The Leafs: Defense Bad; Not as Bad as You Think

Morgan Rielly was a home run pick last year (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Morgan Rielly is on his way to being a huge star (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Maple Leafs have inspired many theories about why they are so bad, but they all complicate things way too much. The Leafs are a bad team because they have one quality top-three NHL centre and a no elite “number-one” defenseman.

It’s a classic case of people searching too deeply for an answer and missing the most obvious.

Going into the season, there was hope that the additions of toughness in the form of Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas would, along with the continued development of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, give the Leafs a formidable blue line.

Instead, the blue-line has been an incredible weakness and the main reason the Leafs sit so far out of a playoff spot today. Worse too, is that with the recent injury to the team’s best defenseman, Dion Phaneuf, makes them even weaker than they were. At least, conventional thinking would certainly suggest so, however, if increased responsibility is given to Gardiner and Rielly, the injury may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Lack of a #1

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf  (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

The lack of a top defensemen is the Leafs biggest weakness. Morgan Rielly may one day take up the mantle, but in the meantime Phaneuf is more of a #2 (or probably better served as being one of the better second pairing guys in the league) and whether or not you are of the opinion that Franson is actually the Leafs’ best dman, it doesn’t really matter because he’s not a #1 either.

He is a good player, but not a great one.  The problem is that with $6 + million annually taking him to the age of 33, it would probably be best to just move him since the Leafs are in a cap bind and would then be paying Phaneuf, Gardiner and Franson close to $18, which is a lot when you have to re-sign Rielly, still don’t have a #1 and are pretty clearly in need of replacements for the bottom three defensemen on the roster.

Phaneuf and Franson are both good players, but the Leafs current window for winning and their ages and contracts do not coincide.

Verdict: The team should trade both Franson and Phaneuf as soon as possible, get what they can and be happy with the cap relief.

Gardiner and Rielly

Trade Bait
Jake Gardiner has become perhaps the most unfairly maligned player in Leafs’ history (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

The reason I say that the Leafs have a really good opportunity now that Phaneuf is injured is because now the coach can comfortably skate Rielly and Gardiner in more prominent roles. The two lead the Leafs in ice-time last night against New Jersey and the power-play with Gardiner and Kadri at the point looked really dangerous.

Gardiner and Rielly are both great skating, puck-moving defensemen with a ton of up-side.  Gardiner has usurped Phaneuf as the whipping-boy du jour, but whatever – people are ridiculous. Just yesterday, I heard the venerable hockey mind of Bob McCown suggest the Leafs make him a centre – a suggestion so idiotic and preposterous I can’t believe I am even addressing it.

When you consider McCown’s  reach and influence, it is no wonder Leafs Nation can never appreciate what they have.  You can write-off almost all of the mistakes you think you see Gardiner make under the banner of confirmation bias: you’re looking for them and as such, you see them – watch any player as closely and you will see a comparable amount of mistakes. What McCown – and much of Leafs Nation – fails to realize, is that guys like Gardiner move the puck and play “proxy defense” which is a term I’m coining here that means they contribute to overall team defense by keeping the puck going the right way and being positive possession players. Basically, their contribution to defense is that they make the team play less of it.

Any errors they might make because of their high-risk play are balanced out by their team almost always getting more shots – which eventually translates into more goals, whether or not this is apparent in any single given game.

Sure, Gardiner – and players like Erik Karlsson and Keith Yandle – might look lost in their own ends at time, but by being there less they still contribute more than traditional defensive-defensemen who might be good at D, but spends too much of his time playing it.

Jake Gardiner has a CF% of 47.1 which is second on the Leafs to only Morgan Rielly’s 47.5.

When Gardiner plays with Rielly they are 50.7%.

Jake Gardiner’s PDO is 96.8 which means that he has been the victim of both bad goaltending when he’s on the ice for his team and strong goaltending for the opposition. People don’t like to hear it, but Jake Gardiner has been very unlucky this season.

You can argue that has been – at worst – the Leafs second best defenseman to Morgan Rielly.

Sure, Phaneuf and Franson may get tougher minutes, but they also play with better players – so it balances out.

The Leafs need to absolutely, 100%, keep Jake Gardiner. He should be considered untouchable and those who broadcast Leafs games and those who criticize him should educate themselves as to why he is viewed so much more favorably by the analytic community that he is by the mainstream hockey press.

With Phaneuf out and Franson all but traded, the duo of Gardiner and Rielly is what makes continuing to watch the Leafs this season a positive and exciting proposition.

Holzer, Robidas, Granberg and Polak

Korbinian Holzer (Ross Bonander / THW)
Korbinian Holzer, in the AHL, where he belongs (Ross Bonander / THW)

There is a myth in the NHL that you should dress a couple stay-at-home defensemen who are tough and who hit. You absolutely should not. Hitting and toughness are great, but you need fast skating puck movers. It should be the main requirement of being an NHL defenseman and I predict over the next few years you will see the stay-at-home defenceman go much the same way as the one-dimensional enforcer.

My point is this: even if Polak was the best stay-at-home D in hockey (he’s not close) Jake Gardiner would still do more on any given night to help the team win. A look at Polak’s stats shows that every player he plays with gets worse when on the ice with him. Some of this can be attributed to Polak’s zone-starts, but not all of it. The fact is, Polak is not an NHL defenseman who could suit up for a contending team. He plays “the right way” and so fans like him, but he is a liability at even-strength.

It does not matter what the reason for the Leafs recent scoring drought has been because any team relying on Korbinian Holzer for 17 minutes (as the Leafs did last night against the Devils) is going to lose. Granberg gets a pass because he’s new, but Robidas is and remains a questionable signing.

Collectively, they make perhaps the worst bottom half of a defense-group in the NHL. Certainly you can’t dress Holzer, Polak and a rookie in Granberg and have a decent shot of winning – ever. For that reason alone – and the fact that Robidas still has 2 years left on his ridiculous contract – the Leafs are hurting on the  back-end. Add in the lack of a true top pairing guy and that gives the Leafs probably the worst defense in the NHL – whether  Phaneuf is in the line-up or not. The only consolation is that Rielly and Gardiner might actually end up being above average top-pairing players themselves.

Conclusion

 

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs probably won’t be any worse with the injury to the Captain. The fact is, Gardiner and Rielly are probably the Leafs’ two best defensemen and being able to shape the line-up without worrying about upsetting the team’s captain, highest paid defenseman and de facto #1 is probably a good thing.

The future is bright with Gardiner and Rielly, but the Leafs of the future still need four more NHL defensemen should they (one day) hope to compete.  Granberg, Percy, Finn, Loov and Nilson may or may not pan out – it remains to be seen – but if the team can flip Franson and Phaneuf for back-end help of the 23-and-under-fast-skating-puck-moving variety, they are hereby urged to do so as quickly as possible.

Still, Gardiner and Rielly are well on their way to being All-stars,  and the team – hopefully steered by analytic minded people who know the truth – would do well to resist trading either of them.

Hopefully the fans will come around on Gardiner and realize he is approximately 500% better than his reputation suggests.

NOTE: All stats from Stats.HockeyAnalysis.Com