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Roman Polak: Man or myth?

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There's so many stories of doom and gloom about Roman Polak. And a lot of, "Eh, it's a one year deal," too. Do the myths about Polak stand up to scrutiny?

Myth: Roman Polak can fly.  Results: Unconfirmed
Myth: Roman Polak can fly. Results: Unconfirmed
Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports

Picture someone with Freddie Andersen's hair and Kyle Dubas' glasses who has dropped by to test three myths about Roman Polak. Our myth buster has heard the fans' laments since Polak was signed to a one year deal, but rather than spend all day tirelessly combing the internet for wrongness well into the night, this is an aggregation of skeptical assessment.

On to the myths.

Myth #1: Polak played top four minutes last year

This is a strangely prevalent myth, and it comes in two flavours: five-on-five and all situations. The underlying horror of this myth, which might explain its popularity, is that Polak is not just "taking a spot from a kid", he is also taking ice time from the nominal top four defenders.

Defence usage is only partly about ice time, it is also about score situation, opponent strength and possibly most importantly, forward deployment, which is of course interconnected with those first two things. In other words, how much time a given defender plays on the ice in a given game may depend more on how much time the forwards he usually plays behind are on the ice. Mike Babcock played very specific defence pairings matched with forward lines last year, something not all coaches do.

With all that in mind, let's look at the recorded history:

Five-on-five:

This chart helps to show us the effects of the trades of Dion Phaneuf and Polak himself, as well as the injury to Matt Hunwick.

It also shows that just prior to the trade deadline, even before Phaneuf was traded, Polak's ice time increased. So the last few games Leafs fans saw him in, he was playing more than he had been.

Morgan Rielly is the top defender, without question. His most common partner Matt Hunwick is second, Jake Gardiner is third, Phaneuf was fourth, and Polak was never higher than fifth until just before the trade.

All situations 2015-2016:

Player GP TOI TOI/GP
MORGAN RIELLY 82 1894.47 23.10
MATT HUNWICK 60 1349.16 22.49
JAKE GARDINER 79 1622.61 20.54
MARTIN MARINCIN 65 1082.81 16.66
DION PHANEUF 71 1121.15 15.79
TJ BRENNAN 7 105.16 15.02
FRANK CORRADO 39 563.43 14.45
CONNOR CARRICK 19 264.59 13.93
ROMAN POLAK 79 1082.67 13.70
STUART PERCY 3 39.97 13.32
SCOTT HARRINGTON 15 196.44 13.10
RINAT VALIEV 10 122.29 12.23
ANDREW CAMPBELL 6 69.43 11.57
VIKTOR LOOV 4 41.83 10.46

Polak's data includes games played with San Jose, but his five-on-five icetime was identical for both teams, so it is as close as possible with what Corsica Hockey provides.

There you have it, he was ninth on the list, sixth amongst defenders with over 1,000 minutes played, lower even than partner Martin Marincin.

Myth: Busted!

Myth #2: Polak is just so bad

This one is tough to tackle because the meaning can cover everything from worst player in the NHL to worst player on the team. But often it simply means he is a typical bottom pairing defender who is not very good when compared to the top guys. But all NHL players are good hockey players in the grand scheme of things, some are just more good than others.

A look at some more recorded history might help figure out how good Polak is.

This is just the most recent season in a 12 game rolling average so you can see the typical ups and downs in a player's performance. Look at the start of April, which is where the data begins to be made up solely of games played after the trade deadline, and you will see the start of the slide.

Polak's most recent on-ice performance out of a Leafs' jersey that fans have seen is the playoffs, which is his worst stretch of play of the year. But his time in Toronto was significantly better.

How good was he relative to his own Toronto teammates?

As per usual, that depends, mostly on who he was on the ice with.

P1 P2 TOI CF60 CA60 CF% Sh% Sv% xGF% GF%
ROMAN POLAK MARTIN MARINCIN 339.30 57.47 47.21 54.90 6.63 94.52 55.59 57.89
CONNOR CARRICK JAKE GARDINER 129.31 63.10 52.43 54.62 6.06 90.74 56.44 44.44
DION PHANEUF JAKE GARDINER 571.78 61.39 54.67 52.89 6.39 93.13 53.47 50.00
FRANK CORRADO JAKE GARDINER 193.62 58.26 56.71 50.67 4.17 89.80 44.15 28.57
MORGAN RIELLY MARTIN MARINCIN 317.11 58.09 57.90 50.08 5.76 92.05 43.42 36.36
ROMAN POLAK JAKE GARDINER 178.05 50.88 52.91 49.03 8.33 92.86 50.97 53.85
MATT HUNWICK MORGAN RIELLY 727.03 56.86 61.90 47.88 6.02 91.49 47.62 36.84

Data is from Corsica Hockey, venue and score adjusted, five-on-five, 2015-2016 season.

With any WOWY data, or in this case "with you" data, you have to bear in mind that numbers with this partner or that one may also mean a lot of other variables have changed too. In this case, it is likely the forwards on the ice as well as situational usage is different with different partners.

Polak is not the best defender on the Leafs, even if he shows up in the top pairing, but at times he is far from the worst. If you put him over his head like in those minutes with Gardiner, he is very un-good. He has a smaller number of minutes with Rielly not shown that is even worse.

It is hard to look at that table and not come to the conclusion that Martin Marincin is the best thing to ever happen to Roman Polak. Czechs and Slovaks being better together. What's next? A Finn and a Swede?

Myth: Confirmed, as long as by bad you mean ordinary third pairing guy, not worst in the NHL.

Myth #3: Polak is taking a spot from a kid who is better and cheaper

Some of this is easy to answer. If he is in a game, then someone else on the eight-man roster of expected Leafs defenders is not. Pare that down and say that if he is in the game, one of the other right-handed defenders is not.

Except there are only two right-handed spots not three, because right now Morgan Rielly takes the top pair right side. That is not going to change unless Nikita Zaitsev wows everyone well above expectations and forces a shuffle.

This is complicated and requires a visual:

Left Right
Matt Hunwick Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner Nikita Zaitsev
Martin Marincin Roman Polak
Frank Corrado
Connor Carrick

This is the most probable group of defencemen to be on the roster on opening day. Zaitsev is the only one waiver exempt, so all eight will have to be carried unless a trade happens.

That top pair is the problem, not Polak. The usage last season for Hunwick and Rielly was very extreme. They played against a much tougher set of opposing forwards than is usual. Generally, the quality of competition fits in a very small spread once a whole season has passed, so this is a very unusual set of circumstances that may have some unknowable amount of impact on the Leafs' defensive results.

The first thing to consider is will that change? Will Hunwick stay on the top pair and will they continue to play against the top forwards? The Marincin-Rielly experiment at the end of the season did not go well, as you can see from the pairing table. Marincin's rolling Corsi average drops off a cliff at the trade deadline as dramatically as Polak's did.

With Matt Martin in the lineup, the potential exists to create a checking or shut-down line as the fourth line. Would a Martin-Laich-Soshnikov line, for example, really take on the top forwards in the league? It seems more likely that that is going to remain Nazem Kadri's job. And he will need backup.

If Hunwick is moved out by some set of circumstances that moves Rielly to the left side, that knocks Marincin right off the roster. A game of musical chairs with six seats and eight players is not easy.

If Zaitsev causing a shuffle above his assumed place is unlikely, is there a chance he is being overestimated? Obviously, yes. Until camp rolls around, no one knows how he will fit in. Polak seems to be Zaitsev insurance more than anything else.

Erase him from the roster in a bid to open up spots for the inexperienced and unproven Carrick and Corrado, and you open up the potential of being forced to use them both in the event of a total Zaitsev flame-out.

It is a charming image, to imagine loading up the defence with all the youngest players, the ones with the unrealized potential, also known as imaginary awesomeness, but that has rarely been successful, and even more rarely the choice of any coach. This is not a tanking team that does not care if they win. This is a team with a big giant weakness at the top end of the defence depth chart and the potential for as many as seven rookie forwards on the ice together.

It pays to remember that any actual awesomeness that C and C produced, and some of it was very good, was with the best hand-holder the Toronto Maple Leafs have ever had: Jake Gardiner. If we mitigate Rielly's results one way by recognizing his tough assignment and his partner's deficiencies, we have to mitigate theirs the other way.

So are either of C and C third-pairing suitable given the way the Leafs will be deploying the defence in the foreseeable future? Is it Polak keeping them out, of the lineup or is it Zaitsev? Why not both?

Assuming Polak, Hunwick and Zaitsev are full time roster players that are not going to be rotated out for no reason, then that leaves the door shut on a lot of playing time for any youngster but Marincin once training camp is over. Training camp will be the chance C and C have to force a rethink.

Myth: Confirmed. Injuries have a way of making this kind of analysis moot, however.