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Meet a Maple Leafs mystery man

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Is this guy ready for the NHL? Or is he just a good AHLer?

Winnipeg Jets v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Four Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This week I’ll be looking at all the new signings on the Leafs (other than John Tavares). I begin with a mystery.

I played a dirty trick on someone and posted this stat chart from Prospect Stats. And I asked if this AHLer with 69 games played is an NHLer or not.

The answer was, “Yes, barely.” And I’ll buy that. Let’s get to know him and see what we think when we understand him better.

AHL Stats

This person has 69 games played last season, and those stats, if he’d been on the Marlies, would put him between Chris Mueller and Andreas Johnsson. He shot a little bit less than Johnsson, a little more than Mueller, and his goals topped Johnsson’s by a bit because he played a couple more games. He’s either not that good at playmaking or he played with poorer players, because his assists are only in the “second line” tier and our guys were both top ranked.

Chris Mueller, if you don’t follow the Marlies, was their 2C behind Miro Aaltonen, and he’s a 32-year-old, career AHL, 20 goals and 40 points man. Johnsson was overpowered for the AHL by the end of the year, and even more so by the playoffs. These two Marlies very aptly illustrate the fine line between good enough for the NHL and not quite.

There are many people who think points can tell you who is and who isn’t good enough. I think they’re wrong. Ben Smith led the Marlies in goals and primary points as well as five-on-five primary points per game. There’s so much that goes into scoring results — linemates, usage, team style of play, luck, etc. Smith also had a very lucky-looking shooting percentage at 18 per cent, but Johnsson’s was higher.

In between those two was our mystery man, at 19 per cent, and maybe that goal line on the chart is not his real level. Maybe he’s not going to do that every year in the AHL. He also played most of the year on a really terrible team where he got to play with their two other good players all the time.

I dug into our mystery man’s past and found a whole bunch of years with some AHL time, often split between more than one team. You see, our man, and he is ours, gets around a lot. What I found is that his shot rate is a constant, and it’s very good. His goals and assists bounce up and down, but he’s had seasons better than last year’s and some worse.

He gets around because he’s played a lot of NHL games in the last few years, too, and he’s one of those depth guys who moves a lot. So enough of these intriguing AHL results. What’s he like in the real show?

NHL Stats

On teams that play an offence-first style like the Leafs (brake line cut, “we have a goalie”, puck-a-doodle-doo — take your pick on a name) he shoots at a rate that is what you see in second tier players. On more sedate teams, his shot rate falls back.

His career shooting percentage is around 10 per cent, which is good but isn’t getting you a top line job or a reputation as a finisher. His on-ice results show a high-paced offence, like what a middling line on the Leafs would do, not the Matthews line. He has a Corsi Against we might wish anyone at all on the Leafs could produce even for a day or two.

Going any deeper than that is a job for relative stats, and ones that take into account strength of teammates because his history is all over the map. It’s Corsica’s RelT time again. I aggregated his seasons going back to the first full season post-lockout to get the full picture. This is 162 games played and over 1,600 minutes.

2014 to 2018 NHL Stats

RelT FF% RelT FF/60 RelT FA/60 RelT xGF% RelT xGF/60 RelT xGA/60
RelT FF% RelT FF/60 RelT FA/60 RelT xGF% RelT xGF/60 RelT xGA/60
0.67 -0.33 -1.46 -2.22 -0.31 -0.14

So, you’re saying one of two things now. “That’s not the greatest stat line in the history of ever.” or “What does that even mean?”

What does that even mean?

The RelT part is relative to teammates, which means his results have been adjusted to reflect the quality of the players on the ice with him.

All relative stats are expressed as the player’s results minus the team average without him. So that means a positive number is better than average unless it’s an “against” stat where the negatives are the good ones. If the player is on the ice for fewer shots against, or less than average, you get a negative result, and that’s what you want to see.

The first three numbers are Fenwick (unblocked shots) in the usual configuration — a percentage of for over against, as well as the shots for and the shots against, both per 60 minutes. The second three numbers are the same thing, just with Expected Goals. Expected Goals are just unblocked shots weighted by location and type to give a measure that combines shot volume and quality.

I’m using Fenwick here because Expected Goals are derived from the unblocked shots. What we can see is how much better or worse than the team average he is at each measure, but also how that changes when you bring in a shot quality weighting.

Our man is better than team average when you just look at Fenwick percentage, but not when you move to expected goals. This is not that surprising. I think by now, you’ve realized this isn’t Mitch Marner we’re discussing. Our man is not a top line talent in the NHL, even if he is in the AHL. So his skill at generating quality shots offensively or preventing them defensively is not like what those really good players have.

But, his Fenwick Against and Expected Goals Against are both better than team average. He’s strong, particularly on overall volume, in the defensive zone. And his volume of shots for is actually over the average too. The real difference between his Fenwick and Expected Goals numbers comes in the offensive zone. His shooting percentage is okay, remember, not great. So he’s not a supremely talented shooter in any way. His shot locations are good, however, just not excellent. He’s not wailing from the blueline like he’s a defender showing off his slapper.

He sounds like a fourth liner, doesn’t he? Of a traditional sort, too. One thing not shown is that when you compare Corsi (all shots) to Fenwick (unblocked shots) he looks better in the FA than the CA. That’s a long-winded way of saying that he’s on the ice for a lot of shot blocking, and likely doing some himself.

I went back a few years to get enough data to judge him by, so I un-aggregated it all and looked at when and where the success defensively came (in expected goals against only). The when is the 15/16 and 16/17 seasons, and the where is three disparate teams. The 15/16 year is also his best offensive year.

The reason this is interesting is because that’s recent, but that 16/17 season is also where he played the heaviest rate of offence while maintaining his good defensive ability. Now, as mentioned, when you control for shot quality, that volume of offence is blunted quite a bit, but considering that that team (Dallas Stars) was and is a lot like the Leafs in style, one can imagine our mystery man playing some fourth line time on the Leafs and bringing a similar style of play to what the top three lines produce, if not the same quality.

Surely, you aren’t expecting the same quality in a depth guy? As I’ve said before, whenever you look at rel stats and your depth player is better than average at anything, you should sit up and pay attention. Usually they’re the below average counterparts to the stars on the top lines. If you’ve got the guy on a cheap deal, and he’s capable of wowing them in the A, and playing a very useful fourth line role in the NHL, you should be happy to have him.

Maybe we should expect him to compete hard for an NHL job again this year. He only played 5 NHL games last year, changed teams again, but his good years are not deep in the past.

One thing he has going for him is that he can play centre or wing, and he shoots right, so that brings that righty for faceoffs onto the fourth line. He’s also good, but maybe not great, at PK, in case that’s required. The problem is, he’s a right wing when he’s not a centre. Given the Leafs depth down the right side, the very excellent chance that Par Lindholm and Tyler Ennis are better than our man, he might very well begin in the AHL.

Don’t be surprised if he’s excellent in the AHL again, and on one of the top two lines. In the AHL, he’s good enough on the power play to potentially make the top unit. Don’t be surprised if he’s the very first name for a callup in the event of an injury that pulls someone up off the fourth line. I know you’ll want to see [insert name of young prospect here] instead, but this guy has got the defensive results and the simple game that makes him a good fit when the real concern of the coaches is the changes up the lineup where the important play happens.

Either way, I can see why the Leafs signed him. He looks like a good fit in the NHL if necessary; he should pass waivers after barely playing in the NHL last year, and he should be a great addition in the AHL if that’s where he ends up. A depth signing like this is no big deal, but it’s still good to see the Leafs go for someone who looks like he will fit in so well.

And now you’ve properly met Adam Cracknell.

Acknowledgements

The graph is from Prospect-Stats, although I altered it to show only what interested me. The listed stats are from Corsica Hockey. The rest of the words are full of stats from Natural Stat Trick and graphics from Hockey Viz, you just can’t see them.