That last game was a tough one to swallow. Losing 9-2 is never an easy chore be it coach, player, upper brass or in particular, die hard Leaf fan. After that disaster of a game, that for some insane unbeknownst reason to me I watched till the very end, I needed some time to collect myself. Why? Well, I had images of burning my jerseys, boycotting (watching) games, changing my allegiance and a bunch of other tyrannous acts against Leaf Nation. My only therapy was to head to the boxing gym and beat the stuffing out of a heavy bag picturing Alffy’s ugly mug for motivation. That always did seem to clear my head and set me right in the past.
Upon returning from said heavy bag beating, I did feel much better and perspective started to settle in. In fact a plan started to form. Scratch that… not a plan, but an answer for this Leafs meltdown. Apparently, the “answers” to the Leafs’ problems have been floating around twitter for ages.
“It’s a core player thing.” “No, it’s a coaching thing.” “No, it’s a work ethic and compete thing.” “No, it’s a missing piece thing.” And so on. So which is it? How can a team that hosted Buffalo a fortnight ago completely dominate that game, and then show up a few nights ago and literally stink up the joint? The same applies with the 2 previous Boston games, flawless in one, yet very much tainted in the other. How can they go from “great” to “horrible” in a few weeks with essentially the same team? Let’s attempt to answer that.
The Eye Test
Personally, I’m a fan of good defense and as such I hone in on that aspect of the game when I watch. Of course, this is what some call ‘observation bias’, but I don’t give a rat’s ass what ‘some’ think at this moment. Specifically, I’ve paid very close attention to this hockey version of ‘musical pairings’ involving Leafs Dmen since the season started and I feel there maybe some explanatory value here.
The Dion and Franson pairing started off quite strongly but over the last 4 games have begun to falter. Franson has played the better of the two during this span but I’ve noticed on several occasions he has been slow to make that first pass on zone exits. Meanwhile, Dion has blown his share of coverage assignments and has been beat several times to the outside on the rush. It still seems he’s having trouble turning and closing to his left. I’m calling this the ‘Zoolander Effect’. Overall, they aren’t playing remotely close to their previous levels from early on.
The Youth Experiment
Now we move on to Polak and…who will it be this week? Polak first played with Percy, then Reilly, and finally Gardiner. This is where we must pay closer attention, because this is where the element of ‘musical pairings’ presents itself, and potentially where the answer to the Leafs’ problem lies.
I felt the Polak/Percy pairing did quite well together even though Percy may have been in over his head considering the difficulty of minutes and heavy TOI in that pairing. Once that became evident Percy was replaced with Reilly and based on what I saw they were very good together. Yes, they made some errors, but overall I was quite impressed with how Reilly handled the increase in minutes and role.
Finally, Gardiner was slotted in with Polak and in that first game against BOS they looked like a match made in heaven. They didn’t look as good against PIT but still played well considering. It all went south after that. Gardiner looked lost, indecisive and at times, even overwhelmed. His one-on-one battles looked so physically exhausting I caught myself empathizing with strained grimaces just watching him. Polak didn’t fair any better. He appeared to be over compensating, trying to do too much and over committing on several separate occasions. They were on the ice for way too many goals against and that is just not acceptable for the time they were logging.
The same has been true for Robidas with respect to ‘musical pairings’. Basically, he’s been paired with either Reilly or Gardiner save for a very brief stint with Dion that lasted a game and a half. Watching the Robidas/Gardiner pairing was a suspense/horror film in the making. You never quite knew what might happen between them at any given time. Their giveaways were so appalling that it gave me turret-like fits at times. Moreover, during the ARZ game it was clearly evident they were purposely dumping it into Gardiner’s corner instead of carrying the puck into the zone because it was easier, I repeat EASIER, for them to gain possession that way. Yes, you heard correct. Gardiner lost pretty much every one-on-one battle along the boards that night. After that night it was fairly obvious something had to change with that pairing.
There were calls to bring back Percy and sit one of either Robidas or Gardiner.
“Robidas is too old and slow for the game. Bench him.”
“Gardiner needs to sit and watch for a while.”
“Robidas is just getting into stride give him time.”
“Gardiner is the future. He needs to play through his mistakes.”
The aforementioned quotes basically sum up the main talking points and they all had merit to some degree. Incidentally, the Leafs’ front office agreed keeping them both in the lineup and instead electing to switch the pairings rather than sitting either of them. Why would they mess with a 6-man setup that was working quite well for the Leafs? Beats the heck out of me. I am of the belief that “you don’t fix what ain’t broke”, however, what do I know? I’m just a lowly fan who has bore witness to this 10-year train wreck and as such will gladly defer to respected professionals.
The Reilly/Robidas pairing has actually faired quite well. Yes, they see less TOI than the other 2 pairings but they are quite affective with the time they do see. They play a very simple brand of hockey that isn’t very pretty but gets the job done. All in all, you can’t really complain.
In conclusion, when you break it down into defensive pairing performance it becomes fairly evident where the weak link is. Pairing performance has consistently been poor with Gardiner present no matter who his partner has been. Gardiner may possibly be the future solution to the Leafs’ Dcore, but presently…he is the problem. Now, let’s check this hypothesis with some numbers to see if it still holds.
The Numbers Test
In order to breakdown the numbers we need to divide the games where the Leafs 6-man 5v5 defensive setups differed. Once they have been identified we divide them up and group all games played with similar 6man setups. We then look at the group numbers and compare them to each other. For example, the 6-man setups are as follows:
This means that G1 played together in that setup for a period of games as did G2 and G3 for a different series of games. I didn’t include the first 2 games in the numbers because they didn’t involve Franson and he has proved to be an integral part of this Dcore. G1 saw a bit of mixing and matching but it mostly consisted of Polak paired with Percy and the occasional shift with Reilly and Gardiner. The other two groups, G2&G3, saw the majority of shifts with those specific 6-man setups at 5v5.
Luckily for me, these Dman pairing changes happened pretty much in chronological order making the analysis fairly simple to organize. With respect to the charts, the vertical axis represents each player’s corsi % while on the ice; the higher on the chart the stronger their on-ice possession number. The horizontal axis represents the number of times a defenseman started in the Dzone on a stoppage; the further to the right on the chart the more Dzone starts that player had. The color of the player’s circle denotes the player’s team goal +/-; the bluer the color the better the +/- relative to his teammates and vice versa for red. The size of the circle represents that particular player’s total TOI during the period examined; the larger the circle the larger the TOI. Check the tables to get specific numbers on +/- and TOI.
Below, are some ‘pretty and colorful’ charts, each followed by ‘neat’ looking tables for all three defensive 6-man groupings. Yes, I’m being facetious, but bare with me. You will see the relevance as to why I have posted them shortly. Just briefly scan through the charts and tables and proceed to the content that follows.
G1 defensive pairings (3-4, 50-46, 44-51-12)
Leafs record: 3-2-1
G2 defensive pairings (3-4, 44-46, 51-12)
Leafs record 5-1-1
G3 defensive pairings (3-4, 51-46, 44-12)
Leafs Record: 1-3-0
When we look at the three groups with their respective charts and tables, one group in particular stands out like a sore thumb to the others. This sore thumb belongs to grouping G3. Wherein groupings G1 and G2 see Polak take the majority of Dzone assignments this is not the case in G3. In G3 there is a more even distribution of Dzone starts amongst all Dmen.
Another distinguishing factor that separates G3 from the other two groups is the TOI distribution of players. In G1 and G2 the majority of TOI goes to Dion, Polak and Franson. In G3, the majority of TOI falls to Polak and Gardiner. In fact, the TOI bump that Gardiner has seen in these last 4 games is quite significant (refer to the TOI% column in the tables to see just how much).
It is apparently ‘useless’ to look at +/-, but presented in this context it can be quite telling. Again G3 stands out against the other 2 groupings displaying large –ve goal differentials despite playing in 2-3 fewer games. On the other hand G2 shows a very strong +ve goal differential while G1 is basically small –ve. The Polak and Gardiner pairing in G3 saw them post very poor –ve goal differentials. The pairing is obviously not working.
What these numbers tell me is that switching Reilly with Gardiner to play with Polak changed the mindset of the coaching staff. They obviously felt that Gardiner could not be used as heavily in the Dzone as Polak had been used in previous games. As such, the Dzone starts were instead distributed fairly equally amongst the pairings. To say this was an unsuccessful strategy is an understatement. Reason being, it didn’t play to each pairing’s strengths like G1 and G2 did with their respective Dzone distributions.
As this Dcore stands now, Polak needs to take the majority of Dzone starts. Second, Dion, Polak and Franson need to take the largest chunks of 5v5 ice time. Third, Gardiner’s TOI needs to be decreased at 5v5 and he also needs to play softer competition and take fewer Dzone starts. Reilly is much better than Gardiner 5v5 and should be paired with Polak, which once again means Gardiner should play with Robidas.
Everything points to this change in defensive parings as being the likely catalyst for the problems this Leafs team has recently faced. Do understand, I’m not saying this will make them a contender or anything ridiculous like that. All I’m saying is this may very well be the reason the team crapped the bed the last 2 games and the best way of seeing it correct itself is to change it back to the way it was…when it was ACTUALLY WORKING!!
Maybe, the coaches want to see Gardiner play through his errors? Maybe, because it’s early in the season, they wanted to see how different pairings worked together? Maybe, there’s a master plan lurking somewhere in a basement with Dubas and his analytics group? Whatever the case, it’s hard to argue against the fact that these defensive pairing changes were a major factor resulting (coincidently or not) in the worst Leafs game performances since the season began.
Leafs in Bali
Data source: war-on-ice.com