Ah, September. The air is crisper, the kids are back in school, and hockey is finally drawing near, after a summer of online rosterbating. And one player is conspicuous by his absence from projected Leaf rosters: Byron Froese.
Scott Cullen had Froese as fifth on the Leafs' centre chart--and that's with William Nylander and Mitch Marner pushed to wing. Our own Katya didn't feature Froese on her projection of Leafs' forwards. The Hockey Writers, back in March, ignored Froese completely.
And yet Froese was a Leafs' regular in 2015-16. According to NHL.com, the Leafs had 14 rookies play for them last year. Byron Froese played easily the most, at 56 games--more than the next three rookies put together. (Nylander, 22; Zach Hyman, 16; Scott Harrington, 15.) Obviously, this is to some extent because the Leafs kept their best prospects away from the big club before the trade deadline. But Mike Babcock saw some utility in Byron Froese. What was he for? Will we see him on the Leafs again? What can he tell us about Babcock's coaching strategy?
I set out to answer these questions.
Byron Froese is six feet tall and 190 lbs., a right-shooting forward, and he plays both centre and wing. He was a pretty good WHLer who was drafted by the Blackhawks 119th overall in 2009. Froese, like fellow minor-league overachiever Zach Hyman, was a client of Kyle Dubas once upon a time, which may explain how he came to the Leafs' attention.
For the history of Froese in the minors, I give way to Jeffler, who had a great the-story-so-far article in March of 2015. Very briefly, Froese spent multiple seasons as an offensive nullity in the Chicago system before winding up in the ECHL. Froese finally developed something verging on an offensive game with the E's Cincinnati Cyclones; the Marlies plucked him off the Cyclones in an odd loan agreement during the 2014-15 season.
Froese was productive with the Marlies. He had a somewhat inflated shooting percentage, but he was also just getting a hell of a lot more shots than previously. As a result, he put up nearly a point per game in the AHL that year--18G-24A-42P in 46 GP. For reference, that's a better points per game than Connor Brown or Brendan Leipsic put up in their (quite impressive) 15-16 year with the Marlies. Froese was also generally lauded for his defensive and penalty-killing play. Hold that thought.
Froese's good work in 2014-15 was rewarded with a two-year, two way contract with the Leafs in summer 2015. And so, he joined the good ship Maple Leaf, on its fated wreck of a 2015-16 season.
Froese did not produce offence like he so recently had at the AHL level. In 5v5 P/60 among forwards with at least 30 GP, Froese finished 387th in the NHL (of 403 eligible players), which means he was literally a 13th forward offensively. Put another way, Froese has a slightly lower career points-per-game in the NHL than Frazer McLaren. :(
I wonder what his shot results look like?
Wouldja lookit that?
Let's take a tour of Froese's numbers.
- Corsi Against: Froese, as you can see above, is a CA star. Katya did an excellent piece last winter on Froese and fellow fourth-liner Brad Boyes, and she noted his extreme knack for cutting down on shots against. Froese is a physical, defensively responsible player, and he was the third-best Leafs forward in CA60 (min. 500 minutes played.)
- Penalty Killing: On a related note, Babcock relied on him heavily on the Leafs' above-average penalty kill; Byron was third among all Leafs forwards in SH TOI (minimum 10 GP), trailing only the departed Michael Grabner and Nick Spaling.
- Faceoffs: While Froese being overused due to his faceoff abilities became a meme at one point, he actually wasn't that great at them; he wound up winning a mediocre 48.3% last year.
- Zone starts: This is the especially striking one. Froese had absurdly lopsided zone starts. Remember those 403 NHL forwards who played at least 30 games? Froese was 391st (!) among them in offensive zone start percentage, easily last on the Leafs. Froese's loss was apparently JVR's gain, to some extent; JVR is 12th on the above list in o-zone start percentage, and first on Toronto. The magnitude of the impact zone starts have is controversial, but in extreme cases like these, I do think it suggests something.
- Competition and Teammates: As you might expect from a fourth-liner, Froese both played with and against generally low-quality players. Both his teammate and competition numbers ran towards the low end.
- xGF%: Perhaps the most impressive thing about Froese's season is his score-adjusted xGF%--in other words, what percentage of the goals we'd expect his team to get with him on. Corsica has it at 49.76%--meaning if you just want a fourth line that can tread water, take the hard minutes, and spell your scoring lines without getting killed, Froese is up to the task.
But all these are just numbers. As painful as it is, we must do the traditional thing and--gasp--watch the games. For a minute or so.
The eye-test can be deceptive, and in Froese's case his game is so unspectacular--he was the lowest-event forward on the Leafs--that it can be hard to notice what he's doing unless you make a point of watching him, which I'm not sure anyone ever does. Nonetheless, after trying to figure out how Froese operates, the word that comes to mind for me with Froese is "dogged." He just keeps going. Check out this penalty kill against the fearsome Chicago powerplay. The PK starts at 31:59, as Froese lines up in the d-zone as the penalty begins.
Unless you're really watching for him--and to be honest, I normally spend most Leafs' penalty kills alternately hiding my face in my hands and swearing--you can miss what Froese is doing here. But I submit that this is an excellent penalty-killing job by Froese against high-calibre opposition, which is why I like the clip.
- Froese is initially losing the draw, but he manages to scrum it and give Polak a chance to get into the fray, which is the next best thing. The Hawks eventually recover, but are kept to the boards and the puck is cleared.
- Froese manages to harass Marian Hossa to the point where he gives up on trying to rush the puck himself and throws it back to Patrick Kane. (Hossa also throws a slash back at Froese in annoyance. Nice work, Byron.)
- Kane takes the puck and builds up a head of steam, shifting over to the right wing to avoid Froese's forechecking. He runs into the rest of the PK squad, and winds up getting funneled to the corner.
- Froese harasses the puck carrier and then switches sides with Michael Grabner (also a good penalty killer.) The Leafs manage to keep the Hawks to the outside and under pressure for the next few seconds.
- The puck goes over to Kane again on the right-wing boards. Froese is over there aggressively and pushes Kane into making a pass; while the pass goes through to Brent Seabrook, you'll notice Froese gets his stick on it and slows it down.
- Seabrook fires off a delayed one-timer that James Reimer stops and smothers, for the first Hawks shot attempt of their power play. Half the penalty is killed, and Froese takes his well-earned rest on the bench
Nothing about this is spectacular; it's just competent penalty killing. But for such an unappreciated player, it's nonetheless a little impressive how Froese keeps persistently harassing forwards who are much more talented than he is, and successfully prevents the kind of clean movement the Hawks would like. I bet you Mike Babcock noticed.
All coaches, to some extent, shelter certain players in order to give opportunities to others. Maybe the most famous example of this is Vancouver during the Sedins' prime; Alain Vigneault fed Manny Malhotra the absolute worst zone starts possible to shelter the Sedin twins. Babcock, interestingly, was fairly balanced in his zone starts for much of his time in Detroit; it was only in his last year there that two forwards had zone start percentages comparable to Froese's--Drew Miller and Luke Glendening. Neither of them, it should be noted, did as well possession-wise as Froese did; they certainly didn't have his CA magic.
Froese's HERO chart, interestingly enough, bears an uncanny resemblance to another much-derided, soon-to-be-Leaf fourth liner: Matt Martin. (So it's clear I'm not trying to pass off the opinion, I co-wrote a piece lambasting his contract in July.) Martin also has abysmal shot generation and excellent shot suppression, and he also played a defensive role for the Isles (he's 341st on that zone start list I keep talking about--well above Froese, but still heavily d-zone weighted.) Babcock apparently favoured the signing. While Matt Martin's xGF% isn't as impressive as Froese's, he does seem to check many of the same boxes, while being bigger and more of a fighter.
Let's change gears for a moment. These neat little graphs (from Micah McCurdy, c/o Katya) show which forwards played the most in which game situations.
This can be a little confusing to look at, but it's a neat visualization. It shows which forwards played more or less depending on what the score was. Froese is #56, and is represented by one of the purple lines. When the line goes up, it means Froese was taking more of the available ice-time at that score.
As you can see, Froese played less when the team was down a goal, which makes perfect sense, considering he produced essentially no offence. When the team had a two-goal lead, he played much more, and on those rare and happy occasions where the Leafs were up three, suddenly Froese zooms way off the top end of the chart. If you want a centre to help you kill time while you sit on a lead, Froese pays.
This situational variability is worth noting for Froese, because his ice-time varies wildly depending on how the game is going. You have blowouts like this one where he's the leading Leaf forward in ice-time, and this one four days later where he played the least of any skater in the game. Mike Babcock clearly has a very specific idea of how he wants to use Byron Froese.
On that topic of situational usage: look at Matt Martin's chart with the Islanders:
While he's not quite as stark as Froese, Martin too is a guy you want to send out to fast forward through the game. I'll spare you yet another chart, but the Caps used Brooks Laich in similar fashion.
The Leafs, as we all know, improved markedly in CF% last year. What stands out, though, is how skewed they were by offence and defence. The Leafs were 4th in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi For last year; they were 23rd in score-adjusted Corsi Against. Babcock was able to rework this team into a shot-generating behemoth, partly by putting his best offensive forwards in a position to score; and as a consequence, a few players--Froese especially--were put in a position not to score. Four players stand out as being the most spectacularly buried: Nick Spaling, Michael Grabner, Daniel Winnik, and most of all, Byron Froese. In CA60, Froese outperformed all of them. Froese was given no offensive opportunities, and the rest of the team benefited.
Mike Babcock is a very smart coach. While not everything he does is necessarily right (I will believe that Martin contract is an overpayment until I die), there's almost certainly a reason for it. If Babcock is trying to build a line to play miles underwater so as to shelter the kids--and keep in mind, this is a forward group that could plausibly have six rookies play on it throughout the course of the year--Martin and Froese are exactly the kind of players that might staff it. While I'm not sure if this is how Martin will be used, it's the role he's best suited for, and on a team with offensively talented but callow rookies, it may well be in demand.
And Froese? Well, Froese might find a spot doing what he's been doing. He's about to enter the second year of that deal he signed in 2015. He'll earn $575K in the NHL and $100K in the AHL, though it appears he's guaranteed at least $175K, as per General Fanager. This is certainly an affordable contract.
Now, to be clear, this doesn't mean Froese necessarily should get the 4C job. In focusing on his defensive merits, we've been turning away from his offence, which you'll recall was abysmal. Froese is probably below the scoring Mendoza line, where his defensive gains--impressive as they are--just aren't enough to outweigh his lack of production. Peter Holland, for example, is also a defensively solid player, and on his good days, Holland scores. Froese doesn't, and even when you adjust for his usage, he probably isn't going to do so at the NHL level.
But if not Froese himself, players with Froese's skills may well be in demand for the Leafs next year. From a developmental perspective, Babcock is very likely thinking long-term with his core pieces, and he's likely going to want guys who can do the unglamourous work to free up the stars. Long-term, this might mean Frederik Gauthier. In the nearer term, it might be Martin or Laich. And maybe, just maybe, it'll be Byron Froese again.