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Toronto Maple Leafs First Term Report Card: The Defense

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A quarter of the way in, let’s evaluate how the season has gone.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just about at the quarter point of the season, 19 games in, and the Leafs have a four-day lull between games. It’s a good time to take stock and see how our players have fared. Fulemin looked at the forwards yesterday. Today, we’ll examine the defense.

Each player is graded against his role; it doesn’t make sense to hold Morgan Rielly and Andreas Borgman to the same standard. The grading scale is as follows:

A: Exceeded expectations

B: Met expectations

C: Slightly short of expectations

D: Serious disappointment

F: Everything is dark and sad

I also added a + or - to some grades as needed.

All advanced stats are from Corsica, and are 5v5 and adjusted. Figures are from HockeyViz. Everything else is from NHL.com, which can go die in a fire. I’ll make this note once up top - individual offense is nice, but I don’t care about it that much for defensemen. More important to me is their ability to drive play successfully.

Morgan Rielly: A+

1 LD / 2 LD

Role: Defensive centrepiece, makeshift Drew Doughty, de-facto captain until Matthews is ready

Classical Stats

New Stats

Evaluation: You can count me among the people that felt Morgan Rielly would plateau as a high-end complementary player. A very good player, but not someone you build your defense around. He’s made me look dumb for thinking that this year. Playing tough competition, Rielly has excelled, posting strongly positive possession numbers for the first time under Mike Babcock. Encouragingly, he has improved his defence - not to the point where he’ll be mistaken for Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but to the point where he hasn’t been a huge defensive liability. The team surrenders very slightly more shots with him on the ice than without, which is more than offset by the offensive boost he provides.

Interestingly, both he and Hainsey look better by Corsi than by expected goals. Corsi has been shown to be more predictive, so I care more about that, especially in a small sample. Expected goals uses unblocked shots only, which is necessarily a subset of Corsi, meaning it may take longer to get a robust enough sample to be confident in.

Rielly performed adequately in a similar role last year, but wasn’t posting results anywhere near this level, in terms of points or possession. Whether it’s an additional year of development (he’s still just 23), the calming influence of Ron Hainsey (we’ll get to him), or something else, he has really appeared to turn a corner to start the season. Another underrated part of his season - look at how few penalties he’s taken. Simply put, he’s been a stud, and the Leafs’ best defenseman by a country mile.

Ron Hainsey: A

1 RD / 2 RD

Role: Top four RD, PK machine, veteran mentor, proof that the Leafs front office is smarter than me

Classical Stats

New Stats

Another defenseman, another mea culpa. I was underwhelmed with the Hainsey signing this offseason. I thought he could succeed on the third pair, but was very wary of playing him in a top four role. Well, that’s why I’m here and Lou Lamoriello is where he is, I suppose.

Hainsey, paired with Rielly, has been a revelation. I covered a lot of this in the Rielly section, but suffice to say, it is equally applicable to Hainsey. This is a guy who looked horrible throughout most of the playoffs last year, but he’s playing clear top four minutes right now, on his off-side, and is performing admirably. He’s also continued his career-long trend of taking very few penalties, which is incredibly impressive at his age, playing the minutes he’s playing.

Perhaps most notably for the Leafs, he’s also playing a huge, probably unsustainable amount of PK minutes. He and Nikita Zaitsev are iced for the vast majority of shorthanded minutes Toronto faces, to a degree that is rather unprecedented across the rest of the league. After a rough start, the Toronto PK has looked much better as of late, and Hainsey deserves a good deal of credit for that.

Jake Gardiner: C-

1 LD / 2 LD

Role: Top four LD, losing his membership to the Corsi God Club, power play quarterback, maker of hilarious faces

Classical Stats

New Stats

Evaluation: This is where we leave the realm of positivity. Jake has struggled this year by his standards. Contrary to what some may think, his usage hasn’t changed that dramatically compared to last season. It has gotten harder, but not by an absolutely eye-popping amount, at least not by competition. Last year, he became more and more trusted by Babcock, to the point that he could no longer be called sheltered by any reasonable definition of the word.

The major difference in usage is that he himself is played more often this year than last, and faces second lines a little more. It should be said that the ‘second’ line by TOI is sometimes the most dangerous line to face, so it IS still tougher competition than he faced last year. However, it is not so tough that it fully explains the decline in his possession stats, which have been phenomenal throughout his career.

Playing with Nikita Zaitsev, the results have not been positive. For the first time in his career, Gardiner is a negative possession player, and hugely negative at that. Both he and Zaitsev look better by expected goals than Corsi, but again, in a small sample, I trust the latter more.

Plenty of smarter writers than I have tried to figure out what exactly is hurting him. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic had a nice piece about that topic here. He identified that a large part of their underperformance can be tied to playing minutes with Nazem Kadri’s line, starting in the defensive zone. Here, they are likely facing higher-end competition, and they struggle to break the puck out effectively and generate offense. This is corroborated by a piece from Tyler Dellow, also of The Athletic. Here, he notes that when Gardiner has been on the ice, the Leafs have been fine once they get into the offensive zone, but don’t get there often enough.

All of this is to say, this has been a below-par season for Jake. It’s unclear how much of it is Zaitsev and how much of it is Gardiner. Given their track records, I have my guesses, which will be pretty obvious when you see the next grade.

Nikita Zaitsev: D

1 RD / 2 RD

Role: Top four RD, stoic Russian, recipient of contract that makes me nervous

Classical Stats

New Stats

Evaluation: I’m expecting some flack for this. But in my opinion, it hasn’t been pretty for Zaitsev. He has a pretty +/-, and depending on how you feel about expected goals, you might be satisfied with his even strength play. Strip those away, and it’s not too positive. His CF% is straight up bad - no way around that. It’s worse than it was last year, which is surprising given that his role hasn’t gotten harder (actually, it’s gotten easier at even strength), and he’s played primarily played with a defenseman who juices everyone’s possession numbers to an impressive degree.

When Zaitsev signed his contract, there was a lot of consternation about it. I didn’t love the contract, but I understood it. That said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more worried about it now than I was when it was signed. He clearly has high-end skills. He’s an excellent skater, and can make some really great passes and rushes with the puck. But he doesn’t use those skills often enough. Too many times, he seems to throw the puck away, either off the glass or with weak dump-ins. It’s very frustrating to see, especially since the hope was that after a full season in the NHL, he would adjust and cut these issues out.

That said, it’s not all bad. Along with Ron Hainsey, he has formed the backbone of the Leafs penalty kill, and must be commended for that. His individual scoring is very impressive, as it was last year. If you DO put stock into expected goals, then you would be encouraged by his generally solid numbers there (though my theory is that it has to do with him spending a lot of time with the Matthews line). It could just be a bit of growing pains in getting used to a new partner. For the Leafs’ sake, I hope so. As I’ve mentioned a few times, the most important item on my list for a defender is their ability to drive even strength results. Unfortunately for Zaitsev, that’s the one area in which he appears to struggle the most.

Connor Carrick, Andreas Borgman: B/B-

3rd pair

Role: Sheltered defencemen trying to fend off Roman Polak

Classical Stats

Evaluation: I’m going to tackle these two together, because they’ve largely played with one another, and I have similar things to say about them. When played, these two have been in a very sheltered third pairing role, and by and large, they have done quite well in said role. I think they’re both a little overqualified for what they are playing. We saw Carrick perform well with Gardiner in a top four role last year, and I think Borgman has the potential to do the same. They’re both young, and if all goes well, will be cheap depth on this team for years to come.

It may seem like I’m grading them a little low. One thing that is important to remember is that this is relative to expectations. I expected both of them to be able to play sheltered NHL minutes well, and they’ve done just that. Neither has made a supreme case for usurping anyone above them, even with the struggles of Zaitsev, and it’s clear that Babcock doesn’t trust either of them in remotely tough minutes.

One thing this chart above indicates is that there is a gulf between the TOI of the forwards the top four defenders face and the forwards the bottom two defenders face. That difference of about two minutes in ice-time is about as large a difference as you will see over an extended period of time. The other thing worth noting is that the top four play with the better Leafs forwards more, which obviously offsets the competition to a degree. This is part of why competition effects can be overstated - they are often associated with increases in quality of teammate too!

For reference, here is the same chart from last year.

Note the axes here. Superficially, it looks like Zaitsev/Rielly were off in their own world, but every regular defender was typically facing forwards playing at least 15 minutes a game. It is also clear that Mike Babcock is playing his bottom pair less than he did last year. Comparing the two charts, we can see that the third pair has seen their forward competition drop. The drop in magnitude is not huge - it might be only two or three shifts a game against fourth liners rather than second liners. But essentially, it means that an already cushy usage has gotten cushier. For that reason, I expect them to succeed to the degree that they have.

So for now, they have to stick with a solid B. The reason I put Borgman lower than Carrick was his propensity to take penalties. Some of that is due to referees not giving any benefit of the doubt to a rookie, but Borgman also gets himself into trouble from time to time on his own accord. Nonetheless, these guys have both been solid.

Roman Polak / Calle Rosen: INCOMPLETE

Neither of these players has played enough time to accurately assess them this season.

Overall Grade: B-

The Gardiner/Zaitsev pair has been the only obvious sour spot for the Leafs defense. Unfortunately, as the team’s first/second pair, they have a very significant impact on the overall grade, taking them down to a B-. Combined with Fulemin’s B+ grade for the forwards, we’re looking at the Leafs’ skaters more or less meeting expectations at this point of the season which feels fair. There is certainly room for improvement, but it’s been a solid first quarter. We’ll be tackling the goalies and coaching staff tomorrow to finish it off.