Maple Leafs 2015-16 Defensemen and Goalie Preview

It’s September

And you know what that means? The 2015/16 NHL season is vastly approaching. For those suffering from hockey withdrawal symptoms, the off-season is now over.

It was an interesting summer to say the least. Baseball fans were able to witness the Toronto Blue Jays jump into first place and are in a good spot to make the post-season. Meanwhile, in Leafs Nation, there were a lot of transactions. However, none are big name deals or signings that would automatically improve the club this year.

While the biggest move was the deal that saw elite sniper Phil Kessel go to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling and a few draft picks, the Leafs didn’t make any major splash in the free-agent market this year.

Instead of signing a high-profile player, the Leafs made some key signings with depth players to some very cap-friendly deals, either to make way for future draft-picks at the NHL trade deadline, or to give them an opportunity to play for another spot next year.

Before the season starts, I always like to breakdown the summer acquisitions and see what impact the players can bring at all three positions (goal, defense and forward). This will be split into two parts. Today, we will start things off with the goalies and defense.

Note: This is the first time that I’m using advanced stats in an article. If I’m wrong in terms of context, sorry in advance.

Goalies:

Last season was a make or break year for Jonathan Bernier. He was playing for a contract during the 2014/15 season as he was set to become an RFA. He was trying to prove that he could be the Leafs number one goalie for the future. His fate may have to wait for another two years, as he signed a two-year, $8.3M deal. Bernier went to an arbitrator but settled on this term before there was a final ruling.

At a cap-hit of $4.15M, this is a reasonable amount. It was noted that Bernier was seeking for $5.1M. The Leafs were offering a one-year, $2.89M. So it makes sense that both sides met in the middle. Link.

We know that Bernier is going into camp as the number one goalie for now. The question that remains on everyone’s mind, can Bernier be the Leafs goalie for the future?

Let’s look at his numbers last year. Bernier had a 21-28-7 record with a 2.87 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. To top that off, he faced 31.51 shots against per 60 minutes, ranking in the top 10 in that department among goalies.

Those aren’t the numbers of a guy who should earn upwards of five-million dollars, even on a short-term deal, unlike Braden Holtby who had a case to earn “number one goalie money.” Granted he had a sub-par Leafs defense in front of him for most of the season, there were times when Bernier was heavily relied on and didn’t show up.

Sure, Bernier has been good in his two years in Toronto. But he hasn’t been great. There have been gaffes and quite a few goals that went by him that easily could have been stopped. Yes, goalies have bad games and have a few missed opportunities, but there have been a number of instances with Bernier. Every night your goalie has to be your best player. Some nights he’s been great, others have been questionable. He hasn’t been that consistent. If Bernier wants to be the starter for the future, he’s going to have to do a very good job in the crease and prove to management that he is their guy. He has two more years to prove his worth and to be consistent. After the last two years, I’m still not 100 percent convinced.

It saddens me to say that after Bernier signed this deal, it’s becoming more and more likely that James Reimer could be on the way out. He literally carried the team on his back for a post-season appearance in 2012/13. Plus, the Leafs have a great prospect in Antoine Bibeau that could assume the back-up role in the coming years.

I see constant comments on social media that Bernier is WAY better than Reimer. Here are the NHL totals for both Reimer and Bernier.

Games Played Record

(W-L-OT-SO)

Save Percentage Goals Against Average
James Reimer 175 74-64-16-11 .913 2.91
Jonathan Bernier 175 76-67-20-9 .916 2.63

Both Reimer and Bernier have similar numbers. It’s not like Reimer has a save percentage under .900 and is averaging four goals against per game. Both are quality netminders. But to say that one is better than the other is questionable.

However, it is possible that Reimer won’t go down that easily and battle for that number one spot that he once owned. This could make an interesting training camp and an interesting decision for Mike Babcock to make on whom to start come opening day.

Defense:

The Leafs were a disaster defensively last season. They were hemmed in their zone a lot and had difficulty getting out of it.

The Leafs were second last in shots against per game with 33.5 (only ahead of the Buffalo Sabres) and 27th in goals against per game with 3.13. Their Corsi Against per 60 minutes ranked 27th as well with a rating of 60.3.

It’s no surprise that defense is an area of concern for the Leafs.

They addressed it by signing Matt Hunwick on the opening day of free agency to a two-year, $2.4M deal. The Warren, Michigan native tallied two goals and nine assists in 55 games with the New York Rangers last year.

In terms of puck possession, Hunwick fares well in that department.

CF % CF%Rel CF%off CF60 CA60
Matt Hunwick 52.92 5.07 47.85 57.42 51.07

Hunwick was second behind John Moore (before he got traded) on the Rangers in CF% with 52.92 and has a CF%Rel of 5.07, meaning when Hunwick was off the ice, the Rangers went from a Corsi for percentage of 52.92 to a Corsi For percentage of 47.85. Hunwick made a five percent difference in terms of generating shots.

Hunwick earned close to 16 minutes of ice time per game. While he didn’t earn much ice time per game on the power-play (0:33) or penalty-kill (0:16), he will be an effective defender at even strength. Hunwick could be used in a third pairing role, or at best second pairing.

The Leafs also added size to their blueline by acquiring Martin Marincin at the NHL Draft and signed him to a one year, $700K deal.

Marincin, 23, has great size and could be used in a third pairing role as well. With the Oilers adding players like Griffin Reinhart, Marincin became expendable. He now has an opportunity to be a full-time NHL player after gaining some experience with the Oilers last year, playing in 41 games.

The addition of Hunwick and Marincin will make things interesting on the Leafs blueline, especially in the bottom pairing roles.

Questions for the Defense:

Now that Phaneuf is safe (for now), how will he fare this year?

There were a number of speculations that Dion Phaneuf was on the way out at the trade deadline. The rumour I kept on hearing was that Phaneuf was going to go to Detroit for Stephen Weiss, Brendan Smith and prospect Teemu Pulkkinen. Then again, this was a rumour. It was known that Mike Babcock is a fan of Phaneuf. Now that Babcock is the coach of the Leafs, Phaneuf is still with the team. Coincidence? 

Overall, Phanuef has been a workhorse. Aside from Kessel, Phaneuf has been under the microscope a lot in terms of decision-making on the ice. He was relied on heavily last year, leading the team in total ice time per game (23:43) and was in the top five in power-play ice time per game and short handed time per game. Phaneuf had a CF% of 45.23. his scoring chances for was 525 but his against number was 689 for a differential of -164, ranking 123rd out of 129 among defensemen who played a minimum of 1000 minutes. Keep in mind he was up against every team’s toughest opponents night in and night out.

Could it all just be fatigue? Is being overworked catching up to him? There are a number of possibilities and they also have a number of options to help him out. They can cut down on his workload and give other guys more ice time, or even bring in another defenseman to take the pressure off Dion. But during his press conference, Mike Babcock said it best:

Communication between players, especially the captain is key in any situation. Babcock is going help Dion flourish to be the leader of this team. Babcock said, “I want to know what they want. I don’t want to read their mind. I want them to tell me.” After hearing this comment, this is the relationship that Phaneuf should’ve been having with the prior coaches. Should Babcock be able to help turn Phaneuf into the player that he once was, then we got a reliable and scary defender.

Will we see a different Morgan Rielly?

When I say, “a different Morgan Rielly,” I obviously don’t mean it in a negative way. By different, I mean a true offensive powerhouse, puck-moving defenseman.

Ever since Rielly came into the league in 2013, he’s progressively gotten better. Earning more ice-time, playing against more difficult opponents as well as witnessing the excellent skating, skill, decision-making with the puck and every other quality we wanted when we drafted him fifth overall in 2012.

His possession number was okay. His CF% was 48.24%, just under the 50 percent mark. But he had a positive CF Relative percentage with 2.96, second behind Jake Gardiner on the team. His scoring chances For was 628 and his against number was 704 for a differential of -76. It would be better to have a positive indication, but as a second year player on a bad defensive Leafs team last year, it isn’t terrible.

Under Babcock, he will definitely have an opportunity to showcase his talent and show the coach that he is capable of taking the next step and becoming a top-pairing player. When Cody Franson was traded, Rielly was gaining more opportunities and more ice-time.

Rielly had good rookie season. He scored eight goals in his second season. I have no doubt, Rielly will continue to excel in his third season in the NHL and become a key player on the Leafs blueline in the future.

The play of Jake Gardiner:

The question surrounding Jake Gardiner is his decision-making in the defensive zone. Yes, he is gifted offensively and his advanced stats are great. But it’s hard to still get a grasp on his overall defensive play when he makes a number of costly errors.

I remember during the World Hockey Championships this year, people weren’t too pleased to see Jake Gardiner on the other end of this amazing goal by Nashville Predators’ defenseman Roman Josi.

What we see in the video is that as soon as Josi got around Gardiner, he gave up instantly. Those are the types of plays that will not sit well with the coach.

I’m not trying to start a war between advanced stats vs. the original way of viewing the game as I think advanced stats do provide another point of view. But could this be a case where the “eye test” may be stronger than numbers?

Who will make-up the blueline?

There are so many players on the Leafs blueline with potential, but so few roster spots. We know that Phaneuf, Rielly, Gardiner and I would say Hunwick will be relied on heavily this year.

Roman Polak is in the final year of his contract and could be traded at the deadline and Stephan Robidas dealt with a number of injuries last year, making positions at the bottom pairing roles a big competition.

We could also see players from the farm system move up and fight for a spot. Stuart Percy played great before he got sent down. He has a great chance to stay with the club this year. Others with a good chance include TJ Brennan, Viktor Loov and Petter Granberg. Scott Harrington played 48 games with Wilkes- Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League and could also battle for a roster spot. Also, let’s not forget newly acquired Martin Marincin.

There are a limited amount of roster spots on the Leafs defense. It will be interesting to see who will surprise us and possibly take a job away from a veteran player.

Here is how I think the Leafs defense pairings will look:

Phaneuf- Rielly

Gardiner- Polak

Robidas- Hunwick

Percy

*Honourable mentions: Martin Marincin, TJ Brennan, Viktor Loov, Scott Harrington
All stats from NHL.com and War On Ice.

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