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.



(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


7 thoughts on “The Leafs: Defense Bad; Not as Bad as You Think”

  1. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. I have been telling one and all that Gardiner is by far the best Leafs d-man for a couple of years, in fact, I wagered with a hockey teammate that Jake would win the Norris within 5 years. I may not win that bet, but perhaps not for Jake’s play but rather the media snow-ball effect that you mention in the article. While I understand why a disproportionate number of goaltenders become analysts (they are individuals rather than team players as such are quite willing to volunteer black and white statements on something they do not really understand) I do not understand why anyone who has played the game gives any credence to what they say.

    Please pardon the following indulgence, in order to lend some credence to some of the comments I am about to make I will list my meagre hockey credentials. First I am 67 years old (which should get me indulgence in the first place), I played Canadian University hockey while taking Honours Math & Physics – something that does not happen anymore. To be truthful I was at best an average player but one who understood the game and I did have my moments. I did not play much after University for 10 years – there really was no appropriate place to play. I took up the game again in my early thirties I have played continually since then and still do and not with players my age. What I play still looks like hockey.

    I have watched every second Jake has played this year and while some, especially those that tout plus/minus, may argue Jake has taken a backwards step, in fact, he has not. I have never seen any player take as many minuses in spite of his good and sometimes great play rather than his poor play. That compounded by being severely snake-bit – witness his PDO – has made Jake a Leaf Nation whipping boy.

    The best argument I have for Jake’s being, by far, the best D-man on the Leafs are his teammates – to me it is clear that they want Jake to have to puck (well every Leaf with exception of Kadri who only wants to puck for himself until he stick handles himself into a hole even he cannot escape, then he may pass it).

    Randy, in spite of Jake not being his idea of defenceman, made Jake a better defensive player. At this point he is very good in his own end.

    To anyone who has played the game and can see thru the numbers Jake is the Leafs’ best D getting the puck out of his own end; Jake is the Leafs’ best D moving the puck up through the neutral zone; Jake is the Leafs’ best point man on the power play; in short, Jake is the Leafs’ best D and let’s hope the Leaf organization realize this and makes the most of Jake’s gifts.

    I could go on and on but my guess is that the ones who are still reading are the converted.

  2. Erik karlson is obviously on a different level offensively. Watch the sens and he makes a ton of glaring turnovers that lead to grade a scoring chances. For those of you who put a lot of stock in +\-. He and Gardiner were both 2008 picks. Gardiner was -3 in his 2nd year while karlson was -30. They are both -23 since opening night 2013. Karlson, who is as bad as the come in turnover +\-, is a career -34. Gardiner, who before this season was basically a scratch player, is a career -25. I guess a -26 considering the short handed goal against to start the 3rd period. That being said, i still think the stat is overrated. Fact is, Gardiner is getting better since randy left, and has been solid during this slide. Averaging 23-24 min two nights in a row and he still was moving pretty good in the 3rd.

  3. Gardiner should be an untouchable with the rebuild. We have one of the fastest, best skating d in the league and the only one in a leafs uniform who can skate the puck from behind the leafs net and go untouched the opponents blue line. Keep a tally next game of how many good solid plays he makes vs bad pinches or give always and you will be shocked. Watch how many times kadri handles the puck and makes a bonehead decision, not to mention his poor positioning, play down low etc etc. but he draws a penalty and some leafs fans say give him 5.5 a year and the c. Gardiner handles the puck a ton and some bad turnovers are going to happen when you play a possession game. He could easily ring the puck like or chip it off the glass like Tim Gleason but I don’t think fans want to watch that or think that is productive in today’s nhl.
    Put him with Reilly and let them go. He was dominant in Ottawa before the break. He has shown signs of greatness when you show some confidence in him.

  4. @FieldMarshall While I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment, I must respectfully say it is exactly this kind of conventional thinking I am writing against. I have no bias towards Jake Gardiner and if anything, I argue i am seeing his play much more clearly than most people. As this article attempts to point out, the media picks up a narrative (Jake Gardiner is bad) and and it snowballs out of control with no regard to the truth. You bring up his plus/minus rating but I assure you that if you google it and spend ten minutes reading, you will never bring it up again because it is a stat with zero relevance that is largely meaningless. In place of that outdated stat I urge you to look into things like Corsi, CF% and PDO – stats which prove that what I am saying about Gardiner is in fact the truth. As to your comment about McCown, I like him a lot – he’s a fun radio guy – but he is not a hockey expert and the idea to put Gardiner at forward is a bad joke – much like it was a mistake for San Jose and WPG to waste talented defenesmen at the wing position. Anyways, thanks again for reading, but I urge you to be less dismissive and to look into these stats yourself – they are readily available.

    • I don’t buy your assertion that plus/minus means “zero”. Of course, consideration should be given to the fact that it’s not an entirely reliable statistic based on players jumping off/on the ice and linemates, having a -19 rating can’t be chalked up to Gardiner having an irresponsible defensive partner or the stat being bad “puck luck”.
      Taking into account the better plus/minus ratings in the league among guys like Brodie, Giordano, Weber and Shattenkirk – for the most part, they play against the top lines in the West and see the most minutes among defenders on their respective teams. Top defencemen have to do more than just rush with the puck and distribute the puck well.
      I don’t think you can make much of a sound argument using new(er) statistics that are favourable in helping to prove what you’re asserting. Using Corsi and other advanced statistics is nice and all, but you can rely more on actually watching a player during a game in different situations. Gardiner has taken significant steps backwards in his development. He makes very poor on-ice decisions and frequently turns the puck over. He seems to focus too much on making offensive plays and doesn’t apply as much thought towards defending. I can agree that he’s a very good skater, effortless and smooth, but defencemen are counted on and expected to defend FIRST – the offence is secondary.
      I don’t place much emphasis on advanced statistics when games are readily available to watch. I’ve probably watched about 80% of all Leaf games this season and I can honestly say that I think Gardiner’s value and ability has plummeted substantially. I’m not naive to argue that he can’t improve, but this isn’t an ideal time to be pointing out that the Leafs’ defence (and most of their defence) “isn’t that bad” when this certainly is not the case.

  5. “Gardiner has usurped Phaneuf as the whipping-boy du jour, but whatever – people are ridiculous.” Why are people “ridiculous”? Gardiner’s plus/minus rating is the worst on a bad team at -19. He’s frequently out of position and decides to pinch at very foolish times. Part of being a good writer lies with trying to be objective with your writing – not just discussing and acknowledging whatever suits your “argument” and dismissing what doesn’t.
    People like Bob McCown have every right to question the ability and performance of players. It’s not difficult to see that Gardiner is having a lot of trouble at his current position. At this stage of the game, he isn’t a rookie, but he’s hardly a veteran either. From what I’ve read, Gardiner originally played as a forward not too long ago and it’s been heavily speculated that he could be utilized in this position again. Byfuglien and Burns have become useful as “interchangeable” players – capable of playing forward or defence when necessary.
    For the record, I’ve never witnessed Karlsson or Yandle “lost in their own zones” during games. They might not have the same defensive ability as a Weber or Chara, but they’re proven and elite defenders. Karlsson is easily the best offensive defenceman in the league. Can’t believe that you compared Gardiner to these guys – it really shows a lack of understanding or immense bias on your part.

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