So the Leafs took a week off and so did I. I was hoping something interesting would happen during the week to pull me back in, but alas, there was nothing. Last night’s game was a dud and with virtually all newspapers ripping Jonathan Bernier this morning, I’ll lay off. We all know he isn’t playing well and that James Reimer is, so I won’t belabor the point.
The Reimer injury is unfortunate, and I keep oscillating between being disappointed and resigned. Disappointed because I really do believe that with decent goaltending, a team with Morgan Rielly, Jake Gadriner, Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk, plus all the solid secondary guys the Leafs have, is capable of being a playoff team in this weak Atlantic division.
At the same time, if last place is a possibility, a high pick is always nice. Auston Matthews would be an incredible situation for the Leafs to find themselves in. While the calculating and logical part of me does feel the risk vs reward is best served in making an honest run for the Playoffs, I could easily be persuaded to get behind a tank job.
One one hand you have a team that is trending downward after its strong early season possession stats, a team which is currently in last place in the East, and saddled with too many key pieces of the team that pretty much everyone agreed had to have its culture eradicated.
Then, on the other you have a team that has been hurt by its best forward shooting under 2% (it is a mathematical impossibility for it to not rise as the season progresses) and its defacto #1 goalie playing the worst hockey of his career.
Forget about the low shooting percentage, but what if the Leafs had gotten points in Bernier’s games at the rate they’ve gotten them so far in Reimer’s (who has been among the best in hockey so far this year)? They’d currently be tied for third in the Atlantic. All I’m saying here is that I don’t think the first 25% of the schedule is reflective of where this iteration of the Leafs can end up.
I am cautiously optimistic that the team – with its plethora of NHL ready players in the AHL – can sell off assets and remain competitive and exciting as the season progresses.
Ways to Improve Lineup Construction:
I am a huge fan of Mike Babcock, but that doesn’t mean I think he’s perfect. Like all coaches, he will make errors, and he will make questionable decisions that prove in the end he knew what he was doing all along.
Still, when assessing how the Leafs have managed their roster this season we should keep two things in mind 1) Babcock is still new on the job and learning about the players he has on his roster and 2) We don’t know the motivations behind what he is doing. Does he make moves to play players in positions that will help build their trade value? Is he trying to teach a player a lesson that may not be obvious to those of us watching from the outside? We can never know.
That being said, here’s were I think the Leafs could make some easy internal improvement:
- Roman Polak
Get him out of the lineup. Despite playing protected minutes on a regular basis he has been horrible. He has a 46% possession rating, the worst on the team, and he allows team high shots and scoring chances against. He brings no offense, is slow and more suited to the AHL or KHL than the NHL at this point in his career.
2. Scott Harrington, Martin Marincin
For a team whose organizational depth on the blueline is so thin, the Leafs are not doing a good job of developing the young (ish) defensemen that they do have.
Harrington is 22. He needs to play. He hasn’t scored at all, but he does allow less shots than Hunwick or Polak; he is second on the team (among defensemen) with a 51.95 CF% and has the lowest scoring-chances against per 60 minutes on the team. He should be playing a regular shift and never be scratched.
Marincin is a 52.54% possession player who also limits scoring chances and shots at a rate better than players who all play more regularly than he does.
The Leafs are a better team today if these two are playing more, but more importantly, it will let the team see if they are players they want to keep going forward. Yes, their numbers may be slightly inflated due to easier minutes (which does matter when looking at short-term samples, like we are right now) but it’s not going to make a huge difference. The fact is, the Leafs have two large, intelligent moderately talented defenseman who move the puck and they are wasting them now, ostensibly to milk sightly higher draft picks out of Matt Hunwick and Polak.
3. Dion Phaneuf, Matt Hunwick
The Leafs have to move both these players as soon as humanly possible. The fact is, they need the room on the blueline. Hunwick, in typical Leafs Nation fashion, is for some reason being massively overrated.
He’s a 45% possession defenseman who has zero 5v5 points, and doesn’t suppress shots. His stats are Polak-esque. All he does is block better, younger players from getting regular shifts. The Leafs got him for nothing, so they should see if they can get anything for him. They probably can, and whatever it is will be a profit.
As for Dion, he is a decent player but his resurgence is being oversold to a ridiculous extent. He’s been better than he was, but he still isn’t great. His salary is obviously prohibitive, but the biggest reason to move him is that he’s symbolic of the teams that failed in the past. To truly rebuild this team, Phaneuf, Bozak, Lupul and Bernier all have to go. That’s the only way you get a “new” team.
I don’t think Phaneuf is as unmovable as some think. He has a value to any team looking to get better on defense and the Leafs could probably take on a similar contract to make it happen.
4. Rielly and Gardiner
They are both playing excellent. I was so disappointed to see people offering up less than stellar grades on Gardiner at the quarter-pole when he is clearly the Leafs best defensemen by any statistical measure. As proven by his shot suppression stats, and his WOWY chart that shows he makes everyone he plays with better, Gardiner should be the Leafs go-to defensive defensemen.
Anyways, the only think I would change about these two is that I’d play them together. They would make one of the best pairs in the NHL.
5. Stuart Percy and Frank Corrado
The Leafs, after ridding themselves of Phaneuf, Polak and Hunwick, would be left with Rielly, Gardiner, Harrington, Marincin and Corrado on the NHL roster. They should then bring up Stuart Percy, giving them a solid top six full of excellent puck-moving possession savvy players.
It wouldn’t be a Cup Winning defense corps, but it would be as good, and likely better than what they currently have, with the added benefit of giving the team a chance to view it’s best young defensemen at the NHL level so as to acquire the information they need going forward to help rebuild this team.
I’ll do the forwards tomorrow.
Also check out today’s other Leafs Daily post: Who the Leafs Should Trade and What They Could Get.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.