The Leafs have been playing some very good hockey recently. Even though they haven’t had the best results, it’s clear they are playing strong fundamentally and as such the wins will eventually come. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Leafs team so dedicated to checking, skating, positioning off the puck and basically defensive play in general. Well, we DO have Matthews, Marner and Nylander. Of course, this is the primary reason the Leafs have turned the corner, right? Or is it?
After the Penguins game, in which I thought the Leafs played one of their better games all season, I took a quick look at the game stats as I normally do.
When looking at game summaries, I particularly take interest in TOI distribution. It started over the last few seasons, mainly due to the high level of scrutiny aimed at Leafs coaches and their usage of players. Since we’ve had several coaches in the last 3 years, the ability to compare and contrast coaching styles vs player usage has been telling. Therefore, when I saw that Gardiner’s TOI was right up there with Rielly’s, it brought a smile to my face.
My overall impression of Gardiner has changed for the better as this season has progressed. In the past, despite his strong skating skills and offensive creativity, I admittedly have been highly critical of his defensive zone positioning and his hockey prowess in general. It’s no wonder why coaches, Babcock included, have chosen to shelter Gardiner from top competition. So, when I saw that Gardiner played 23+ minutes against the Penguins, I thought hmm, maybe he’s turned the corner once and for all.
Playing that much in a game means he would have had plenty of playing time against Crosby, right? I know Malkin is a very good player, but he isn’t Crosby by any stretch. Playing 10 minutes against Crosby and playing 10 minutes against Malkin is night and day. To see if this held true, I used puckalytics.com and its Super WOWY tool, which I must say is quite easy to use and pretty cool. WOWY, for those who don’t know, is an acronym that stands for “with or without you” and it allows you to break down player stats based on teammate or opponent.
Now, since hockey is such a dynamic and fluid game (ie. line changes on the fly) it is difficult to have a specific group of 5 players play together or against another specific group of 5 players at the same time for any period of time long enough to make analysis anything worthwhile. In other words, sample size becomes an issue. However, we do know the figurehead or keystone of any forward line and we can use that figurehead as a representation of that line. For example, Crosby will represent the Penguins 1st line each and every time, just as Kadri will represent the Leafs checking line, which normally accompanies Leo Komarov on his wing, each and every time. So, if I just search for when Kadri is on the ice vs Crosby, I can assume that Kadri and Crosby will have their line-mates with them the majority of the time and avoid the noise that surrounds the 3rd winger or small time discrepancy with line changes.
For the purpose of this analysis, I decided to look at Leafs players that best represented each forward unit and on the defensive side of things I chose the Leafs 3 most used defencemen in terms of TOI.
In summary, Kadri will also represent Komarov and Brown/Sosh/Nylander. Bozak will include JVR and Marner. Matthews will include Hyman and Brown/Nylander. I included Marner just to prove that his TOI usage would be similar to his line-mate, Bozak, and as such is representative of other key players and their respective line-mates.
The first column represents the 5v5 TOI of a particular defenceman or line against Crosby. The next column represents the total 5v5 TOI against PIT. The 3rd column represents the percentage of a player’s TOI against Crosby. All TOI is for the entire season to date vs PIT.
These numbers didn’t really surprise me much. It’s pretty obvious Babcock is a coach constantly playing the matchup game and IMO as a coach that is one of his primary responsibilities. The way he uses Rielly, Zaitsev, Kadri and Komarov against PIT is almost obnoxious. He shoves them right into Crosby’s face for pretty much 66% of the game. Of course, it proved quite successful. This got me wondering so I checked other teams and their top line vs the same Leafs players. This is what I found:
The more teams I looked up the more I was impressed. Not only by how Rielly, Zaitsev, Kadri and Komarov have been, night in and night out, facing the best the league has to offer, but with how Babcock has manufactured the discipline throughout this Leafs lineup to stick to his game plan and change on the fly to get these matchups. I’m not sure if this is a similar occurrence with other coaches and their teams, but I find it amazing that the quality of TOI is so distinctly separate considering most of these players have a similar amount of total TOI.
I found it hard to believe when many within the analytics community told me that the quality of competition was not really relevant due to line changes etc… Well, all I can say is that this certainly tells a different story. In fact, I decided to add up all the TOI in the above cases.
Absolutely mind blowing. Rielly, Kadri and Komarov play approximately two thirds of their total 5v5 TOI against the other team’s top line. Zaitsev, now that he plays with Rielly regularly, will soon see his 52% also increase, but is currently not lacking in tough minutes either. What’s even crazier is that all these players have played a similar amount of 5v5 minutes.
Basically, what I’m saying here is that the praise for Gardiner, Matthews, Marner and Nylander is certainly just, but there is far more to the story. The unsung heroes who have been at times unjustly criticized for poor play, such as Rielly, Zaitsev, Komarov and Kadri, deserve a great deal more of our praise. These guys willingly face heavy fire on the front lines each and every night to allow for our youngsters (and Gardiner) to roam more freely against weaker competition so they may grow and further develop into the stars they are now becoming. Do you know what’s even crazier? Zaitsev is a rookie.
If we think on it further, players like Rielly, Zaitsev, Kadri and Komarov are constantly facing the best in the game. Regularly playing against the best, it doesn’t take long to learn that mistakes can be costly and as such their game has become one that is more conservative. You can’t play high risk hockey against the elite of this league, because they’ll burn you more often than not. This begs the questions, if Gardiner and Rielly were to switch roles, would Gardiner be having the same season he currently is enjoying? Without Kadri, would Matthews, Marner and Nylander be as effective offensively? We can only speculate, but there’s no doubt in mind that it isn’t hurting them. That’s for sure.
In conclusion, the idea that quality of competition is not a factor in evaluating player performance is just ridiculous. Analytics need to find a better way to account for this whether it emulates what I’ve done in this article or develops something entirely different.
I tip my hat to Babcock, Rielly, Zaitsev, Kadri and Komarov. We salute you!
Go Leafs Go!