Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Watching Kessel’s Prime Years Fade Away…

Time is a funny thing. Maybe funny is the wrong word – you don’t laugh out loud at time. A better word may be peculiar. Time is peculiar. You spend your entire life being young, then one day you wake up to realize that, well, you aren’t young anymore.

I’m scared this is going to happen to Phil Kessel.

It’s not his fault; it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fault. No, they aren’t the reason he is getting older (we have nature to blame for that), but they are the ones squandering away what remains of his prime years. Sure, 26 doesn’t feel THAT old, but maybe it is. He turns 27 in early October and we know from existing research that players tend to peak in their mid-to-late twenties, with significant declines taking place from 29 onward. Kessel is just over two years away from 29.

Will he fall off of a metaphorical cliff at 29? No. It will, however, be reasonable to assume that his best years will be in the rearview mirror. There will always be exceptions to the well-established rules of aging, guys like Rob Brind'Amour who set up a cot in their gym and stay healthy and productive into their late thirties. For the most part, though, team’s need to prepare for their stars to decline post 30. Toronto seems to be taking the opposite approach, building their core towards a possible crescendo just as Kessel’s numbers start to dip.

I don’t mean to sound overly pessimistic, there are positives on this team. A core of Kadri, Nylander, JVR, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Rielly and Bernier sounds awfully nice, and it is. The issue is that half of those players are still two or three years away from being quality NHLers. Reinforcements are on the way, they just might not be coming fast enough.

Phaneuf is in a similar situation to Kessel, with his decline likely more imminent (if it hasn’t started to some degree already). He’ll be 32 or 33 years old when the team is (theoretically) in a position to compete. If he continues to skate 24 minutes a night against some of the toughest competition in the league then you have to wonder what will be left in 2017, 2018, and beyond.

There’s also the issue of unintended consequences. Signing Phil and Dion to long-term deals was essentially the only solution for Toronto a year ago. They were, and are, the team’s best forward and defenseman – they needed to stay. However, by the time this group is thinking about contention there is a real possibility that Kessel, and to a greater extent Phaneuf, are not worth their cap dollars. This could hamper the team when they actually have a reasonable chance of winning (there is an obvious irony in all of this).

Of course if the salary cap continues to rise and approaches $80 or $90 million in the near future maybe this all becomes moot. But it’s still a risk worth noting.

In an ideal world Toronto would be in a position to make the playoffs in the here and now. That was the idea behind adding players like Clarkson, Bolland, and Bernier a summer ago – improve significantly in the near-term and worry about the long-term, well, later. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked. Clarkson looks more and more like a DiPietro-esque anvil to the cap, Bolland left via an overpayment from Florida in free agency, and the jury is still out on Bernier as a cornerstone backstop.

Drafting Nylander was a step in a much needed direction. This is a prospect system devoid of high end offensive weapons, something Nylander will address in a major way. If Toronto finishes in the lottery again next season they’ll add another strong prospect that could be part of the emerging next generation.

All of this leads to the bitter-sweet juxtaposition Dave Nonis finds himself in. He needs to win soon in order to capitalize on Kessel’s run as one of the game’s five or ten best scorers. But his roster is full of talented youngsters who might be manning All-Star games in 2018. There isn’t an obvious answer to this conundrum outside of “win now” and then “win later”, too. That’s a lot easier said than done.

A lot can, and will, change over the coming two or three seasons. For the Leafs’ sake, I hope Kessel’s on-ice production isn’t one of them.

Darren Kennedy writes about hockey in a few places: BCP, Mckeen’s, and Dobber Hockey. You can follow him on twitter @fantasyhockeydk 

Monday, December 2, 2013

This is Madness. This is Toronto!!

Jake Gardiner played more minutes than any other Leafs player and then Jake Gardiner was a healthy scratch.  The next game, Jake Gardiner played more minutes than any other Leafs player.

If you're not a Leafs fan then this may seem crazy but if you *are* a Leafs fan then you know it's just another day in Toronto.

You see, this is the franchise that continues to trot out Mark Fraser on defense rather than JM Liles, some nights Morgan Rielly and yes, some nights, Jake Gardiner.  It's also the franchise that continues to smash its metaphorical head against the metaphorical wall -- 'our feelings' being the head in this metaphor and 'Tyler Bozak on the first line' being the wall.

We start Bernier more than Reimer, we pay big money for Clarkson and Bozak while buying out Grabovski and watching MacArthur walk, and did I mention we keep skating Bozak on the first line?

The decisions that this organization has made since Randy Carlyle took over as coach are mind-numbing.  I'm sure that there are those of you who'll say, "who could have predicted x or y," and to you people I say, "everyone, basically." 

Rumours have been flying for the past few weeks that the Leafs are looking to bolster their defense.  Also, they plan on trading Gardiner for a top-6 forward.  What?  Normally, I'd say that it's just the Toronto media trying to sell copy but this came from Darren Dreger and if there's a bigger shill in sports over the last 18-months, I'm not aware of him or her.  The Leafs are trying to do those things, bet on it, and Dreger is going to do everything in his power to oversell Toronto's assets and undersell whoever it is that Nonis may have his beady little eyes on.

Having said these things, it hasn't all been bad.  The record is pretty good because the goalies have been great and one of those goalies (albeit the lesser of the two) was a Nonis acquisition.  Also Bolland was a hell of a lot better than I'd expected him to be, if I'm being honest.  But seriously, I have a hard time coming up with a more directionless team in the league.  OK, maybe the Flyers.

So go on Twitter ( @bcphockeyblog ) and call me negative, ask me if I hate the Leafs, or tell me to watch a game instead of sticking my head in spreadsheet but do those things knowing that I don't like being negative about my team, and I'm this frustrated because I do love the Leafs, and that the chances are I probably watch more hockey more closely than you do (assuming you said those things in the first place, that is.) 

The truth is, I'm fed up.  We deserve better decision-making than what we've seen from Nonis and Carlyle so far.  There's a limit to what any manager can achieve with the set of assets they're given but we've consistently mis-used the range of goods we have at our disposal, and that's something for which I can't abide.  Enough is enough -- fire them both.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Time On Ice: Guessing At Carlyle's Favourites

If you ask your average advanced stat guy what's the single best metric for judging a player's talent relative to the rest of his teammates, most will say time on ice.  You see, contrary to popular belief, most of us don't think NHL coaches are stupid or can't judge talent or any of the things that we're often accused of.  Sure, we point out perceived mistakes when we see them but that doesn't mean we think coaches are inept -- just fallible.

Randy Carlyle falls prey to these critiques more often than most.  Part of it is because the Leafs do so poorly in a lot of the advanced stat metrics that proponents of the discipline have shown correlate very closely to success and the other part comes with the territory.  Leafs fans, you see, are a critical and jaded bunch.

For a lot of last season, I found myself infuriated with Carlyle's player selection.  In my view, Franson, Grabovski, and Kadri weren't getting nearly enough icetime while Bozak was getting far too much.  Add to this the Jake Gardiner demotion and I had ample fodder for my critiques.

Given that three of these underused assets were young, I wondered if Carlyle had an anti-youth bias.  Having given Carlyle the lockout shortened season to figure things out with this roster, I thought I'd have a look at who he's using to start this year and, crucially, in what situations to see if his own assessment of players is closer or further to my own this season.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Supply, Demand, and Toronto’s Defence

I wasted most of my University years taking Philosophy and Science classes, meaning there wasn’t a ton of time left over to learn the principles of economics.

However, the most basic of all economic theories, and the one I have at least a rudimentary understanding of, is Supply and Demand. It plainly states that the value, or price of a particular item, will vary depending on fluctuations in both supply and demand.

For instance, if demand for a product skyrockets than there is the potential for a shortage to occur. A shortage results in a higher price point, since there is limited supply. Conversely, if the supply rises quickly enough the item will enter into what is called a surplus. In this case there is so much of an item available to everyone that its price decreases substantially.

Why am I boring you with economics terms you could have looked up in Wikipedia yourself?
Well, I think there is something here that can be applied to the Toronto Maple Leafs, specifically to the team’s defencemen.

Every season, especially around the trade deadline, I am inundated with report after report echoing the importance of the vaunted “puck moving defencemen”. The majority of TSN’s 12 hour trade deadline coverage will be split screens of Dreger, Duthie and McKenzie checking in on the availability of veteran puck moving blueliners around the league who could be that final piece of the puzzle.

All this brings us to the Maple Leafs, and the log jam that has been created on defence. With Mark Fraser now close to fully recovered from a knee injury the team will feature seven NHL caliber defencemen: Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Franson, Rielly, Fraser, Gardiner, and Ranger. You could say eight if you include John-Michael Liles and his $3.8 million dollar contract currently playing for the Marlies.

The term “puck moving” is a bit flexible and open to interpretation. For the sake of argument let’s identify Phaneuf, Franson, Rielly, and Gardiner as players that could be considered in that category.
Dion represents a much larger discussion and we’ll likely devote more than a few blog posts to his future. As captain and an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, Nonis will need to decide if he is worth upwards of $7 million dollars over five plus years.

Cody Franson is coming off of a fantastic 2012-13 season in which he finished with 29 points in 45 games. He’s off to another great start this year with 8 assists through the first 11 games. In addition, because none of the Leafs are ambidextrous (at least to my knowledge) he carries increased value as a right handed shot. I have a hard time believing the Leafs would consider moving him at this time.

Through process of elimination we are left with the two youngsters, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. In a perfect world, one that sadly doesn’t yet exist, both of these guys would be given a spot on the team and Fraser and/or Ranger would spend time in the press box. But we know coach Randy Carlyle is a strong supporter of Mark Fraser and he’ll skate in the team’s third pairing most evenings.

At 19 and 23 years old I don’t think it is wise for the development of either Morgan or Jake to be sitting and watching hockey games every night. However, with the recent annoucnment that Rielly will not be returned to his junior club we know that this is a strong possibility. If their development is being put at risk then it behooves Nonis to at least consider trading one of them to shore up a need elsewhere.

I know some rumors have been bantered about to send Gardiner and Reimer to land a top six centermen. Personally, I just don’t see how the math or value will work out. Reimer is a solid goalie but how many teams with a top line centermen would be willing to send him away? Add to that the small cap hit of Reimer and Gardiner combined and the salaries wouldn't align. Reimer helps establish a depth in goal the Leafs haven’t had for half a decade; I’m happy to have him for now, at least until there is a better understanding of what Bernier is.  

The scenario that does seem plausible and helps to solve an organizational need is moving Gardiner for a top level center prospect. Outside of Frederik Gauthier and Greg Mckegg the Leafs don’t have a ton of center prospects in the pipeline. With all due respect to Gauthier and Mckegg, at this moment neither player projects as a top six forward in the near future.

What kind of deal would make sense?

I look back to the Zack Kassian and Cody Hodgson deal as a template Toronto could build around. Trading Gardiner to a team over indexed with forward prospects, but in need of the ever popular puck moving defencemen. This would help both teams address an area of weakness while also minimizing cap issues that would subvert a larger move. I don’t necessarily want to get into speculation on players to target since the list would be expansive. You can review the center prospects of all teams on Hockey Futures.

I absolutely love Jake Gardiner as a player. He’s capable of doing things on the ice that very few defencemen can replicate. At times during the Boston series last spring he was far and away the Leafs’ best player. Unfortunately, this may end up being a case of supply and demand where the surplus of Toronto defencemen necessitates a move. Let’s hope it’s one that helps the team take a positive step in its never ending quest to find a first line centerman.

Darren is a fantasy hockey writer who can’t escape his Maple Leaf roots. If you’re ever looking to kick around some trade ideas or want a second set of eyes on your team you can follow him @FantasyHockeyDK

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Through Three: Early Observations on the Leafs Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs are 3-0-0 and are the only team in the NHL who can make that claim.  Awesome.

To win three games in a row, some things have to be going well and there have certainly been some positives in the early going for Toronto but it hasn't been all sunshine and smiles.  With three games in the books, I thought I'd share some of my observations from the early days of the 2013-14 season.

The Good and the Bad of Tyler Bozak

I'll preface this by saying that I've been on Bozak's case for an awfully long time now but he really hasn't done anything in the first three games to alter my opinion of him.  He throws the puck to Kessel in all situations and doesn't have the skill or offensive instincts to capitalize when Kessel gives it back.  There have been at least a half-dozen opportunities in the early stages of the season where Bozak has either feebly put a one-time shot in the direction of the net or missed the puck entirely.  What it all boils down to is that Bozak is a disaster at 5-on-5 and the fact that he's still skating with Kessel is either a damning reflection of the job Burke/Nonis have done at filling the centre position or an indictment of Randy Carlyle's deployment of the centres we do have.

Having said all of that, Bozak has looked awfully good on the penalty-kill.  He's been playing the points very aggressively and twice in the first three games it's paid off -- once with a shorthanded goal and once with what nearly turned into a shorthanded breakaway.  Couple this with his proficiency in the shootout and Bozak has it in him to be a useful player in select situations.

Van Riemsdyk's Steady Play

Is it just me or has Van Riemsdyk quickly become one of the most consistent Leafs forwards?  He seems to create at least one scoring chance for himself every game at even strength and he always looks dangerous on the powerplay.  I've been very impressed with Van Riemsdyk's play thus far and I've got a feeling he's going to put up some pretty gaudy special teams numbers.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Toronto Maple Leafs Roster Shakedowns

My morning started with the news that Joe Colborne had been traded to the Calgary Flames for a fourth round draft pick that could become a third round draft pick if the NHL decided mid-season that all 30 teams would make the playoffs starting this year.

Next came the news that John-Michael Liles was on waivers and then finally word that Morgan Rielly would be starting the season in the NHL.

My feelings on the roster that's about to start the 2013-14 season is a bit of a mixed bag.  On the one hand, I'm pleasantly surprised that the Leafs decided to keep Rielly for the time being.  For one thing, I think he'll do more learning at the NHL-level than he will in the WHL with a pretty woeful Moose Jaw team and for another, I think he's a much better defenseman today than a guy like Mark Fraser.  As long as Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, and Ranger are eating PK minutes, I don't see any reason to carry Fraser ahead of Rielly.