I watch a lot of Maple Leafs games. I wince when things go bad, when a defenceman fails due to his own weakness or a momentary error. No one points a camera at me when that happens, though. For Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe they get to react for the world to see.
I’m not saying I feel sorry for them, that’s part of their job, but they aren’t robots, so the emotions of those moments — and the more sober consideration of them — is going to have an effect.
This is the reality that the “play the kidz” crowd fails to see. It’s the missing mitigation in the butthurt over a coach who doesn’t trust a young player or even one who isn’t young, but is the flavour of the month for call-ups. Our opinions and theories and desires about roster construction are consequence free. Most of the time no one remembers them a week later. Although, I’ve never forgotten Bob McKenzie’s pre-season guess that Mitch Marner would be the 13th forward in his rookie year. He might have been half expecting that because Mike Babcock’s famous saying is: arrive when you’re ready, be good right away. Which Mitch managed to do rather easily.
Back in those days when Mitch was a rookie, and Auston Matthews was still part potential, the Leafs had some good overall results: their shotshare was above 50, a hallmark of Babcock’s style, and they scored a lot of goals. As you may remember from the 1,769 articles at PPP about getting a defenceman, they weren’t very good at executing defensively. This was obvious enough that no real extra analysis was necessary for most people. Some diehard “CF% is destiny” believers argued that the Leafs were better than they seemed, but the truth was they were a mediocre team that were lucky to squeak into the playoffs for a few years.
These days are not those days. And it’s also possible now to get some better individual reads on defencemen. This article isn’t about Conor Timmins, who is a project on a longer timescale. It’s not about Mark Giordano, who has been the best defenceman overall on the Leafs. It’s not about Morgan Rielly, who had to start the season twice, and is peaking late. It’s not even about Justin Holl, who gets “big mistaked” more than any defenceman since Nikita Zaitsev. It’s about Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. It’s about results vs key moments. The standard deviation vs the deviations from the standard.
Both Sandin and Liljegren have some good isolated impacts. Here they are:
Sandin has more going on offensively, and Liljegren has some very good impacts on the shots against on the side he actually plays on. These two have a long and successful AHL history of playing together, and you’d normally be inclined to say — there’s your third pair. And to be clear, it may be the third pair in the near future.
But that’s the average. That’s the overall, game-in, game-out results with all the winces averaged into the successes.
For both of these players, and recognizing their major differences, they have some key similarities. They carry the puck well, they pass well, and they succeed at moving the play out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone. The classic argument against valuing puck skills in a defenceman over size, nastiness or willingness to block shots is that even the best team has to defend about 45% of the time. As annoying as that overly simplistic argument is, it’s based in truth. What isn’t true is the dichotomy between types of defenders. Skills come in a chaotic mix in people, not a collection by theme.
Both Sandin and Liljegren execute defensively very poorly at times. They add to the overall picture of success by helping the team to not defend as much as they would without their other skills. Sweeping that effect away by shouting 45% is foolish. But what about the key moments, the big mistake, the “soft goal” at just the wrong time?
Look, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if clutch play is even real. I don’t know if it’s possible for a team of disparate people to really shut down a game when they need to. I’m heavily inclined to think that’s post facto narration, pasted onto events that gives in to the worst cliché of hockey: every action arises from intent. You should be able to know deep in your heart what utter nonsense that is just from watching a game, and yet it is the most persistent fallacy. Players who fail didn’t try, players who work hard are always rewarded, players with skill are suspect, everyone gets what they deserve, and all of this arises out of the idea that, to use Kyle Dubas’s words, the leap from ideation to execution is seamless. He was actually talking, post-trade, about how that isn’t the case and Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty need time to acclimatize.
On the team as it was before they arrived, Sandin and Liljegren both act as a bridge from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. They’re so lightweight and flexible that they can span any distance. And occasionally a car falls through this bridge. Oh, well. It’s only once in a while.
And the camera zeros in on Kyle Dubas. Imagine him sitting up in the box at Amalie Arena with the tesla coils popping and the camera hyper-close on his face, so we can all see the clench of the jaw while someone down on the ice in road whites looks very dejected.
I think most commentators get him wrong when they expect him to do things because he has no contract. I think he’s much tougher than they give him credit for. I think he really believes in the process, in managing the team, not for his job. I genuinely think he’s got a spine of steel. And I also think he doesn’t want that experience described above. I know Sheldon Keefe is not signing on willingly to that plan.
I’m skirting dangerously close to “in the playoffs it’s different” which Dubas didn’t even want to engage with and neither do I. And I don’t know for sure if Jake McCabe coming into the lineup and shoving one player down the depth chart and one right into the pressbox is a good idea or not, but I do understand why, in the absence of a genuinely excellent player in the class of peak Jake Muzzin, Dubas went this route.
Arvind said a couple of things to me yesterday before the trade about what was then merely the rumour that Dubas was going to trade for defenceman that would not thrill either of us. He said he was worried the Leafs were thinking, “We have to do something, this is something, therefore we have to do this.” I think it’s more the ideas I’ve outlined in this article, that there is a fear of key moment failures. But then Arvind also said that any player that comes in and moves out Sandin, for example, may not really reproduce the transitional value of Sandin as well as adding his own different skills to the mix.
This plus and minus of skills not netting out as well as Dubas hopes is my fear. I worry that this is an eye-testy override of results-based process. But you can’t be a slave to the process, you have to consider that players don’t perform at their average all the time. Nothing shows this more clearly than the ups and downs of a goalie. It’s not an indefensible position to say that neither Sandin nor Liljegren are to be trusted with meaningful minutes in the playoffs. Not yet. I think its very plausible to say that Justin Holl shouldn’t be relied on as heavily as he has been due to circumstance.
I genuinely don’t think the thinking here rests much on that super scary fourth line the Lightning have. I think there’s a bigger unease at play with the youngest members of the defence corps. And I’m not prepared to say it’s unwarranted.
Hey, that’s a firm conclusion isn’t it? I think the mushiness of my thoughts on this as a concept matches the mushiness of my thoughts on Jake McCabe as a player. The Leafs haven’t really ever made a big mistake in choosing a defender since Lou (and me) took Zaitsev’s rookie year too much to heart. So, we’ll see how this plays out. But it’s very, very interesting that (so far) Dubas hasn’t set his choice in stone and traded away a defender. Maybe he’s not sure either.