We recently wrote two posts about how the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defensemen ranked for offensive and defensive play using five-on-five on-ice stats per 60 minutes played as tracked and recorded by naturalstattrick.com.
As we noted in those posts, we used on-ice five-on-five numbers instead of actual individual stats because hockey is a team sport. A team’s performance is influenced by every player who’s on the ice. Even confidence in the team’s goalie influences how the team plays on both sides of the puck.
Our goal today is to put both the offensive rankings and the defensive rankings together to see how each player fared overall among his teammates.
Noting an Error We Made
We want to mention that we made an error on our previous offensive numbers. In Goals-For, T.J. Brodie had 2.85 Goals For per 60 and should have been ranked sixth for Goals-For. We mistakenly ranked him fourth ahead of Rasmus Sandin and Justin Holl. We’ve since corrected those numbers below.
Here’s how each player ranked for offense and defense in the six categories we used, which were Shot Attempts for and against, Shots for and against, Scoring Chances for and against, Goals for and against, and Expected Goals for and against.
Average Offensive Ranking
|Overall Rank||Player||Average Rank|
Average Defensive Ranking
|Overall Rank||Player||Average Rank|
Combined Ranking For Both Offense and Defense
|Overall Rank||Player||Average Rank|
According to these numbers, Timothy Liljegren had a great regular season at five-on-five in the role he was given by head coach Sheldon Keefe, which was predominantly as a third-pairing defenseman. Liljegren averaged the best in the 12 categories we used that we tracked by naturalstattrick.
Liljegren also finished first in two of the six offensive categories, and second in three categories. His lowest ranking in any of the six offensive categories was third in Shots-For. Defensively he was second in two of the six categories and fourth in three categories. If he had not finished seventh in Goals-Against, he would have had an even higher rank.
Rasmus Sandin finished just two-tenths of a point behind Liljegren with an average ranking of 3.0. By these numbers, in a similar role to Liljegren’s, Sandin was also very good. Offensively he placed first in two categories and second in three.
Sandin’s lowest placing in the offense was fourth in Goals-For. He had three third-place finishes and was fourth in the defensive stats. What brought his average down defensively was his fifth-place finish in Shots-Against and a sixth-place finish in Shot-Attempts Against.
While Giordano had the least amount of ice time of the eight defensemen, he played extremely well when he did play. Although he’s not the player he was when he won the Norris in 2019, the 38-year-old has not lost that much of s step.
His high ranking likely has a lot to do with the fact he’s still a top-four defenseman who played predominantly in a third-pairing role for the Maple Leafs. We’re sure Giordano’s play and his numbers greatly influenced both Liljegren’s and Holl’s.
We’ve been following these numbers for a few seasons and Dermott has been the most consistent defenseman during that time. He is always placed near the bottom of all the offensive categories, but he’s usually always at the top of the defensive numbers.
In the end, he always seemed to land right in the middle overall. We think the Vancouver Canucks picked up a vastly underrated, and relatively cheap, defenseman while only giving up a third-round pick.
Interestingly, Holl finished ahead of Rielly, Brodie, and Muzzin. By the eye test, he definitely struggled this past season. Still, maybe wasn’t as bad as most fans think. Holl, like Liljegren, benefitted from playing a lot near the end of the season, alongside Giordano.
Brodie finishing sixth in our research was a bit of a surprise. By the eye test, he seems to make whoever he plays with better. However, he typically gets the toughest assignments of all of the defensemen.
In the past, Rielly has been the polar opposite of Dermott. He usually finishes at the top of offensive categories, but at the bottom of the defensive categories. He also did that this season; however, his offensive average ranking of 4.0 is down from where he has been in the past.
One explanation is that Rielly’s shifts were against tougher opponents this season. Muzzin used to take all the toughest shifts on the left side. With him struggling or hurt, this season Rielly and Brodie were given the tougher assignments.
This was not a good season for Muzzin. In the past two seasons, he’s come out on top of these numbers. For him to fall from first to seventh is a huge drop and a major disappointment.
Muzzin suffered a major injury in the playoffs last postseason that might have affected his play to begin the season. He then suffered three injuries during the season, including two concussions. The good news is that he seemed to be more of his old self in the playoffs.
Lyubushkin’s numbers were not very good either offensively or defensively for the Maple Leafs. In fact, he put up better numbers with the Arizona Coyotes than he did with the Maple Leafs.
A lot of that might be how he was used by coach Keefe. Lyubushkin played higher in the order with the Maple Leafs and spent a lot of time on the top pair alongside Rielly.
Conclusions, and What We Would Like To See
We see Liljegren and Sandin as the future of the Maple Leafs’ defense. There’s speculation that Sandin could be dealt this offseason. Giordano’s signing has supposedly pushed him down to fourth on the left-side depth chart.
We think it would be a mistake to trade the 22-year-old Sandin. Both Muzzin (at 33 years of age), and Giordano (at 38) have a limited shelf life. If anything, our analysis of the numbers suggests that it would be wiser to explore other options for Muzzin.
Liljegren and Sandin played well together when they were the top pairing for the Toronto Marlies, and have had some success together as the third pairing for the Maple Leafs. We think they could make a good third pair for the Maple Leafs next season.
In the past, Rielly has avoided playing against the toughest opposing players and it’s worked out well for him. We wonder if a reuniting of Brodie and Giordano and giving them some of the tougher minutes might give Rielly a better chance at success.
The question then would be who to put alongside Rielly? Liljegren had mixed results when he played alongside him. One thing coach Keefe would have to be careful about is not over-taxing the 38-year-old Giordano.
We aren’t sure where Lyubsuhkin and Holl fit in this coming season. We can’t see both of them returning. It might be possible that neither of them return.
If coach Keefe went with two pairings of Brodie/Giordano and Sandin/Liljegren, the task is to figure out the best defensive-minded partner for Rielly.
That concludes our study of the underlying analytics for the Maple Leafs’ defense during the regular season. Our next post plans to cover how each of the defensemen ranked in the postseason.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf