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An analysis of the top centre in Tuesday’s Leafs vs Senators pre-season game

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A deeper look at the numbers from last night’s game reveals a lot. Let’s dig in.

NHL: Preseason-Ottawa Senators at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Data is from Natural Stat Trick. I’ve used score and venue adjusted five-on-five numbers throughout.

First a couple of glossary notes. NST lists individual shots (iCF) and breaks them down by scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance (iSCF and iHDCF). This is a shot location categorization that is bluntly useful, but not as good as using expected goals to judge individual effort. But I don’t have expected goals, so we will use the less accurate way of judging how players played.

It’s not like this is Finland where you get a real-time shot plot you can filter by individual player on the league site. So we make do.

In case you didn’t watch the game, the Leafs lines were announced as:

Marleau-Kadri-Komarov
JvR-Bozak-Marner
Johnsson-Smith-Grundstrom
Rychel-Greening-T.Moore

In terms of ice time at five-on-five, the centres played:

Smith: 9:57
Kadri: 8:25
Bozak: 5:54
Greening: 5:46

Some of that ice time was driven by the very large amount of power play time in the game, but the reality is, Smith was the top centre by even-strength usage and had similar all-situations minutes to Kadri and Bozak.

In terms of Corsi For percentage, it went like this:

Bozak: 80%
Kadri: 65%
Smith: 61%
Greening: 25%

So, okay, let’s be real here. In terms of overall play on the ice, Tyler Bozak was really the number one. In fact he barely played at five-on-five, not just because of power play usage, but because the Senators iced a team of journeymen, AHLers, prospects and a red-hot Mike Condon. He was so much better than the competition, he and his line did not need the practice punching so far below their weight. Kadri’s line got more time so Patrick Marleau could get used to his new line.

So, I’m not trying to say Ben Smith was the best centre on the team in terms of evaluation of him as an NHL player. I’m saying he was the top centre in that game last night in a very real way, and that means something about how we evaluate players, the labels we use, and what our expectations are.

Before the game, when the lines were announced, there was consternation in the land about poor Andreas Johnsson and Carl Grunstrom having to play with this offensively null force in Smith. I confess I laughed at those consternated people.

Let’s look for a moment at Smith on the Leafs last year. He played exactly 40 games (36 for the Leafs), never not on the fourth line, and he had two goals and two assists along with the worst CorsiRel on the team. That is bad by any measure.

This is his shot location plot from HockeyViz, with Kadri’s to compare to:

I didn’t think it was fair to compare Smith to Matthews, who shoots a tight little circle all in the high-danger area, and is an elite-level scorer. But Kadri is an excellent centre who played tough competition in the NHL, and he shot mostly from the same general area as Smith. He had to work harder to get there, and he scored on a higher percentage of his shots on goal: 8.7 to 6.9. Kadri also had higher on ice shooting percentage, which basically means he played with better teammates.

But given that shot plot, it wasn’t correct to expect Smith to have nothing to offer offensively in what was, for all intents and purposes, an AHL game.

The highest volume shooter last night was Jake Gardiner with 4 iCF, but when you look at who had the iHDCF the list is:

Marleau and Grundstrom: 2
Johnsson, Smith, Marner, Rychel, Komarov: 1

That makes Smith’s line the winner there. He and his wingers each had two scoring chances as well, also just edging Kadri’s line on the night.

Johnsson and Grundstrom impressed many watchers. They both have a drive-the-net style, one a little grittier than the other, and while neither of them will ever be accused of scoring pretty goals, they have been fan favourites throughout preseason. If Grundstrom could play on the Marlies this year, this line would be lights-out good.

But it’s wrong to think that they “carried” Smith. He was right where he goes all the time when he gets the chance, passing well, shooting the puck from smart locations, and playing a good offensive game.

They played most of the night against the Sens young line of Logan Brown (a future star), Filip Chlapik (a name you should learn), and Chris DiDomenico (a former Leafs pick who is just not quite NHL level). That makes them a classic modern AHL scoring line.

Smith’s defence opposition was Erik Burgdoerfer and Ben Harpur, a veteran AHLer and a younger, better version of same. The Sens played that pair the most all night, and that’s what this game was, a chance for the journeymen and the prospects to show what they’re made of.

Smith’s defensive teammates he shared the ice with most were Vincent LoVerde and Justin Holl, a top AHL pair.

Smith was excellent in this usage.

So while it’s easy to say, oh he’s so bad, he can’t even play the fourth line, he never scores, he’s bad at offence — that’s not actually how hockey works. It’s a rare player who ever makes the NHL, even to be chortled at for being bad, who isn’t highly skilled.

The current trend to demand, with obvious frustration at the stodgy old people running hockey, that a “skilled guy” be put on the fourth line in place of someone like Smith, misses the point that players like Smith have lots of skill. What fans might be asking for is a player who can execute offence more effectively (perhaps more than is reasonable in 10 or so shifts a night on a low salary). Or, as I sometimes wonder when I’m feeling cynical, just someone who doesn’t hit, because of course hitting and skill are mutually exclusive. Or perhaps they just mean someone young and full of unproven potential.

I think it’s very clear from all the evidence that Smith can’t execute at the NHL level well enough to be more than an emergency callup, if that. But if you assume he is skill-less, offensively incapable or unable to execute in the AHL, you’re seeing something different from what the numbers tell us. You’re seeing something different from what was on display in last night’s game. And maybe you always were seeing something different from what he actually did on NHL ice.

So when it comes time to look at the next guy to fill the Leafs’ 4C spot, make sure you see him for who he really is. Dig a little deeper than his CorsiRel. After all, don’t you want your fourth line to have the worst CorsiRel on the team?