, and it shows Rielly's offence at its best. He makes the first pass into the neutral zone, then picks up the puck from Kadri in the Flyers' end. He then slides away from one Flyer and cuts across the neutral zone, draws two more defenders, and makes a drop pass at exactly the right time. Morgan Rielly is so good he can even get Martin Marincin goals.
Nikita Zaitsev: C+
1st Pair D
Role: Puck-moving RHD; PP quarterback; hilariously abrupt interviewee; possible long-term piece
|Nikita Zaitsev||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||1||6||2||3||5||5||4||5||5||7||2||2||5|
One Other Number: The adjusted 5v5 CF% for the pairing of Matt Hunwick and Nikita Zaitsev was 40.2%. How much of this was an adjustment and how much was the lead balloon effect of Matt Hunwick is hard to say, and maybe it would have gotten better in a large sample. But man, it did not work well at all.
Evaluation: Nikita Zaitsev is in some ways the least rookie-like rookie since Sergei Makarov. He turned 25 at the end of October; on nights where Martin Marincin is playing, Zaitsev is usually older than half the Leafs skaters. He played three seasons for CSKA Moscow and is a mainstay of the Russian national team. Dude's no amateur.
At the same time, he's learning to play in another country, and that comes with a huge set of adjustments. Katya, who watched him in the KHL, elaborates:
"In Russia, both on CSKA and the national team, his role was to carry the puck out of the zone usually into the offensive zone, but at least deep into the neutral zone. He spent most of his time on the ice for CSKA with Alex Radulov's line charging up ice, and his job was simply to get the puck in the zone and in play. A lot of KHL teams will fall back more easily, the ice is wider, and a good skater like him had few problems doing this successfully. Early on for the Leafs, where the system seemed to be a breakout pass to a forward out of the zone, he'd get into the neutral zone and then seem to remember and look for the pass. This has smoothed out dramatically as he's gotten comfortable in the system. But he is also facing a lot tougher pressure in the neutral zone."
So what to make of Zaitsev? He's obviously talented--the Leafs have, by my count, four quite good puck-moving defencemen, and Zaitsev certainly has the skill to keep up in that regard. And there are multiple reasons to cut him slack as the Rielly-Zaitsev pairing (hopefully) finds its footing. But his numbers even with Rielly are middling; Rielly has been slightly better away from him than with him. Zaitsev has thus far been a glass cannon, and less cannon than glass.
With Zaitsev, even more than with the other defencemen at this early date, it seems prudent to wait and see; it's not easy to jump to another continent and onto an NHL first pairing, and I'm almost certain he's going to improve going forward. But rating him strictly on his role and his early results, there's a lot of work to be done.
Best Moment: Everyone remembers this as Marner's first goal (and that his mom was out of her seat when it was scored), but take a moment to note Zaitsev making the good first pass that starts the play going.
Jake Gardiner: A
2nd Pair D
Role: Puck-moving LHD; player never getting the credit he deserves; Burke trade jewel; Carlyle-era refugee
|Jake Gardiner||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||1||1||3||2||4||1||2||2||1||2||3||1||7|
One Other Number: Jake Gardiner allows the second-fewest scoring chances against per 60 of any defender on the team (he also generates the most by far.) Don't @ me with this "Jake gives up too many chances" rubbish.
Evaluation: Jake Gardiner is a top-pairing defenceman in this league and I am not putting up with any arguments that he isn't.
a) Gardiner is like stat steroids for any player who steps on the ice with him. He drags everyone's CF%, xGF%, and SCF% way up. He almost certainly helped grease the wheels for the Dion Phaneuf trade and for a brief period this season he made Roman Polak look respectable. The only players who played any kind of minutes with Gardiner in the past two seasons and didn't get a CF% boost were P.A. Parenteau and Shawn Matthias.
b) Sometimes people say he plays soft competition, which is just not true. There is basically no variation in the QoC across all the Leafs defence. And Gardiner (with his regular running mate Carrick) has played many of his EV minutes behind the Bozak line, which is a defensive sieve. Gardiner actually makes them a good possession line.
c) Gardiner does start more of his shifts in the offensive zone than some other defenders, but that's because he's an incredible offensive defenceman. And his numbers are way, way too good to be solely the product of zone starts.
d) Does he occasionally make mistakes? Yes. He seems like he makes more of them because he carries the puck all the time, and people hold it against him based on the old saw about good defencemen going unnoticed.
After his underappreciation in the Carlyle years, there seems to have been a trend towards finally recognizing Gardiner's quality, although his ice-time has been slightly lowered as Mike Babcock tries to build a better Morgan Rielly on the top pair. Still, we have a really excellent player in Jake. Let's appreciate it.
Best Moment: He's shooting a little better than he's likely going to sustain, but among his numerous other talents, Jake has developed a sneaky point shot that he gets on the net with power. Since everyone knows he skates like a dream and can pass, let's watch Jakey boy blast one.
Martin Marincin: C+
2nd/3rd Pair D
Role: Big defensive defenceman; "okay but if you look at his Corsi..."; Marmar; ex-Oiler
|Martin Marincin||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||6||2||5||4||3||4||6||4||4||3||4||6||1|
One Other Number: It's way too small a sample to actually mean anything, but just because it makes me laugh: Martin Marincin is the only defenceman to post a positive adj. CF% this season when paired with Matt Hunwick.
Evaluation: Martin Marincin is one of those wonderful players whom fancy stat enthusiasts insist is actually good and whom the old-school crowd insists is terrible. This a little ironic, because at first glance, Marincin looks like an old-school defensive defenceman: he's big and defensive-minded with virtually no scoring. Actually, just by getting four points this year, Marincin is more than halfway to his career high for a season (7.)
Marincin's fancy stats have been a little worse than usual this year, although in his defence, he's been thrown all over the ice with different players, often being forced to play on his off side. In previous years, Marmar has been a strong positive influence on his team's shots and chances against, which a team like the Leafs could dearly use; this year he's been meh in that regard. Unlike Jake, Marincin generally is better the less you notice him, and he's had some pretty unfortunate moments, especially of the "controller disconnected" variety where he seems unsure what to do in the face of an opposing chance. Still, he's historically had a positive impact, and even in his chaotic early going he's been able to tread water. It's also interesting that while Babcock doesn't always play Marincin, when he does, he uses him extensively on the PK. Whatever else, there seems to be something in Marincin's game Babcock appreciates.
Best Moment: It's hard to find footage of Marincin's best moments because people don't tend to make videos for boring, conservative defensive play. His best offensive moment is that howitzer of a slap shot he deployed in the Rielly highlight above, which was pretty shocking from a guy who has three career NHL goals (that was the third.)
Connor Carrick: A
2nd/3rd Pair D
Role: Slick two-way defender; cerebral student of the game; expansion-draft protectee; Sam Carrick is gone now so you don't have to worry about mixing them up
|Connor Carrick||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||4||2||6||6||6||2||1||1||2||1||6||3||6|
One Other Number: Among defenders who have played at least 200 minutes this season, Connor Carrick is first in the NHL (!) in xGF%. Like, ahead of everybody. In the league. Is this thing on?
Evaluation: Grading players is often an awkward weighing exercise--this number looks good, this one looks bad, this is how he looked to me, this is what a smart commentator said about him. But every now and then you look at a player's numbers and a conclusion slaps you in the face.
Connor Carrick has been outstanding by every underlying metric. Basically the only question is how much credit for this ought to go to Jake Gardiner, his frequent partner, and we do have a long track record of Gardiner making everyone better. But thus far, Carrick has also made Gardiner better in turn, according to the numbers; by adjusted 5v5 CF%, they're the third-best pairing in the NHL to play at least 50 minutes together. The two of them are expected to get 70% (!) of the goals on the ice at even strength, which if actually borne out, would make them one of the most dominant defence pairings in the league.
I think, if a reader who is less fancy-stat inclined has made it this far, this is just about the point where they'd throw their viewing device across the room and swear off reading those spreadsheet nerds ever again. Carrick pinches, quite aggressively (so do most of the Leafs D), and in the early going the puck came back on him for a goal against more than once. He was healthy-scratched for two games early this year after noted not-Leaf draftee Travis Konecny burned him for a breakaway. And like many of the Leafs D, he's an offensive defenceman: lots of passing and aggressively pushing the pace. Connor Carrick doesn't suit most people's idea of a developing high-quality D. To be clear, I don't believe these numbers have now proved he is the second coming of Nik Lidstrom. He's a young defenceman who makes smart passes and is having a positive impact on his team. May it continue to be so.
It's 2016. As Jack Han and others have noted, the Leafs play an aggressive style in which defencemen are encouraged to jump up into the play and carry the puck. All the evidence we have is that if Gardiner-Carrick keep playing as a pairing like they are, they are going to help their team win hockey games. It's worth emphasizing again that Gardiner and Carrick aren't just producing such a huge amount that they outstrip their defensive deficiencies, the way Rielly does: they're actually cutting down very heavily on the shots and chances against when they're on the ice. Partly this is because they spend so much time in the opposing zone; partly this is that they might just be better defensively than people give them credit for. To my eyes it looks like both, but beyond a certain point, who cares? Gardiner-Carrick helps the Leafs win. The end.
Roman Polak: C-
2nd/3rd Pair D
Role: Physical basher; defenceman who pinches much more than you'd guess by his reputation; not actually Roman or Polish; worth a 2nd-round pick
|Roman Polak||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||5||2||7||7||7||6||7||7||6||6||5||7||2|
One Other Number: Thus far, Hunwick-Polak is the worst pairing in the NHL in adj. 5v5 CF% to play over 50 minutes. Their CF% together is 31.9%.
Evaluation: This has been a strange year for Roman Polak. Normally Polak is a highly physical, defensive-oriented defenceman who throws brutal, sometimes illegal bodychecks, takes penalties, and sometimes struggles to keep up with the play. His CF% has historically been bad, with low CF and passable CA. He's also the kind of player where people say Corsi doesn't tell the whole story. And you know what? In Polak's case, there's some truth to that! He tends to look better by scoring chances and expected goals than he does by Corsi, to the point where I'm willing to believe he can be a viable sixth defenceman on a middling team.
So what's strange about this year? For a while he was paired with Jake Gardiner, which did weird things to Polak's numbers (way more CF and a more aggressive playstyle) while weighing down Gardiner's. Since then he's been paired with Hunwick on a nightmarishly bad pairing. On the one hand, the two of them are used very defensively, and Hunwick makes everyone's numbers worse. On the other, they're so bad. I just can't believe you can look at these men together and think that they're functioning, and while they may be better than that hideous shot attempt number, they seem to get taken for rides by opposing forwards who are faster and more talented. Polak has to own some of that.
In the end, I think you can get away with Marincin-Polak as a third pairing, if you want. Polak is by all accounts a great guy and good example, and that's grand. And if you want someone grittier who has some facility for pushing shots to the outside, even while allowing too many of them, Polak can get the job done. But please just stop playing him with Hunwick, Mike.
Best Moment: If the highlight above didn't make you tired of defensive defenceman scoring rare goals on cannon shots, here's Polak's only goal this season. If you'd like something else, here's a Youtube clip of Polak and Mike Fisher sharing either a fight or a protracted hug.
Matt Hunwick: D-
2nd/3rd Pair D
Role: Bane of my existence; nemesis of my mind; bleeding wound in the depths of my soul; good in the room
|Matt Hunwick||GP||G||A||P||P/60||CF/60||CA/60||CF%||CF% Rel.||xGF%||TOI/G||PP TOI/G||SH TOI/G|
|Leaf D Rank||7||6||4||4||1||7||5||6||7||4||7||5||3|
One Other Number: Matt Hunwick's PDO is 105.64 at even strength. This has led some people to argue that Matt Hunwick is actually improving the Leafs PDO and is actually good.
Evaluation: So here's my best theory on Matt Hunwick.
The Leafs, as I noted above and elsewhere, are one of the highest-event teams in the past decade. Not surprisingly, they have a bunch of high-event defencemen; in combined CF60 + CA60, all of the Leafs D are in a range of 120-130. Except Matt Hunwick, who is right around 111. Put another way: of the 232 defenceman to play 50 minutes this year, six of these seven Leafs defencemen are in the top 20% in event rate. Hunwick is the exception; he's close to league average. This is mostly because he generates almost nothing, but it's true nonetheless. Hold this thought.
Hunwick also is one of those defencemen who probably is better than his terrible shot differentials suggest--somewhat. You'll notice xGF% likes him better than Corsi does (although not as much as it likes Martin Marincin.) Some of this is due to his good fortune in playing on a team with extremely capable forwards; some of this is because he, like Polak, does push shots to the outside to some extent. So yes, I am willing to believe he is not as bad as his Corsi makes him look (which, if you take the relative number, would make him a below-average NHL eighth defenceman.) This corresponds approximately with the eye test, which often finds Hunwick in the right place trying and failing to do the right thing. You can watch him spinning as a quick forward turnstiles him, or his paralyzed efforts in front of the net. He just isn't quite good enough.
So, on a team with a bunch of action-packed, high-event, puck-moving forwards, Hunwick plays a relatively quiet game. He doesn't give the puck away as much because he rarely has it (although he's actually still worse by that questionable stat than Polak.) He doesn't blow rushes, because he can't make them most of the time. He doesn't usually make mistakes of overaggressive play, like Rielly did on that Staal goal above. He just plays a quiet, inadequate, conservative game, and the team hangs on for dear life.
Corsi isn't the whole story, but in some cases, it tells you enough that the story can only go certain ways. I don't believe you can be an effective NHL player in the long-term if you're under 45% of the shot attempts and you don't score. You can see the facsimile of a safe NHL defenceman in Matt Hunwick, and on a team where few defencemen seem safe, that's helped him hold a situational job. But in the end, he's just not up to par.
Best Moment: I will not provide one and you can't make me.
The Defence Overall: B-
The Leafs defence currently has a first pairing that's really a second pairing, a second pairing that might become a first pairing, and a third pairing that probably shouldn't be allowed in the NHL. Plus Martin Marincin.
One thing you have to give the Leafs D group is that they move the puck phenomenally well. There are four legitimate powerplay quarterbacks on this team, and several above-average skaters. If you want a speedy group that can play up to pace with a high-octane forward group, you could do a lot worse. It's also plausible that this top four has a higher ceiling than many: Rielly and Carrick are 22, Zaitsev is adapting to the NHL, and Gardiner is great already. At the same time, though, this team could really use a top four defenceman with some defensive acumen, because as is, the defence isn't quite going to cut it. [stares dreamily at picture of Kevin Shattenkirk]
With one major addition and the replacement of Matt Hunwick, this defence could be pretty respectable, and we could enjoy how offensively potent it is. This wouldn't fix all our problems--it couldn't, given many of our defensive issues are the fault of our forwards--but it would go a very long way.
There's no point ranking Andersen and Enroth's numbers against each other (spoiler alert, Andersen's are better); instead, I've tried to put Andersen's numbers in context with other NHL starters. Enroth has played so little that both his results, and anyone I would bother to compare him to, are pretty much complete noise, so I haven't given him more than NHL.com does.
Frederik Andersen: B+
Role: The goalie who starts most of the games; this device only really applies to skaters; I included it under the goalies because it bothered me to have it be different; Danish guy
|Frederik Andersen||GP||W||L||OTL||Sv. %||5v5 Sv.%||5v5 HD Sv.%||5v5 GSAA||4v5 Sv.%||4v5 GSAA|
|League Rank (min. 8 GP)||4||12||N/A||N/A||24||24||14||12||9||9|
Evaluation: It's a statistical sin to use cutoffs to make a guy look better. But what the hell: after those mostly-ghastly first five games, Frederik Andersen has rapidly gotten his act together and been an above average starting goalie since October 27. Given he was recovering from an injury, had no training camp, and was in a new city and team, there are genuinely good reasons to use that cut-off, even if it's mighty convenient. Andersen is calmer in the net, communicating better with his defencemen, and has now officially stolen a win for his team (at least one--I'm saying the win over Buffalo, but you can argue for others.) Hopefully this is the beginning of a beautiful five years; if he keeps going like he has been in November, I'll gleefully pin an A+ on him next time I do this.
Best Moment: In the course of stealing that win, Andersen robbed Zegmus Girgensons blind.
Jhonas Enroth: D
Role: My name is Jhonas; I'm carrying the will; thanks for all you've shown us; this is how we feel
|Jhonas Enroth||GP||W||L||OTL||Sv. %|
Evaluation: It's hard being a backup goalie. Jhonas has barely played, and has unfortunately not played that well in the three and a half games in which he's appeared (one of his appearances was only five minutes, the other was 26 minutes in relief.) He hasn't been as bad as that disastrous save percentage, and it's totally unfair to judge him on this tiny sample, which is my excuse for not giving him an F. Enroth is better than this, though whether he's about to lose his job to the taller Kari Ramo who's been hanging around the Leafs, I don't know.
Best Moment: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Mike Babcock: B+
Role: Wizened mentor; savvy tactician; systems expert; basically hockey Moses
Evaluation: As we all know, I am not smarter than Mike Babcock. I've had some issues with a couple of his decisions, but the fact is he's bringing along an extremely young team, and he's probably in the process of dragging them from last place to being about a .500 (not including loser points) team. That ain't easy to do in a year, and while I might roll my eyes at Ben Smith or Matt Hunwick, a lot of things about this team are working well and hopefully getting better. That merits some respect. Hail to the Chief!
The Toronto Maple Leafs: B
Role: Evil Empire on the rise; second-stage rebuild; dynamite youth movement; repository of our hopes and fears
Evaluation: Katya has done a very thorough look at the Leafs as a collective, so I'll defer to her piece. In some ways, the Leafs are about where we might have expected. My preseason prediction for them was 87 points; as of Tuesday morning, they're on pace for 86.
At the same time, the Leafs have been faster, and the kids better developed, than we might have hoped. This firecracker team is still an outside shot for the playoffs. But they do have a shot. And at this stage, that's enough. Go Leafs Go.