When the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins made the trade that sent Jared McCann to Toronto, they both solved the same problem: Seattle would likely have selected both of those players, who were likely to be exposed by teams looking to protect other players. Pittsburgh had a long list of forwards to protect, and Toronto had no intention of not protecting Justin Holl, we can now say with certainty.
The end result was both of the players on the Maple Leafs list of exposed players, which will leave Toronto with one of them, and no new holes in a roster that also needs to be augmented with several more forwards and a goalie. A superficial glance at their records shows them to be largely similar players with very similar roles in their most recent seasons, although Kerfoot has moved up the lineup a lot more often.
The possibility exists that the Maple Leafs made a deal with Seattle to take a particular one of the pair. But the cost of doing that seems to be in excess of any real difference between the two players, and Toronto is asset-poor in terms of draft picks. So assuming Seattle has a free choice, who will they pick?
Kerfoot vs McCann
|Player||Alexander Kerfoot||Jared McCann|
|Age on Oct 1, 2021||27||25|
|Weight||185 lb||185 lb|
|Position||Centre/Left Wing||Centre/Left Wing|
|Expiry Status||UFA||RFA with Arbitration rights|
|NHL Games Played||278||353|
|Points per Game||0.49||0.44|
|-||RAPM - Even Strength||-|
|Goals +/- per 60||-0.028||0.101|
|Expected Goals +- per 60||0.032||-0.011|
|Total Expected GAR||25.2||21.9|
|GAR per 60||0.34||0.5|
|5on5 Individual Fenwick For per 60||7.03||10.91|
|Expected Fenwick Sh%||8.17||6.72|
|Expected Goals per 60||0.57||0.73|
|Goals per 60||0.68||0.82|
Vitals: Kerfoot has an August birthday coming up, so he is actually close to two years older than McCann. Otherwise they are largely the same player unless you think that height difference matters.
Contract: McCann’s modest cap savings evaporate at the end of this coming season, when his Qualifying Offer heading into a potential arbitration hearing is $3.38 million. He is still an RFA, and the very fact that his contract comes up for renewal allows for locking him down to term at a good AAV. Kerfoot is going to be UFA after two seasons, and can try his luck on the open market.
Cap Friendly’s contract prediction tool, based only on their record to date, estimates that McCann will be considerably more expensive in the future than Kerfoot. They forecast a four-year $4.6 million contract for McCann next year and $2.9 to $3.6 million for Kerfoot on a three- or four-year deal in two years as a UFA on the open market.
For the Leafs, if they’re comfortable with arbitration and a one-year deal at around Kerfoot’s current salary, they are basically a wash on cost control for their 3C, whoever it ends up being. The future salary will really depend on the next two years of results for both of them, but I find it very hard to believe that Kerfoot will have to take a pay cut in the future.
Boxcars: They are nearly identical where it matters — points per game over hundreds of games. McCann has played more because he was an OHL player who went directly to the NHL. He has only 42 AHL games-played, with Florida in his second pro season. Kerfoot finished his college degree before joining the NHL and has never played in the AHL.
Usage: The sharp-eyed will notice that it doesn’t seem to add up. McCann plays more special teams, but has less TOI per game overall. Evolving Hockey shows special teams TOI only for the games played in which it isn’t zero. McCann did not play any PK before his second season in Florida in 2017-2018. McCann also played a lot more PP minutes this season than ever before.
RAPM: Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus is Evolving Hockey’s model that accounts for teammates, competition and other external factors as much as possible. The idea is to find the player’s individual contribution level for each measure.
Neither of these players are exceptional, which is exactly why they play the role they have and make the money they make. Kerfoot shows up better by Expected Goals (xG is calculated by weighting all shots for type and location to determine the number of goals a league-average player would get from those shots facing league-average goalies). McCann shows up better by actual goals. This implies that Kerfoot is playing a better quality of hockey, but is eroding its value when it comes to the actual goals for and against. McCann seems to be adding more value on top of a poorer quality of overall play.
All forwards with at least 2,000 minutes over the period of McCann’s longer career gives a set of 403 players. For RAPM xG +/- , Kerfoot ranks 202, McCann 268. For RAPM Goals +/-, Kerfoot is 286 and McCann is 75.
GAR: Moving from the even-strength impacts to the bigger picture of Goals Above Replacement and Expected GAR models, the numbers tell a similar story. GAR attempts to measure how many more goals (for and against) a player contributes over a replacement level player. It does not account directly for shooter skill, but does include shooting percentage, which is an unholy mix of luck, randomness and skill.
Jump ahead to the per 60 number that accounts for Kerfoot’s fewer games, and you see that GAR shows McCann as significantly better. And yet by Expected GAR, Kerfoot carries the day. This is the same issue as with RAPM, which is a foundational part of GAR, so we shouldn’t be surprised. The question now is where is that shiny offensive GAR coming from for McCann? It’s not the power play, it’s mostly coming through from the even-strength side.
Individual Shooting: There is a marked difference in style between these players. Go back to the boxcars, and note that McCann gets a higher percentage of his points from his own goals. He shoots much more than Kerfoot, and his career Fenwick shot rate (all unblocked shots) is in line with Leafs players over this period like Joffrey Lupul, Kasperi Kapanen, Trevor Moore and Mitch Marner. He’s in with the pass-lots players, not the pass-first players.
The difference between Expected Shooting % and the actual over this many games can give us a better clue as to the level of skill. Both players score over expected by a good amount. If they were better shooters, they’d both likely shoot even more, and they’d be top six wingers fulltime. Kerfoot is more selective and smart about his shot choices, but at the end of the day, xG is a volume business and McCann wins on quantity even though a shotplot will show you he shoots from well beyond the circles a lot.
Who is Really Better?
McCann’s personal shooting and scoring is not enough to be driving that big difference in GAR. These models say that McCann has a more positive impact on his team than Kerfoot, and that’s exactly why the contract predictor came up with the numbers it did.
Now here’s the problem: 66% of McCann’s total GAR comes from the last two seasons on the Penguins. Before that, he was nowhere near even Kerfoot’s class. Kerfoot has three very good years for GAR, the first two in Colorado and the 2019-2020 season in Toronto. He was a significant net-negative this year of -3.2 total GAR.
While Kerfoot enjoyed some unlikely to be repeated shooting percentages in Colorado, he also has that good Toronto year to back a claim that his results are not all candy floss and luck. McCann blossomed in Pittsburgh, but not Florida or Vancouver.
So the question is — Seattle’s more than mine — what’s real in McCann’s numbers and what is due to the unique situation of being a centre on the Penguins down the lineup from Sidney Crosby?
Arguing for reality is that McCann rarely played with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. He was very much on the third line with other third-line quality players, albeit talented ones like Jeff Carter and Patric Hornqvist. His Pittsburgh years are his mature player years as well, at 24 and 25, so if he got better, it was at a plausible time.
Arguing against reality is that by the time the Pittsburgh third line rolls out, the other team has just survived Sid and Malkin, and their best players are traumatized on the bench while there’s usually some muscle (or lots of it in the case of Hornqvist) on the third line.
How the Leafs or you or I address this mild conundrum isn’t the issue, the real experts on what Seattle thinks are the Seattle analytics department, which is substantial. They also have Dave Hakstol as head coach, who was there when Kerfoot was great and when he was not all that hot. He surely has ideas about why that is. And of course, Kerfoot looked fine in the playoffs on a team that often did not.
Seattle also knows who else they’re selecting, and I don’t, and I think that might be the single biggest factor in their choice. If they’re looking for a player they can roll out as their second-line centre without the insulation either the Leafs or the Penguins can provide, they may very well think Kerfoot can handle that well enough for them and the Pacific Division, but it’s farther away from the role McCann has excelled in.
If they want to run a defence-first third line, they might also favour Kerfoot. If they just want to bet on that GF% and the models that claim it’s real, they should take McCann. He’s also younger, and more likely to become a long-term member of their team.
I would lean to the younger, slightly cheaper for now, more offensively gifted McCann for the Leafs. But the difference is not massive, and stripping it right back to those point stats, neither one of them is winning you the Cup.
Who would you pick for the Leafs?
Who do you think Seattle will pick?