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Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are the Leafs top pair

Just because they rarely play together doesn’t stop that from being true.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that’s true about the Maple Leafs, it’s that the defence pairs have become ossified, carved in stone, immutable, and the stubbornness of the coaching staff in forcing the three good left-side defenders to carry an anchor on the right side is why the Leafs are mired in, ah, the top ten of the standings.

And, to be fair, if all you do is look at the lines we publish in the preview each game, you might think the defence pairings never change. It’s also not the easiest thing to do to notice who is actually playing with whom on the ice, since the forwards are a little more eye-catching most of the time. For good and ill, defender watching is sometimes limited to the post-goal-against fault-finding mission.

To begin to see who really leads the Leafs from the blueline, I’ll start with the easiest thing to look at, the all-situations ice time over the season:

All-situations time for defenders is influenced by how many penalties were in the game and of which type. The duties there are fairly distinct, with Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev playing most of the PK minutes and Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly playing most of the PP minutes. Travis Dermott plays some PK, and Igor Ozhiganov is five-on-five only.

That graph neatly illustrates one other thing before we dig deeper: Travis Dermott has flatlined. While it very much looked like he was going to gradually take more and more minutes from other defenders in the early part of the season — I thought so, and so did Travis Yost — it hasn’t happened. That doesn’t mean it won’t yet, but the distribution of ice time has a different focus right now: Putting the best players on the ice most of the time.

If you look at a team from the back end, and fixate on the depth players, who by definition should be your worst players, it’s very easy to decide they play too much, particularly if too much is a sliding scale. It’s natural to want to see the best players most of the time. Today I’m going to look at the defence from the front end, where those best players are.

Five-on-five

Defender five-on-five usage as of January 11, 2019

Player TOI TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Player TOI TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Jake Gardiner 805.77 18.74 6.93 13.48 9.23 44.75 42.86
Morgan Rielly 751.18 17.47 10.7 13.58 10.06 45.37 51.54
Nikita Zaitsev 734.82 17.09 7.59 15.27 11.19 45.89 40.43
Ron Hainsey 695.02 16.16 9.93 14.68 12.09 46.88 45.1
Travis Dermott 625.15 15.63 7.97 12.86 5.57 50.39 58.87
Igor Ozhiganov 518.38 14.40 7.99 15.05 6.25 51.85 56.1
Natural Stat Trick

By both a total-time and per-game basis, the top pair is Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Nikita Zaitsev averages 1.65 minutes per game less than Gardiner, and Hainsey averages 1.31 minutes per game less than Rielly. Dermott also averages 1.23 more than Ozhiganov per game.

We have a logic problem here. If every left-shooting defender plays more than his right-shooting partner, when are the all-lefty pairings on the ice? We’ll get to that, but first, how all these players are used is an interesting question.

I included some zone start information here, which is something I almost never look at. Zone starts as a mitigation for poor results is usually dramatically overstated by people, so I avoid talking about it at all. However, as a clue to how players are used and thought of by the coach, it’s useful.

What we have on the Leafs is a two-fold problem (or reality, perhaps is a better word) that Nikita Zaitsev is tasked with compensating for. Obviously, you want Rielly used mostly offensively. Just as obviously, you want Gardiner to get some sensible amount of time in the offensive zone too. When you run a top nine of scoring lines and a fourth line that is shoved out on the ice only when the play is headed to the offensive zone, you don’t have a lot of opportunities for a pair of Polaks to take some of the minutes and block some shots.

And the Leafs don’t have a pair of Polaks like a lot of NHL teams do. They have a prospect learning the ropes in Dermott and a rookie in Ozhiganov. Those two are getting a very heavy offensive-zone deployment to help offset the amount of moisture behind their ears.

All of that, plus the reduced reliance on Hainsey this season, leads to Zaitsev getting his 40 per cent Offensive Zone Starts.

Also, note that Gardiner in particular gets very few “on the fly” shifts relative to the others. He is very deliberately used in particular situations and with particular forwards. Mike Babcockz has a plan for Gardiner, and he has no doubts about how he uses him.z

Meaningful Minutes

Hockey Viz has a chart of deployment by score state, but I’m in the mood for numbers, so I’m going to dig another mouldy old hockey analysis tool out of the bin and look at the ice time when the score is within one point. This is the sort of thing that used to be used for Corsi-close until further analysis revealed that cutting out data didn’t make the measure better, it made it worse at predicting future results. However, deployment tells you what the coaching staff thinks, or is trying to achieve.

Five-on-five, score within 1 to January 11, 2019

Player TOI TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Player TOI TOI/GP Off. Zone Starts/60 Neu. Zone Starts/60 Def. Zone Starts/60 On The Fly Starts/60 Off. Zone Start %
Jake Gardiner 534.43 12.43 6.85 13.58 8.76 44.68 43.88
Morgan Rielly 506.83 11.79 10.06 13.73 9.83 45.7 50.6
Nikita Zaitsev 491.27 11.42 8.31 15.39 10.5 45.43 44.16
Ron Hainsey 471.60 10.97 10.18 15.39 11.32 46.44 47.34
Travis Dermott 383.52 9.59 7.35 10.17 4.69 54.13 61.04
Igor Ozhiganov 302.38 8.40 6.94 12.1 5.36 57.54 56.45
Natural Stat Trick

Defender usage to January 11, 2019

Player % of Available 5on5 Minutes % of Available "Within 1" Minutes
Player % of Available 5on5 Minutes % of Available "Within 1" Minutes
Jake Gardiner 37.86% 38.45%
Morgan Rielly 35.29% 36.47%
Nikita Zaitsev 34.52% 35.35%
Ron Hainsey 32.65% 33.93%
Travis Dermott 29.37% 27.59%
Igor Ozhiganov 24.36% 21.76%

The differences aren’t dramatic because they mostly can’t be given that there are only six defenders, and the Leafs don’t overload any of them, but the third pair gets used a lot less when the stakes are higher, and they get used much more offensively.

Quality of Competition

This is the other area where much too much is made of the effects on results. On the Leafs, however, there are two defenders whose usage most heavily skews to facing the top forwards, two others who are almost league average, and the last two who almost never see the toughest competition. (Check out HockeyViz’s usage charts for each player to see this visually.)

That most carefully used pair of defenders is a pair on the lineup list each game and is, of course, Dermott and Ozhiganov. But the player getting to see too much Crosby and Marchand is Zaitsev, followed by Hainsey. The guys at league average are Gardiner and Rielly.

My takeaway from this whole examination of deployment is Jake, Jake, Jake. He’s the most trusted, the most used when it matters, and he’s given the heaviest workload without taking too much of his offensive time away. He’s leaned on, not in the sense of throwing him up against the toughest forwards, but in the sense that the game turns on his performance.

Morgan Rielly might be the star, but Jake Gardiner is the stalwart.

Who Plays with Who?

But how exactly is this top pair that isn’t a pair getting the most ice time? Well, they do play together a little.

Morgan Rielly to January 11, 2019

Morgan Rielly With TOI With
Morgan Rielly With TOI With
Ron Hainsey 595.33
Jake Gardiner 68.17
Travis Dermott 43.85
Igor Ozhiganov 23.30
Nikita Zaitsev 14.93
Natural Stat Trick

Jake Gardiner to January 11, 2019

Jake Gardiner With TOI With
Jake Gardiner With TOI With
Nikita Zaitsev 623.83
Morgan Rielly 68.17
Travis Dermott 43.73
Igor Ozhiganov 37.23
Ron Hainsey 25.58
Natural Stat Trick

I’ve avoided talking about on-ice results here because this exercise was more about the coach’s plans than how his plan is working out. It’s working out to 51.68 per cent in score and venue adjust five-on-five Corsi For, which is ninth in the NHL right now.

Having said all that, in the 68 minutes together, Rielly and Gardiner have the highest pace of on-ice Corsi For either player experiences. They are the “holy shit, do we need to score” pairing who are on the ice with the top two forward lines.

The offsetting pairing of Zaitsev and Hainsey gets the heaviest defensive usage possible in only 45 minutes together this season, and they haven’t been all that successful at limiting shots against, but that pair is the “go out and block it” desperation deployment.

Both of those deployments are very small minutes and subject to huge effects from randomness, so they should not be taken very seriously.

Conclusion

As you’ve likely noticed, this analysis was done on January 11. That turned out to be very fortuitous because Travis Dermott suddenly became the top defender by ice time in the very next game. And then it happened again. And then Jake Gardiner missed two games, and Dermott got to play top four for real.

In the lead up to this change in Dermott’s usage the key point about the top four is this: Both Gardiner and Zaitsev play crucial, yet very distinct roles, even though they play nominally as a pair. To remove either one of them from the lineup requires someone to fill a very big set of minutes in a role that Morgan Rielly cannot succeed at.

There is simply no way that Rielly, one of the worst players on the Leafs at defensive execution, can take on either player’s minutes. It would be foolish to try, regardless, as his offensive gifts are so powerful, there is no good reason not to heavily skew his usage in that direction. No one walks up to the first violin in an orchestra and tells him he needs to play bass clarinet too, or he’s no good. You just get a good bass clarinetist instead.

The big question mark has been, and still is, how much can Dermott really do outside of his heavily managed usage to date? And is that violin or bass clarinet? To answer that, I’ve taken a look at the games played since January 11 to the All-Star break, and that analysis will be up soon.

Until then, I remain wholly unconvinced that anyone, even Kyle Dubas, can convince Mike Babcock to give up Jake Gardiner unless he’s replacing him with a superstar.