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Can The Leafs Upgrade At 4C This Summer?

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A look at some options for the Leafs to improve their depth.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs’ fourth line has been a continual point of contention this year. Fans are more or less happy with the Leafs’ top nine forwards, which has pushed much of the customary angst towards Fs ten through twelve. Most statheads think Ben Smith is a one-trick pony with a bad one trick. Frederik Gauthier is younger and more exciting, but hasn’t shown himself much better in actual play.

Does it matter? Sure it does. Your fourth line may play ten minutes a night; it’s still ten minutes a night you want to win. Further, in the event the Leafs lose a centre, the ideal would be someone who can play up the lineup. Think, for example, about what happens if Nazem Kadri misses extended time and you can see mighty quickly we could use some better depth.

Another factor here: Mike Babcock has made it clear he has particular skills he wants out of his fourth-line centre: an aptitude for faceoffs and the capacity to kill penalties. This played out publicly earlier this year, when waiver claim Smith—who is an above-average faceoff man and who has experience playing shorthanded—won the 4C job from Peter Holland. Several writers (including me) liked Holland’s possession game and supplementary offence, and pointed out Smith is a near-zero in both categories. Doesn’t matter. Mike Babcock is, and will be, the Leafs’ coach, and we need a 4C he’ll actually use.

So: let’s see if we can find someone who checks all the boxes. Ideally, we want a player who can:

a) Win faceoffs

b) Kill penalties

c) Play a competent possession game, especially in reducing shots against

d) Chip in a little complementary offence

I solicited suggestions, and narrowed it down to six options based on interest, viability and variety. The six I chose can stand for six basic ways the Leafs could address their 4C role:

  • Stand pat
  • Sign a defensive UFA
  • Sign an offensive UFA
  • Reclamation project
  • Exploit cap room for a trade
  • Look overseas

What The Stats Tables Say

The stats table for each player includes his 2016-17 games played, goals, assists, and points as raw totals. It also includes his faceoff percentage, his 5v5 Corsi stats (score and venue adjusted), his shorthanded time on ice per game played, his SH Corsi Against per 60, and his SH expected goals against/60.

I’ve also included the rank for each player among his team’s forwards. The faceoff ranks have a minimum of 100 faceoffs taken. The shorthanded numbers have a minimum of 10 GP and 20 shorthanded minutes played, and are not adjusted for score or venue. Stats are through Saturday night’s games. Finally, one of our six candidates has not thus far played in the NHL, so he doesn’t have the same stats table as the other five.

Frederik Gauthier

Toronto Maple Leafs; 6’5”; 215 lbs.; age 21 (born April 26, 1995)

Signed through 2017-18 at $0.863M AAV, expires RFA

Gauthier.csv

Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Frederik Gauthier 18 2 1 3 51.20% 47.90% 49.81 54.19 -3.12% 1:08 129.91 7.31
Team F Rank 13 12 12 12 3 12 14 1 13 5 7 7

The Goat, as he’s fondly called, is the guy with the inside track on the job; we already have him and he’s already done it. Why replace him?

Evaluating the Goat is a bit tricky considering he’s only played 18 games this year (and 25 ever.) His numbers are noisy as all hell, and the shorthanded ones are near-meaningless. He also benefits somewhat from a zone adjustment, if you’d like to do that for him, so keep that in mind.

Does he win faceoffs?

Seems so. Limited sample, of course.

Does he kill penalties?

The sample size we have is very small, so I wouldn’t read too much into it, but Gauthier’s numbers in that regard have been abysmal and he wasn’t relied on much. Unlike his even strength stats, he’s been absolutely torched for shots and chances against, which is not great. But we can be charitable to him and say this grade is more fairly an “incomplete” than an F.

Does he play a competent possession game?

Frederik Gauthier appears to have attended the Matt Martin School of Highly Skewed Possession Stats. His Corsi Against is spectacularly low (good!) and his offence is absolutely nonexistent (bad.) This is almost certainly skewed by his usage and the fact Matt Martin has been a frequent linemate. But he generates nothing whatsoever. Which leads to our next question.

Does he add any extra offence?

No.

If you think Gauthier is going to keep improving—he’s shortly to turn 22, after all, so there’s some growth there—you can argue that the Leafs should probably keep him and let him replace Ben Smith full-time next year. He ought to be better on the PK than he’s looked, but the 5v5 CA is nice. Maybe he can be a sort of gigantic Byron Froese—simply delaying the game for a few shifts without giving much up.

The problem is that there is a difference between very low offence and no offence at all. Gauthier is the second thing. The result is that while his CF% compares somewhat favourably to Ben Smith, his xGF% is much worse (!). Gauthier hasn’t scored in the AHL and he’s very likely not going to score in the NHL.

Gauthier is, at least, 6’5” the whole game, and he will win slightly more draws than he loses. He’s capable of being physical, and he seems to be making better defensive decisions this year, using his range to cover a larger area in the defensive zone. Gauthier (like Smith, Froese and Spaling before him) seems primed to be a 4C meant to play underwater in zone starts and simply speed the game along.

Essentially, if he gets better at faceoffs, slightly better offensively, and one inch taller, he will match the career of David Steckel.

Should we expect more out of our fourth line than that?

Brian Boyle

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning; 6’6”, 244 lbs.; age 32 (born December 18, 1984)

Signed through 2016-17 at $2.0M AAV, expires UFA

Boyle.csv

Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Brian Boyle 47 12 7 19 52.50% 53.17% 55.9 49.25 2.87% 1:13 96.12 5.5
Team F Rank 5 5 10 8 2 4 7 1 4 7 6 4

Brian Boyle is a behemoth. When NHL GMs think of a conventional big checking centre, Boyle is exactly the kind of guy they have in mind.

Does he win faceoffs?

You betcha. After a learning curve over his first four seasons in the NHL, Boyle has had a positive winning percentage each of the last six seasons, usually buzzing around 51-52%.

Does he kill penalties?

Yes, although he’s not on Tampa’s first unit (Tampa has run through a bunch of PK-ers this year due to injuries, but seems to especially like speedster Tyler Johnson for the job.) Still, his numbers look solid enough.

Does he play a competent possession game?

Very much so. Boyle is a solid possession forward, with stupendous shots against and competent generation for (which, by the way, leads to great expected goals numbers—his xGF% is behind only Nikita Kucherov among Bolts forwards who have played at least 20 games this year.)

Does he add any extra offence?

Yeah. If he’s not in a shooting percentage slump, Boyle is good for 10-15 goals per year (he’s threatening 20 this season, but that’s partly him riding a percentage spike.) He doesn’t get many assists, but those goal totals are solidly middle-six in the modern NHL.

—-

If everything for Frederik Gauthier works out in the best possible scenario, he’ll have a career like Brian Boyle’s. (It’s worth noting Boyle was drafted 26th overall in 2003, while Gauthier went 21st overall ten years later.) Unfortunately, Gauthier has thus far never come close to Boyle’s early AHL production, which doesn’t suggest the same offensive streak.

I asked my colleague/superior Achariya, and she had nothing but good things to say about Boyle as a depth piece—from his grit and physical stamina to his complementary offence. He’s huge, defensively very effective, wearing to play against, and experienced. Simply put, if you want someone who checks those four boxes we’ve been writing about, Boyle hits them all in style.

The only area where BB gives way to Gauthier is in age, and it’s a point of concern that he’s 32. But he’s been healthy, he has thus far shown no signs of slowing down, and he’s an unrestricted free agent in the summer. The Leafs have the cap room to offer him a reasonably generous two-year contract, if he wants one.

He does the things the nerds like; he does the things Babcock likes. Simply, unless you’re convinced the Leafs need to develop Gauthier in the NHL in the hopes of having a homegrown 4C in a couple years, Boyle is probably the better alternative.

Sam Gagner

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Blue Jackets; 5’11”, 202 lbs.; age 27 (born August 10, 1989)

Signed through 2016-17 at $0.650M AAV, expires UFA

Gagner.csv

Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Sam Gagner 50 14 20 34 44.50% 54.14% 58.2 49.3 3.43% 0:00 N/A N/A
Team F Rank 7 4 5 5 6 3 5 2 4 12 N/A N/A

We’ve looked at a player who checks all of the boxes we set out at the beginning. How about a player who ignores two of them entirely?

Does he win faceoffs?

He’s terrible at them.

Does he kill penalties?

No.

Does he play a competent possession game?

Yes. Gagner is a very good player in shot attempts, and perhaps surprisingly, especially so in CA60—in this sense his profile actually fits in line with the Boyle type of player.

Does he add any extra offence?

Tons.

—-

Sam Gagner, at the moment, is often not even playing as a centre at all; he’s been winging the Blue Jackets’ fourth line while Lukas Sedlak takes C duties. In addition to being barely a centre, he’s also has a very atypical ice-time profile for a fourth-liner. Almost no team maintains a player on its fourth line at even strength and its first unit on the powerplay. Columbus does.

I think we all owe John Tortorella an apology. After being mocked as a dinosaur following his mess of a WCH job, Tortorella has led a team everyone underestimated to incredible success—and he’s made several unorthodox coaching moves. One of the most significant is instead of the stereotypical fourth-line checking role, the Blue Jackets have leveraged their impressive wing depth for a strategy that can be called “step on their throat.”

No grinder line; just four lines that can blow you out of the rink offensively. Sam Gagner, whether C or RW, is an offensive player. Based on the best-defence-is-a-good-offence theory, the Hartnell-Sedlak-Gagner crushes weak competition en route to being a highly potent possession line, a great xGF% line, and a line that has outscored its competition. If your fourth line is doing all those things, it’s doing very well indeed.

The Sam Gagner as 4C—or if you want, 4RW—idea is really based on an entirely different theory of what your fourth line is supposed to be doing. Gagner has cleared 40 points six times; Brian Boyle has never done that and Frederik Gauthier never will. Not to mention, having such an offensively potent fourth liner is facilitated by CBJ GM Jarmo Kekkalainen having made an extremely prudent signing ($650,000!)

You can correctly point out that someone still has to kill the penalties—but Gauthier isn’t on the Leafs first PK unit anyway. On the other hand, faceoff aficionados will point out Sedlak is a better draw man than Gagner is, and that seems to have impacted Gagner’s move to wing.

Ultimately, a signing of Gagner—or in imitation of Gagner, because I have a feeling Gagner himself is going to get one hell of a raise this summer—would be a philosophical shift for Babcock and the Leafs. They would be moving away from a fourth line focused on size, faceoffs, and checking and towards one aimed at driving play and additional point production. The Leafs rejected this path by disposing of Peter Holland in favour of Ben Smith. But the Blue Jackets’ success suggests the idea might be worth a second look.

Mikhail Grigorenko

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Avalanche; 6’3”, 209 lbs.; 22 years old (born May 16, 1994)

Signed through 2016-17 at $1.3M AAV; expires RFA

Grigorenko.csv

Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Mikhail Grigorenko 46 5 12 17 55.8%* 43.52% 48.6 63.07 -1.98% 1:01 96.34 8.32
Team F Rank 4 8 4 5 2 10 9 11 9 8 5 6

With the previous three candidates, the question has been “can we use him?” With Grigorenko, the question is “can we save him?”

Does he win faceoffs?

Eh. He historically hasn’t been that great at it, and he’s not doing it that much this year (he doesn’t meet the 100 faceoffs cutoff I’ve been using), but in the 77 he’s taken, he’s won 55% this time around. It might just be random variance, but faceoffs are an acquired skill for many players, so you can hold out a little hope.

Does he kill penalties?

A little bit and badly.

Does he play a competent possession game?

The Avs as a whole are terribad at possession and Grigorenko rates out to around their ninth forward in that regard. So he may be being sunk by his environment, but it isn’t encouraging.

Does he add any extra offence?

Somewhat. His offensive numbers are less impressive when you consider the ruined Colorado lineup is using him as a second-line winger with Matt Duchene. Jesus.

I wouldn’t blame you for wondering why I’ve bothered mentioning Grigorenko at all. Here’s the thing.

As many have remarked on before me, plenty of NHL depth forwards are former first-round picks. Gauthier, Boyle, and Gagner all are, to start with; often the talent that originally drew attention to them is useful to them in a lesser role.

If you look at Grigorenko’s scouting reports from a couple years back, there is downright reverence for his offensive skills and physical gifts—sort of staggering when you notice his career high in points thus far is 27. Grigorenko’s work ethic and consistency have been much maligned since as a way to explain his failure to achieve; a sympathetic viewer might note his NHL career has been spent playing for two tire fires under questionable coaches, but he’s definitely been disappointing. Are his size and undeniable puck skills something Mike Babcock feels he can work with enough to salvage in a depth role? Or should Grigorenko be left as somebody else’s disappointment?

Some fans have argued the fourth line should be a developmental role as much as a playing one. You can argue that if the Leafs want to use it for that, the player they should be developing is Gauthier. But Gauthier, as noted above, is probably just a good 4C in the sunniest predictions for his career. Grigorenko, once, was talked about as a potential franchise centre. Obviously nobody thinks that’s going to happen now, and almost-23 isn’t as young as we used to think. But if there’s still something in Grigorenko that might be worth saving, the Leafs could look at trying to save it, and they might be rewarded with a player who can rise up the depth chart a bit.

Grigorenko is an RFA after this season. The Avalanche should have absolutely no cap problems this summer given they plan to liquidate their best players, but if they’ve lost interest in Grigorenko, the cost to trade for him shouldn’t be high.

Marcus Kruger

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Chicago Blackhawks Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Blackhawks; 6’0”, 186 lbs.; age 26 (born May 27, 1990)

Signed through 2018-19 at $3.083M, expires UFA

Kruger.csv

Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Player GP G A P FO% 5v5 CF% 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 CF% Rel. SH TOI/GP SH CA60 SH xGA60
Marcus Kruger 42 2 9 11 50.70% 50.75% 52.45 50.89 0.46% 2:19 102.38 7.68
Team F Rank 10 13 8 9 2 6 10 2 5 1 4 4

Scheme with me, people, I’ve got an idea.

Does he take faceoffs?

Yes, at a slightly above average level.

Does he kill penalties?

All the time. His shot numbers, which are not all that impressive 4v5, are partly a function of him staring down every opposing first unit, which is not all that common for a depth C.

Does he play a competent possession game?

Yes. As often with this kind of player, it trends more towards defence than offence, but it’s not quite as skewed as, say, Gauthier. Maybe the most striking thing about Kruger is that he’s one of the few centres to start an even higher percentage of his shifts in the d-zone than Gauthier and Smith do. Kruger has the highest d-zone start percentage of any skater in the NHL this year to play 30 games. As you might expect, this means Kruger’s numbers get a big jump if you adjust for zone (which I haven’t done above.) Take that into consideration.

Does he add any extra offence?

Not much. He’s not quite the nullity Gauthier is—Kruger averages about 22 points a year, whereas Gauthier projects to something like 12. But he’s not really a producer.

Kruger’s main calling card is that he can play absolutely miserable defensive minutes and not drown. Kruger is a martyr to the Chicago Blackhawks offence. He plays in the situations other players are spared having to play in: the Blackhawks also have the player with the lowest d-zone start percentage, and it’s Artemi Panarin. If the Leafs want someone to eat dirt defensively while their top nine is given more freedom to operate, Kruger has shown he’s more than capable. And not for nothing—but the JVR-Bozak-Marner line depends on someone else doing their heavy lifting.

You may wonder, given how heavily they use him, why the Hawks would want to let Kruger go. The answer is that Chicago is spectacularly screwed by the salary cap. They have nine players who are set to make at least $3M beyond this season. Eight of them have no-movement clauses, and the ninth one is Kruger. The Hawks are pressed extremely tightly against the cap, and they’re committed to trying to compete with their current core for the foreseeable future. Unless another team is dumb enough to trade for Brent Seabrook, paying $3.083M for the next two seasons to a low-offence forward is probably a luxury the Hawks can no longer afford. Since it’s very much a luxury the Leafs can afford (Kruger’s deal would expire right before extensions for Matthews and Marner would kick in), the option for a deal is there.

Vladimir Tkachyov

Kazan Ak-Bars; 6’0”, 203 lbs.; age 23 (born October 5, 1993)

Contract not public

As Vladimir Tkachyov (make sure you’re looking at the right one—there are two) has played his whole career in the KHL, I’ve settled for embedding his KHL statistics.

Katya has done a thorough write up on Tkachyov, so I’ll primarily defer to her. Tkachyov looks to have many of the skills we would look for—he’s quick, defensively sound, and kills penalties, and he has a respectable-if-unspectacular offensive game. The NHL game is obviously a level above the KHL game, and whether Tkachyov’s skills will translate as NHL depth is obviously anyone’s guess. Optimists can point to Nikita Zaitsev, while pessimists will bring up Petri Kontiola. At this point it’s a question of the Leafs’ scouts and their ability to correctly forecast from one league to another.

For our purposes, we mostly have to wait and see regarding any overseas player. But given that we’re looking at depth and not high-end players, there’s some chance of finding a viable guy for the job this way, should the Leafs be sure they’ve found a gem on the cheap.

These are only six possibilities; I think they cover most of the major options, but there are others. If nothing else, the Leafs shouldn’t need to play Ben Smith anymore.

Honourable Mentions

Lars Eller: It’s not that I wouldn’t want him—Eller is an excellent defensive forward with a bit of scoring—but Washington gave up two seconds for him last summer and he’s been more or less as advertised for them in a 3C role. Given he’s under contract another year at $3.5M, I don’t think he’s available.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare: I like Bellemare since every time I see him he seems to be playing his heart out. But his Corsi profile is unimpressive, he never scores, and he doesn’t win faceoffs, which wouldn’t check a Babcock box.

Lukas Sedlak: Gagner’s linemate on that neato CBJ fourth line is expiring RFA this year, and I would expect the Jackets would like to keep him. Most teams have little trouble keeping depth RFAs, which probably means no Sedlak for us.

Radek Faksa: He’s too talented for the Stars to give up if they don’t have to, not to mention he’s been playing as a winger.

Johan Sundstrom: Sundstrom is playing in the Swedish Hockey League at the moment, and doing rather well, but the vagaries of overseas prediction make me hesitant to say whether his game would translate. If they do, he may be an acquisition along the lines of Tkachyov.

Ryan White: With apologies to my good friend who suggested this, he just doesn’t do it for me, despite his feistiness and energy. No Corsi, no offence, currently playing 4RW, and not impressing faceoff-wise. I just can’t see him being an upgrade.

Peter Holland: Pretty clear this door is closed.

John Mitchell: He would have been worth a look a couple of years back, maybe. But the fact he has 1G-0A in 41 games this year and that he’s meh in most other respects, combined with him being 32, probably means his NHL career is over.

Jay McClement: NO.