A Detailed Analysis of Splitting Up Kessel and Van Riemsdyk

A large part of hockey writing is about second guessing the decisions of management and coaches. Now, obviously a lot of this is done with the benefit of hindsight and of course, there is the complete  lack of pressure on the writer like there is on the coach, as in “well I can write that so and so should do this because ultimately there are no consequences for me if it doesn’t work.”

If you really think about it, NHL coaches are the best of the best. To get a head-coaching job in the NHL is an accomplishment that is very rare – We know how hard is to make the NHL as a player, but if you consider that there are 30 head-coaching jobs in professional hockey as compared to roughly 700 playing jobs, you start to see how much an accomplishment it is for someone to get one of those jobs.  Subsequently, the person who gets one must be very good at their job.

So, being that you must be one hell of a coach to even considered for one of these posts, what gives someone like me the right to question their decisions? In like six or seven sentences I just showed that an NHL coach is an expert among experts, after-all.

To answer that question we must understand a few things:

1. I can question him because being an expert or a professional, or a genius doesn’t mean he is infallible.

2. While highly likely that he has more and better information, as well as better advisers, and people who can find out for him anything he wants to know, we must understand that being an NHL is an extremely high pressure, time consuming job.  As such, the coach might not have the leisure time I do to sit and think/read about the NHL.  Furthermore, because he is an NHL coach and has perfected his craft to the point where he is now among the most elite in the entire world at what he does, he is subject to, among other things, the following: getting stuck in his ways, getting too comfortable in how things are/were/work, becoming complacent, relying on what got him there instead of learning what will make him better.

3. Related to number 2, but important enough to deserve it’s own number, is confirmation bias. The coach simply sees what he wants to because everything he’s done has worked for him in the past.  There is a good chance he thus gets caught up in his own authority and ego and is not necessarily open to suggestions or ideas from others. In hockey where the current experts got where they are by playing/coaching in a game that has evolved radically in the last ten or so years, this is especially troubling.

4. The Logical Fallacy of appealing to experts. It is not considered intelligent to appeal to authority because while an authority is likely to be correct, there are many times when they are subject to bias, error, group-think or even dishonesty.

All of this is just a fancy way of saying that it is perfectly logical and warranted for me to second guess Randy Carlyle even though he is, by definition of his title as NHL Head  Coach, a recognized hockey expert and authority and a person who no doubt knows more about hockey than I do.


Maple Leafs
= (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)



I am not sure why, but despite the massive amount of logical sense it makes, Carlyle has never seriously toyed with the idea of permanently breaking up James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel.  If I had to guess why, it’d be because they have been among the best pair of players in the entire league since they  started forming a line together. This, however, does not mean that splitting them up wouldn’t in fact lead to more success.

Consider the following: 

1). I think it is self evident that playing with both of these elite NHL wingers would make any player better. We have seen Tyler Bozak, a decent player, but by no means a star, put up point totals last season that, when  we prorate to account for his time missed due to injury, place him in elite scoring company with players like Kopitar and Toews.

From this I think we can reasonably assume that any player playing with Kesssel and JVR will get better.

2). We also know that the Kessel/JVR line has to go up against the best defensemen in the NHL night in and night out. Whether the opposing team counters with a shut-down group of forwards or just tries to match their production with their own #1 line, the Leafs’ top line faces very difficult competition on a consistent basis.

3). We know too, that so far this year, and over the last several seasons as well, that the Leafs have lacked for secondary scoring, relying on the first line to such a point that if they don’t score, the Leafs basically never win.  The top line did not perform well over the last month of last season and we all know what happened. So far this year, the Leafs have won every game in which Kessel scored and lost every game in which he did not.

The two worst games, the Friday night one against Detroit and the Penguins game two weeks ago, were both games in which Kessel and JVR either didn’t show up or were shut down. Whatever the case, the Leafs were lost without their top line performing at an elite level.

4). Finally, I think we can all agree that the best way to keep your top guys going is to get them away from elite level defensemen, shut-down forwards or other top line offenses that might counteract yours.

If we assume that all four of these assertions are true, then I think it’s pretty clear what has to be done: Break up the pairing of Kessel and JVR.

We know that they make other players better, that they face the toughest competition but that it’d be better if they didn’t and we know that the Leafs lose when they don’t score because they generally lack secondary scoring.

Toronto Maple Leafs fans
(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The solution should be obvious to anyone:

If you spit up the Leafs’ two best players, the opposing team’s coach is left with a decision to put his best men on only one of them. Whoever avoids the Charas and Webers is bound to have more open ice and more chances to score. Theoretically, JVR would exploit secondary coverage to the point where they’d be forced into splitting up their best defensive combos and both players would benefit.

Also, if you split them up, now when one of them is off their game, it won’t have as much affect on the other one and they shouldn’t find themselves losing so often when Kessel fails to score.

Then there is the other players. Kessel and JVR together make anyone better, but what about on their own? It’s currently impossible to say because the Leafs have never split them up for an extended period to my knowledge.  They are, however, both elite wingers. Kessel is easily a top five NHL winger and JVR isn’t as far down the line as you might think – 30 goal scorers with his size and ability to also play a finesse game are very rare. It is beyond reasonable to think that by splitting them up you would stretch their utility and improve the games of 4 players instead of just 1.

We know for a fact that Lupul-Bozak-Kessel works just fine. I think the Leafs owe it to themselves to see how JVR – Kadri – ? works out.

So, in conclusion, while Carlyle obviously knows what he is doing, I do think that if he stepped back and viewed the situation from the outside, he would come to agree with me: Splitting up Kessesl and JVR is one of the most obvious and necessary moves he could make.


1 thought on “A Detailed Analysis of Splitting Up Kessel and Van Riemsdyk”

  1. While I do think that if the Leafs top line was to struggle for an extended period of time that there would be a need to try some different combination with the top 2 lines, and I fully understand the need to spread out your scoring on more than one line, I don’t think there is any immediate need to split up Kessel and JVR.

    My reasoning for this is I do not think JVR is nearly as good a player as you seem to think he is. I think, just like being on a line with Kessel improves everyone’s production, and there are countless numbers that prove this, I do not see any evidence where playing with JVR has ever made anyone else better.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think JVR is a good, solid winger, but it wasn’t until he played with Kessel that he started putting the numbers on the board that he has. I realize he was pretty young, and inexperienced, when the Leafs got him, and therefore there isn’t any evidence to say he would not help other players be better, I think the proof is in watching them play. You can see when Kessel is on his game he can play at a level few can match. I have not seen that with JVR as of yet.

    I do like your opening paragraphs about NHL coaches. It is an elite group. And, while no one is infallible, we always have the benefit of hindsight in which to criticize their every move.

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