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.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Puck Handling: How Jonathan Bernier Can Help Toronto With More Than Just His Fists

On Sunday night there was bedlam at the ACC, with John Scott attempting to punch the face of Mr. Kessel, leading to 239 minutes of penalties and at least a couple of suspensions from the league.

Unfortunately the Leafs only dressed one of their three resident tough guys, that being goaltender Jonathan Bernier…

Ok, maybe he isn’t exactly an “enforcer” per se, but as it turns out our newest tender throws a pretty mean right hook.

The twitterverse was taken over by news of the brawl, with many comparing the goalie dust up to the unforgettable Potvin versus Hextall fight in 1996. While I wouldn't quite put the confrontation in that realm, it did provide us all with an excuse to watch this video again.

Those observing the fight live stood and cheered, loving a goalie tussle in the way one would love to witness two T-Rex in a boxing match. I imagine Nonis was in a corporate suite somewhere covering his eyes, as a broken wrist or dislocated shoulder from Bernier would have further complicated the teams cap woes and left them $2.9 million dollars in the press box.

Bernier was of course brought to Toronto not to fight others, but to fight for starting minutes with James Reimer. I’ll try to avoid going down the path of “was the trade necessary” given the team already had a capable number one, since that story has been covered quite a bit.

Instead I want to talk about what Bernier can do outside of his crease, specifically with his stick. A couple days ago I came across a great article from the Edmonton Journal on Martin Brodeur. The post looks at how Marty’s puck handling effects the flow of a game.

The author looks at a five game series between the Devils and Flyers, keeping track  of every time either Brodeur or Bryzgalov touches the puck. The results were very interesting. During only 5 games Brodeur made a “good pass” to a teammate 90 times, compared to Bryzgalov’s 15. When it came to clearing the puck to a less dangerous spot on the ice Brodeur had 32 successful occurrences, while Bryzgalov was 13. I would encourage you to read the full article, as it goes into quite a bit more detail.

So what does this mean for the Maple Leafs?

While for starters everything I have been able to find on Bernier says he is a fantastic puck handler. His comfort leaving his crease to stop a dump in, or an end a round is evident when you observe him playing.

Conversely, handling the puck has never been James Reimer’s greatest asset. He routinely looks a bit awkward outside his net and will make an effort to avoid playing pucks whenever possible. I don’t have data on how much this has or hasn’t impacted the Leafs defensively. However, anecdotally, I have witnessed a number of frantic scrambles in Toronto’s end as a direct result of poor decision making from Reimer with the puck.

If Bernier can improve this for the Leafs it could have a positive effect on their shot differential. I couldn’t find a definitive analysis on how much shot differential and Corsi is impacted by a strong goalie, but it stands to reason that if your tender clears the puck to safety the opposition will have the puck less often.

If the opposition is unable to gain possession of the puck on a fore-check, then they will conceivably have less shots on net. The common sense approach says this would be the case, but I’d be very interested to see a full study (if you have anything toss it up in the comments). NHL numbers also looked at the Journal article and did some work on this, but the results were a bit inconclusive.

For instance, in the Brodeur and Bryzgalov example Marty would routinely pass 15 to 20 pucks to his teammates, no doubt helping to them advance the play forward. On the other hand, Bryzgalov would make between 1 and 5 good passes per game.

I won’t pretend to know exactly what the difference is between Reimer and Bernier’s ability here, but it is clear a difference exists. If Bernier can utilize his stick handling and work cohesively with Leafs blueliners he could add a nice wrinkle to their defensive strategy.

For a team that was out shot 32 to 26  last season (2nd worst in the NHL), it certainly wouldn't hurt.

Darren is editor of The Man Advantage, a fantasy hockey blog, and contributor to Blue Chip Prospects. You can follow him @TMA_Hockey_blog 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Toronto Maple Leafs Season Pre-Preview

Having missed the playoffs for 8 consecutive seasons, you might think that a playoff berth would mean fewer offseason changes but you'd be wrong.  With some key pieces shipped out of town, some big tickets handed out to other highly sought after players, this year's Leafs have the same frame with a different finish.

With all the roster changes, the development of some key prospects, and a coach with a little more familiarity with the returning players, we thought that we'd make our best guesses at what this team will look like headed into the 2013-'14 season.

Out: Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, Mike Kostka, Mike Komisarek, Leo Komarov

At first glance, it doesn't look like the Leafs lost much in the way of production.  Grabovski (16), MacArthur (20), and Frattin (13) all finished outside the top-7 in scoring on last year's team.  What these numbers don't show is that all three of these players had a higher O-zone finish than O-zone start, suggesting they were all pushing play in the right direction.  Of the returning Leafs, only Nazem Kadri and Jay McClement can make that claim which leads to the inevitable question, "who is going to do the heavy lifting?"

In: Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, TJ Brennan, Jonathan Bernier

The Leafs hope that the answer to that question will, in part, be Dave Bolland.  Bolland's advanced stats don't suggest that he's going to be a possession monster by any stretch but the Leafs think that he's the ideal third line centre. 

Clarkson is the powerforward that the Leafs haven't had since time immemorial.  He shoots a ton, he fights, he scores his share, and he pushes the play to the offensive zone.  What you also get, however, is a career shooting percentage under 10.  What should Leafs fans expect?  A physically dominating puck-hog who will score but whose linemates probably wont.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Return of the Winged Wheel - Comparing Toronto and Detroit at Key Positions

This summer the NHL finally got around to re-aligning their divisions. The goal was to put teams that are geographically connected in the same division and help lessen the number of arduous travel schedules.

One of the major beneficiaries of the new divisional structure is the Detroit Red Wings, who were long overdue for a spot in the Eastern Conference. They are now part of the Atlantic Division alongside the Bruins, Sabres, Panthers, Canadiens, Senators,  Lightning and your very own Toronto Maple Leafs.

The consensus here is that adding Detroit to the Eastern Conference will be a negative for teams like the Leafs, who will now have to play the perennial Stanley Cup contenders more regularly. I wanted to take a look at both teams rosters, at key positions, to see just how much of a difference there is on paper.

First Line Winger - Henrik Zetterberg vs. Phil Kessel

What Zetterberg has accomplished for the Red Wings over the last 10 years certainly pushes the needle in his direction. However, the comparison is for the 2013-14 season, not the pedigree Zetterberg has developed over the past decade

Henrik is coming off a fantastic 2012-13 season in which he posted a 85 point game pace, tying for 13th in the league. Zetterberg has been about as consistent an offensive player as you could hope for, never amassing less than 68 points since 2004 and breaking the 300 shot plateau 4 times in his career.

2 years ago I would have given a clear advantage to Detroit, but Kessel has managed to close the gap. Over the past two seasons he has asserted himself as one of the games preeminent wingers, finishing in the top 8 in scoring both years.

Phil's top end speed and acceleration is almost unmatched, and he has a wrist shot that haunts one-piece composite sticks everywhere (I wasn't meant to bend that way!). Henrik will turn 33 in October, while many players have maintained elite status into their mid thirties it is reasonable to expect a slight decline in his performance in the coming seasons.

Defensively I have always been unbelievably impressed with Zetterberg. He is considered by many to be one of the best two way forwards, with the Corsi rating to prove it (10.5 more shots for over 60 minutes). Keseel has shown glimpses of defensive responsibility, especially in the playoffs where he looked engaged in the Leafs end. I am willing to forgive Kessel on the defensive end, given that he is forced to tow Tyler Bozak up and down the ice.

Verdict - Impossible to render a verdict either way - Zetterberg's consistency and Kessel's emergence as a top 10 offensive player make it a toss up for me.

Top Line Center - Tyler Bozak versus Pavel Datsyuk

Some will argue the Leafs don't have a top line center, or that if we are forced to anoint one it would sooner be Nazem Kadri in before Tyler Bozak. I take the approach that if Randy Carlyle is allotting more ice time to Bozak than any other center, and he is skating beside the teams best winger, he is by definition the top line centerman.

I'll spare everyone the mental exercise of comparing these two. Datsyuk may be 35 but he is a superior player to Bozak in all aspects of the game, even when examining Bozak's beloved face-offs (Datysuk finished last year at 56.2%, Bozak at 52.7%)

Verdict - We could compare them again in 3,4 even 5 years, I don't see a scenario under which Datysuk isn't the more effective player. This highlights one of the glaring problems with the Leafs roster - their first line centerman is far less talented than the player he lines up against nearly every night. This creates mismatches and gives the opposition, Detroit, or whomever, a clear advantage to exploit.

Top Defenceman - Dion Phaneuf versus Niklas Kronwall

I like this comparison because both players have a similar style on the ice. Both Kronwall and Phaneuf (at least in his formative years) tend to play a more physical style of hockey, while also contributing offensively. During last years truncated season Niklas finished with 29 points and Dion ended with 28.

Phaneuf has been forced to augment his game a bit in recent years, with the coaching staff relying on him to play upwards of 25 minutes a night he can appear visibly tired at times. My opinion is that this has forced him to forgo jumping in on the offensive rush to conserve energy for his defensive responsibilities. I would greatly prefer to see him playing 21 or 22 minutes in a more offensive role, as opposed to lining up against the other teams most dangerous players.

Kronwall has been groomed as the heir apparent to Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, logging heavy minutes against some of the better players in the NHL (Quality of Competition Metric).

Both men were part of relatively successful power plays last year (around 18%, 14th and 15th in the league). I would argue that Phaneuf's one timer is a more potent weapon than anything Kronwall brings to the man advantage, although my observations of Kronwall have been limited to the playoffs.

Verdict - Two similar players, with Leafs boasting a slight advantage.

Goaltending - James Reimer / Johnathan Bernier versus Jimmy Howard

In 2013-14 Jimmy Howard posted stellar numbers across all categories, finishing with a 2.13 goals against average and .923 save percentage. Those numbers, along with a substantial extension from Ken Holland, have cemented him as Detroit's goalie of the future.

For the Leafs it's hard to compare someone directly to Howard, given that Reimer and Bernier are stuck in a pseudo tandem until one or the other wins the starting gig. Both goalies have the ability to outplay Howard in the right situation. Reimer's .924 save percentage last season was 8th in the NHL (among starters) and he was at times spectacular in the playoffs.

Bernier seems to carry a level of mystique and untapped potential that the other two may not have. Based partly on his entry draft pedigree (11th overall) and long being considered the best back up in the NHL.

Verdict - Another close position, I'll lean every so slightly towards Howard given his longer sample size and elite stats over the past two seasons.

Second Line Center - Nazem Kadri versus Stephen Weiss

The free agent signing of Stephen Weiss provides the Red Wings with depth at center they sorely needed after loosing Valtteri Filppula to the Lightning. Weiss has been a consistent, if unspectacular scoring center throughout his career in Florida. Finishing with over 42 every season since 2006, including a career high of 61 in 2008-2009. Part of me has always questioned Weiss because he played so many years on a poor team, posting numbers as a defacto top line player. Olli Jokinen was a prized asset during his time in Florida but has never been able to replicate that success in another uniform.

Toronto will have (hopefully have, please have, better have!) Nazem Kadri playing the second line center position, flanked by the likely duo of Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson (assuming JVR plays on the first line).

Kadri lacks the resume of Weiss, but possess infinitely more offensive upside. With 44 point in 48 games last season Kadri displayed the kind of offensive wizardry that few in the NHL possess. His offensive talents are mitigated somewhat by defensive deficiencies and his slightly odd skating style. From what I have seen he may be an underrated defensive player - always working hard along the half wall and intercepting passes at times. He lacks the physicality to handle some of the gurthier (is that a word?) centerman in the league, but that could come with age and training.

Verdict - Advantage to Kadri and Leafs here. The upcoming season will be a telling one for Kadri, if he can build upon last years success he'll potentially be listed under the 'top line' centerman category in next years post.

Overall the Leafs have a lineup that seems capable of matching up with the Red Wings. There is no denying the success enjoyed Detroit's core, players like Zetterburg, Datysuk, Franzen, Kronwall, and now Alfredsson have proven themselves over a number of years. But this season's incarnation is similar to the one that looked mediocre throughout 2012-2013 before erupting for two fantastic playoff series with the Ducks and Hawks.

Toronto has players that are capable at most key positions, with the obvious exception of top line center (Dammit Bozak!). Over a 7 game playoff series I would likely still pick Detroit, but the gap certainly isn't as pronounced as it was over the past 3 or 4 years.

When it was announced the Red Wings were moving into the newly formed Atlantic division the prevailing opinion was that the Leafs now had to regularly contend with an NHL heavyweight. Looking closely at the two rosters I'm not convinced the Leafs are that far off, now if only we ca convince Borschevsky to give it one more year....

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Departed - How Losing Grabovski and MacArthur Will Force the Leafs to Think Differently

The departure of Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur this offseason wasn't exactly unexpected. We knew that Grabovski’s style of play wasn't meshing well with Randy Carlyle’s punch people in the face first, figure out how to generate shots second approach. Meanwhile, MacArthur had found himself a healthy scratch during key games near the end of the season and into the playoffs. Even though we sort of saw these moves on the horizon, it has done little to soften the blow that losing these two has leveled on the teams top 9 forward group.

Carlyle has prided himself on being a “defensive coach”- wielding a complex system that keeps shots to the outside therefore minimizing high quality scoring chances. We can debate the merits of this system another day, knowing that research tends to indicate that shot quality evens out over time and shot volume is the best indicator of future success.

Before Carlyle, Ron Wilson also attempted to bring defensive responsibility to the Leafs, specifically on the penalty kill where he was known as a “guru” of sorts. Of course the Leafs had one of the most atrocious penalty killing units in the league (Finished last in PK% in both 2008-09 and 2009-10).

Despite a focus on defence the Leafs have actually managed to have one of the better offensive groups over the past 2 years. Last season the team averaged 3.02 goals per game, landing them 6th in the league. In 2011-12 they were a respectable 10th with 2.77 per game.

In watching those 2 Leafs teams one of their key attributes has been forward depth up and down the lineup. Kessel and Lupul have certainly been fantastic over that time, but contributions from the likes of Kulemin, Kadri, Grabovski, MacArthur, and Bozak have played a role in the team’s offensive success.

In 2011-12 Grabovski finished 3rd on the club in scoring with 51 points, with MacArthur finishing 6th, with 43 points. There is no doubt that in last year’s truncated season both players were counted on less offensively, ending the year 8th and 11th in scoring respectively. Without these two and the flexibility they afforded the coaching staff I am unsure if the team will be able to generate offence consistently throughout the forward group.

New Leafs forwards David Clarkson and Dave Bolland will help mitigate some of the lost production, but not all of it. Clarkson and Bolland have each broken the 40 point plateau once in their NHL careers. While they are useful players in their own right, they are far from offensive dynamos.

Now it’s not all bad -  perhaps the Leafs can embrace their new situation and deploy two lines designed purely for scoring. Line combinations won’t be final for a few weeks but I would expect the top 9 to look something like this:

Kessel – Bozak – Lupul
JVR – Kadri – Clarkson
McClement – Bolland - Kulemin  

In this case we would see McClement switching to the wing, allowing Bolland to play his natural position of center. The new 3rd line would feature three players known for their defensive capabilities. Kulemin's 30 goal season is more and more becoming a distant memory and McClement has consistently been an 8 to 12 goal scorer. While some have lauded Dave Bolland's offensive potential, a conversation PPP had with Chicago bloggers has me thinking his offensive contributions will be limited.
Ideally Carlyle would feed his 3rd line absurdly brutal minutes. Lining up against tough competition and starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. Essentially, these 3 guys wouldn’t skate in the offensive zone unless there was a commercial break and they were stretching their legs. (Free fantasy hockey advice: Don’t draft any of them!)

The top 2 lines would need to be used in as many goal scoring positions as possible. Offensive zone start percentages for these lines should be above 50%. Last season, both Kessel and Lupul had O-zone starting percentages under 50% (Behind the Net), which is a bit of a head scratcher for me. Neither of them are Selke candidates and should be used accordingly. They are elite offensive players and their primary focus is to produce goals (hockey being the goal scoring competition that it is).

A great example is how Alain Vigneault utilized Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver last season. Both players started well over 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone. The tougher, defensive zone starts were reserved for players like Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Christopher Higgins.

Carlyle and his coaching staff may need to take a page from Vancouver’s playbook and provide more scoring opportunities to their top 6 forwards. In years past the Leafs’ forward depth allowed for more balanced zone starts and overall deployment. However, the departure of Grabovksi and MacArthur has changed dynamic of this group – hopefully the coaching strategy reflects this.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

Good Forwards, Good Defense, and an Average Team: Quick Fixes for the Maple Leafs

Cheering for a mediocre team is a funny thing, particularly when that team spends all the way to the ceiling of the salary cap.  Almost everyone agrees that there's a problem but nobody can agree on what that problem is -- or at least they don't agree for long.

A few years ago, on paper, the Leafs looked like they'd have a strong defense with Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Gunnarsson, Komisarek, Schenn, and Kaberle.  It should have been a formidable group and yet it wasn't.  Our forward group looked like it was Phil Kessel and a bunch of also-rans and yet they scored.

Last year, again on paper, the offense looked really deep (with a pretty similar cast of characters, surprisingly) and the defense looked like it would be a disaster.  With Gunnarsson ailing, Liles and Komisarek playing poorly and Gardiner playing hardly at all, the defensive group feels like they should be pretty terrible and yet Steve Burtch at PPP shows us this where our best defensemen compare to Lidstrom (Phaneuf), Pitkanen (Gardiner), Marc Staal (Gunnarsson), and Tom Gilbert (Franson) and we're forced to wonder what exactly the problem is.

For the last couple of years I've been arguing that a lot of the problem with this team has been the defensive play of the forward group and the evidence seems to be piling up.  For every Kulemin and Grabovski there's been a Bozak or a Lupul to counteract their defensive edge and until about 18 months ago, Kessel was really struggling with his defensive game.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thoughts on Bernier, the Leafs' Cap Woes and.... Goldberg?

We are almost 2 months into the Jonathan Bernier era in Toronto (if we can in fact call it an ‘era’) and opinions remain mixed over whether he should have ever arrived.

Fans' thoughts around Bernier and the trade that brought him here seem to fall in line with four primary themes.

1) James Reimer's play last year did not warrant expending assets on another goalie. This is, to some extent, very true. Reimer posted some of best numbers of his career, finishing with an even strength save percentage of .924 and goals against average of 2.46.  At 25 years of age it is entirely possible Reimer is arriving as a top 10-15 goalie in the NHL. And since you can only ice one goalie at a time, Bernier represents a redundancy. That is unless the Leafs are planning to transition one of the two netminders into a forward - anecdotal evidence indicates this would be pretty awesome. 

2) Reimer has never been healthy during a full, 82 game season, forcing management to add a potential starting goalie. This again, is a valid argument. Reimer has started 43%, 42%, and 65% of Leafs games over the past 3 seasons. Yes, a lot of his injury woes can be traced back to the wayward Gionta elbow and subsequent concussion symptoms, but he still hasn’t been consistently healthy. After watching Ben Scrivens play last year many fans (myself included) were not comfortable with him as a defacto starter should something have happened to Riemer.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Hello Nonis"......Trying to Find the Positives During a Difficult Leafs Off-season

My feelings towards the Maple Leafs this off-season are mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, the team finally broke through what had been 9 seasons of futility and provided a new generation of fans with playoff memories. On the other, the off-season, one that should have marked the continued build towards being a contender, has been marred by disappointment.

Heading into the summer break I felt like the roster had a number of areas requiring upgrades, but possessed the flexibility to address most, if not all, of those areas. My list of priorities went something like this:
  • A top 4 defenseman
  • A 1st or 2nd line centerman
  • Checking line winger
  • Improve forward prospects
  • Maintain cap flexibility

While I didn’t see adding a goaltender as a priority, I have not taken umbrage with the Bernier deal the way some fans have. Scrivens, while a serviceable backup, did not appear destined to challenge Reimer for the starting job. Frattin showed signs of great improvement last year and looked like a nice fit on the 3rd line. The 2nd round pick is certainly a valuable commodity, but not something the Leafs absolutely needed to protect. Bernier has long been considered the best backup goalie in the league and at times was rumored to usurp Jonathan Quick as the Kings starter. Regardless of how may feel about Reimer's talent, he has played in 45, 42 and 69 percent of leaf games over the last 3 years. Health has been an issue, all but forcing management to consider bringing in a quality goalie to work in tandem.

Where I started to scratch my head was while watching Dave Nonis’ around the beginning of free agency. Buying out your most talented centerman so that you can use the money to resign a player that is deemed by both advanced stat gurus and Joe six pack hockey fans to be a below average centerman is almost inexpiable.

Compounding the issue is that Nonis kyboshed his much beloved cap flexibility by signing a near 30 year old power forward to a contract possessing both significant term and dollars. I am extremely excited for what Clarkson can bring to the lineup in years one and two of the deal, but very few forwards of his ilk have been productive through their mid 30s.

Nonis left himself with limited dollars to sign a number of pivotal RFAs, along with the contract of John Michael Liles which should have been a formality as the team’s second and final compliance buyout after Mike Komisarek

This year’s entry draft was considered by many to be the deepest in nearly a decade. Fantastic value could be found throughout the first 15 picks, with a number of high end offensive prospects. I have to give the team a lot of credit for their stockpiling of young defenseman. In Rielly, Gardiner, Percy, Finn, and Blacker the team has a strong future. Conversely, the Leafs system is running on empty when it comes to top 6 forwards. With players like Nichushkin being taken at 10 and Max Domi at 12, I wish the Leafs had been able to move up – trading in some of their existing prospects to leverage a better pick than 21.

A look around league at other free agency signings does little to curb my disappointment. This year saw the following contracts signed; Derek Roy 1 year at $4million; Dustin Penner 1 year for $2million, and Viktor Stalberg 4 years, $3 million per season. I don’t know if I would prefer to have Derek Roy and Dustin Penner to Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson. I know for certain I would rather have Roy, Penner, close to $3 million in cap space, and 9 less years of term in lieu of the Leafs players. It is perplexing to see other franchises making financially prudent moves while Nonis felt compelled to shell out such lucrative deals.

Reviewing my original off-season wish list we can see that team didn't successfully address any of the stated needs. Now, despite the fact I have spent nearly an entire post bemoaning the missteps of our fearless leader Mr. Nonis there is still a silver lining, some reasons to believe in this roster. Amidst all of the negative feelings that have arisen this past month I had forgotten a number of the positives surrounding this roster.

Below are list of happy thoughts as we trudge through the remainder of the offseason.
  • Phil Kessel is kind of good at hockey. Back to back seasons in the top 10 of league scoring and still only 25. There aren’t many players worth $8 million per season for 8 years but he is one of them.
  • The winger core is one of the best in the league. Did we need David Clarkson? Not really. Does he make our wingers one of the better groupings in the league? Yea, probably. A corps that contains Lupul, JVR, Clarkson, and Kessel in the top six will no doubt be productive.
  • Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner will provide offence from the backend. It has been a while since the team had young, exciting, puck moving defensemen. You probably have to look back to Tomas Kaberle in his prime years to find the most recent example. Gardiner was dominant at times in the Boston series and all reports from prospects camp indicate Rielly may arrive at the pro level this season. Few teams in the league have two prospects of this caliber.
  • Nikolai Kulemin didn’t leave! It is unlikely I could have withstood the departure of both Grabovski and Kulemin in the same offseason; the sheer pain it would have inflicted is too much to imagine. Kulemin is an effective player who drives possession and rarely receives the attention her deserves. He should slot in nicely on a shutdown third line with Bolland and McClement.
  • We are not New Jersey Devil fans. It is hard not to feel for a franchise that in just over one year witnessed the loss of Zach Parise, David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk. With Elias entering his final years and Broduer likely retiring at season’s end it is a time of transition for the team. The Leafs certainly have made blunders, but the errors seem to pale in comparison to what the Devils will be facing in the coming years. At least they have Michael Ryder…
There is little enjoyment to be taken from watching a 36 year old David Clarkson try to keep up on your second line, or listening to radio call in show champion Tyler Bozak’s 52 percent face-off percentage, but alas there is hope. So the next time an image of Dave Nonis’ face has you feeling down about the Leafs, and life, just remember, there are still some exciting pieces on this team.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For a Few Dollars More - A Look at David Clarkson's Contract

The general consensus regarding David Clarkson’s new deal seems to be something along the lines of – we are happy to have him in Toronto, we just wish it wasn't for seven years. The yearly cap hit of $5.25 million feels reasonable, if only it were for 4 or 5 years.

On the ice Clarkson is almost certainly an upgrade to the team’s forward group and affords Carlyle significant flexibility in how he decides to set up the lines. He showed in New Jersey his ability to play in a variety of capacities, either as a top six scoring winger, or in a checking role. His special teams impact has been made largely on the power play, as he has only played 6 minutes, in his entire career, shorthanded.

In trying to wrap my head around the contract and whether it will represent a good investment for the team I think it is useful to break up the deal into two parts – the first 4 years and the final 3.

The back portion of this deal, between 2017 to 2020 will likely not be friendly to the Maple Leafs. Today’s NHL salary cap sits at $64,300,000, meaning he represents 8.2 percent of the space. If we assume, for the purpose of discussion, that the cap rises by 5 percent per year we can surmise that by 2017 the cap would sit at approximately $75,000,000. At that number Clarkson's salary would account for 7% of the cap. A lesser number of course, but still a substantial amount of the available dollars.

I wanted to look at the two parts of the deal in comparison to other players who make in and around what Clarkson does annually. Using these players as comparables we can begin to understand if David’s deal is in line with others. Of course his contract was inked as an unrestricted free agent, which often results in more considerable cap hits. To me this fact is somewhat erroneous, since signing too many lucrative UFA contracts is a surefire way to cap mismanagement. For the sake of this comparison we will not consider whether the player signed a RFA or UFA deal, focusing only on how the deal’s cap hit effects the team – essentially in a vacuum.

Some comparables, courtesy of cap geek are:

With the exception of David Krejci all of the contracts are at least 5 years in length. The Evander Kane and Jamie Benn contracts have been handed out as long term deals where there is a real possibility that both players will outperform their cap hit at some point. Kane and Benn will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at the age of 28 and no doubt will be in search of a long term, big money deal.

Objectively, comparing dollar to dollar, I would prefer to have either Benn or Kane in comparison to Clarkson. This is somewhat unfair, since they were signed by their teams at the end of ELCs, however, for this post we are looking at pure dollar value, irrespective of when the deal was signed.

Joffrey Lupul is an interesting comparable - his annual cap hit felt warranted on the heels of a 66 game 2011-12 season where he recorded 25 goals and 42 assistants, blossoming into one of the more offensively gifted players in the league. However, the deal will carry Lupul into his mid 30s, that for a player that has struggled with injuries and consistency. I would have preferred a 3 or 4 year deal if possible. It is difficult to say who I would rather have of these two at the same cap figure, let’s call it a tie.

The two mammoth contracts on this list are that of Jeff Carter and Marian Hossa. I am bit of a Hossa fanboy, considering him one of the most underrated superstars of the 2000s and beyond. Having said that, this contract represents significant risk for Chicago as Hossa moves into his mid to late 30s. With two Stanley cup wins, due in no small part to the presence of Hossa, it’s is unlikely the Blackhawks are overly concerned with the long term ramifications. Over the next year or so I would lean towards Hossa, seeing him as top end player. However, Clarkson may represent the better value in years 2,3,4. For now I’ll have to call it wash, again.  

In the case of Carter we again have a team that was successful in winning a cup with him playing a large role. At 28 he still has, at least in theory, many productive years ahead of him. I don’t think he was the type of player that should have commanded this type of term and dollars. Saying that, he is significant talent that can do things on the ice Clarkson likely can’t. Carter’s goal scoring over the past 5 seasons has been elite, registering 46, 33, 36, 31 (pro-rated) and 44 (pro-rated). That level of production to me makes him the better choice over Clarkson.

Lastly, we have the newly signed contract of Nathan Horton. The seven year length of this contract feels head scratchingly (if thats a word) long for a player who has struggled with serious concussion symptoms. Over the past 5 seasons Nathan has only played over 67 games once. When at his best Horton can be an extremely effective player, but to commit this kind of dollars and term felt overzealous on the part of the Blue Jackets. I suppose they are a smaller market team, and attracting free agents may be difficult, but I would have overpaid elsewhere. My preference is David Clarkson, based in large part on the long term health concerns surrounding Horton.

To sum up, of the 6 contracts I looked at Benn, Kane, and Carter all appear to be more value than Clarkson. Lupul and Hossa's deals moving forward are close to a tie in value, while I would take Clarkson’s contract outright over the one signed by fellow UFA Horton. 

This comparison, while admittedly not all encompassing (one mans opinion), seems to be somewhat in line with the prevailing belief that the Leafs overpaid to get what was the biggest fish in the pond that is free agency. If the salary cap increases substantially there is a chance that Clarkson’s deal can shift to a considerably lower percentage of the cap as his skills diminish and he takes on a lesser role with the team.

Conversely, should the salary cap rise slowly, at or below 5% per year, this contract could become increasingly painful for the Maple Leafs. Only time will tell, perhaps we should all take a lesson from Dave Nonis and worry about the future some other time... like in the future.

“I’m not worried about six or seven right now….I’m worried about one. And Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.” – Dave Nonis

Here’s hoping Dave.

Monday, July 8, 2013

My Take On The Leafs' Offseason So Far

When you're a fan of a sports team, it seems like every offseason is more important than the last but this offseason really was a different animal than your usual summer for the Maple Leafs.

The new CBA brought with it a pair of amnesty buyouts and there were no shortage of candidates on the Leafs' roster.  Add to this a number of key RFAs, gaping holes on the blueline, and the team's best two players one year removed from Unrestricted Free Agency, and it's safe to say that this is an offseason like few others.

With most of the dust of the offseason settled, here are my impressions of the Leafs' summer thus far.

Leafs Trade Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a 2nd Round Pick for Jonathan Bernier

If you're wondering why the Leafs moved assets to acquire a goalie then you're probably not alone.  James Reimer was the team's MVP last year and the primary reason why the team was able to break its playoff drought.  That said, while a goalie upgrade wasn't a high priority, I do think that the Leafs got the better end of the trade.

My concern with the deal is what it may mean as it pertains to management's belief in James Reimer.  If I were a betting man, I'd put money on Reimer being the better goalie but it doesn't bother me at all to have two viable options.  What would bother me is if Reimer weren't the leading candidate for the starting role heading into the 2013-'14 season.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Underrated and Unappreciated - Saying Farewell to Grabbo

We here at BCP are deeply saddened by the departure of Mikhail Grabovski, on two fronts. Firstly, he was a heck of a player who when on his game was a dynamic second line center capable of playing in all situations. Secondly, neither one of us understand how to properly use Photoshop which means changing our blog header is going be a headache.

James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail has summed up the view of Leaf Nation:

The Leafs bought out Grabovski’s contract on Thursday afternoon, spending a little more than $14-million to punt a player who had become incredibly divisive in Leafs Nation, primarily for his lack of offensive production.

It was disappointing to watch Grabovski fall out of favor with many Leaf fans this season, while the majority of those in the blogging community, more attune with advanced stats the deeper metrics continued to support him. It is even more disappointing to believe the Dave Nonis would have actually bought out Grabovksi because of pressure from fans who decided that Mikhail 9 goals in the lockout shortened season made him expendable.

Listening to morning radio shows this year fans lambasted Grabbo daily, calling him for to be more productive on the offensive end, to help provide the ever valuable secondary scoring. Few analysts took the time to explain properly to the public that Grabovski spent the majority of his time on the ice with Jay McClement, Leo Komarov, and Nikolai Kulemin (courtesy FrozenPool). While I like Jay and Nikolai as players they do not possess the offensive talent of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, or James van Riemsdyk. Yet, almost inexplicably, Grabovski regularly had his goal and assist totals compared directly to that of players skating in the top six.

In 2011-12 Grabovski averaged just over 2 minutes each night on the power play. In 2010-11, a season in which he recorded 58 points, including 29 goals, he averaged over 3 minutes a game with the man advantage. This year his power play time continued to dwindle, finishing with an average of only 1:42 per game, being deployed primarily on the second unit or not at all.

Compounding the issue for Mikhail was where he started most shifts. According to Behind the Net Grabovski started 36.7% of his shifts in the other team’s zone, the third lowest percentage of any player on the Leafs roster. Compare that to Phil Kessel (49.0%) and Joffrey Lupul (47.7%) and it is clear Grabbo was not being put in a position to contribute goals and assists.

All of this would have been fine had the team and Randy Carlyle simply explained that Mikhail's role had shifted to that of a defensive centerman. Grabovski being utilized as a shut down 3rd line center, playing important minutes against the oppositions best players. Helping to shield the less experienced Nazem Kadri from opposition he likely couldn’t manage in the defensive end.  But they never did, choosing instead to let the growing negatively fester all season until it finally reached an end yesterday.

What is most troublesome is the common theory that Grabovski wasn’t living up to his 5 year, $27.5 million dollar contract. I’m willing to admit that Grabovski was slightly overpaid. In an ideal setting his deal would have carried a cap hit in the 4.5 to 4.75 range. Was it worth losing a player with the diverse skill set of Grabovski over an $800,000 discrepancy in pay? My initial reaction has been no, especially if the dollars saved are earmarked for Tyler Bozak.

This post no doubt reads like an angry Leafs blogger venting his frustration over losing a favourite player, and that is to a degree factual. However, there are a number of circumstances under which I’m willing to forgive Nonis for this buyout, or at least understand his view.

Phil Kessel is due a contract extension sometime this coming season, a deal which will be 8 years in length and close to if not exceeding $8 million dollars a year. Additionally, Dion Phaneuf will be looking for a new contract, albeit not as lucrative, but at least $6 million and substantial term. If buying out Grabovski was a necessary move to make the contracts of these two core players work than I can least understand what lead to the decision, even if I cannot wholeheartedly support it.

Right now the Leafs center ice depth chart reads Kadri – Bolland – McClement – "some guy". That would be one of the lesser groupings in the league, at least on paper. It is unlikely that Nonis has completed his offseason makeover; we can only hope that there is still at least one move to come that will help round out the center ice position.

Whatever free agency and the trade market bring the Leafs lost a significant player yesterday. We wish you the best Grabbo, you will be missed. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"$40 million in this bag right now and nobody gets hurt, I mean it!" - Tyler Bozak

When the NHL fought to keep player contracts to fewer than 8 years (7 for UFAs leaving for a different team) I don’t imagine they expected Tyler Bozak to be one of the players discussing such a deal. 

A friend asked how I felt about the contract demands and whether the Leafs should consider acquiescing to Mr. Bozak. My response is probably best summed up by Michael Scott:

It has been hard not to laugh a bit the last couple days at the expense of the Leafs soon-to-be former number one centerman. Asking for 5 million dollars a season for 8 years is almost inconceivable for a player who is considered among most hockey pundits to be best served as a third liner.

The proposed contract really only makes sense when we break it down into sub parts. Had he asked for 8 years at 1.75 million we could have understood his wanting long term financial security in lieu of a big pay day. Had Bozak requested 10 million a year over 2 seasons we could see his wanting to cash in on a short term deal - thereby forcing him to earn his next contract.

Neither seems to be the case. And with the recent acquisition of Dave Bolland is seems rather unlikely that Tyler Bozak has any leverage in this negotiation. The Leafs are capable of starting next season with Kadri – Grabovski – Bolland – McClement as the 4 players down the middle. There isn't a place for Bozak on this team anymore, and his absurd contract demands seem to be the explanation point on what was already going to be an unworkable situation.

It’s interesting to reflect on the Bolland trade now in the context of Tyler Bozak. Yes, it’s nice to no longer be handcuffed by our lack of center depth, allowing the team to dismiss Bozak's demands and finally cease the never-ending quest to anoint him a first line center. Conversely, the acquisition of Bolland has created a log jam of 2nd and 3rd line centers on a team that desperately needed someone to play in the top six.

Rumors have circulated this week that the signing of Toronto native David Clarkson is all but complete once the free agency period opens later this week. It’s difficult to argue with Clarkson’s production over the past 2 seasons, amassing 30 goals in 2012-13 and 15 in this ears truncated campaign. He has managed to morph his game from that of a prototypical 3rd line grinder into a useful player that can play across an entire lineup.

The potential issue lies in committing significant money and term to a player that is approaching 30 and plays a style of game that hasn't historically been conducive with aging. It is possible that Nonis turned over every stone in search of a centerman this off season and simply failed to land anyone of significance. As a substitute he addressed the need via trade with a Chicago team desperate to stay under the cap and through drafting the hulking six foot five Frederik Gauthier 21st in the draft.

Part of me wanted  Nonis to bring in a Vincent Lecavalier or one of the pending 2014-15 free agents in Patrick Marleau or Joe Thornton. However, I can only imagine the price either Shark would have commanded, and the contract signed by Lecavalier is two years too long for a player in his mid 30s.

If Nonis is successful in adding Clarkson and perhaps a 2nd or 3rd pairing defensemen (Scuderi, Ference…etc) than he will have addressed many of the teams needs, at least in earnest. Goaltending depth was an issue – he brought in Bernier. Bolland, to a degree, addresses the need down the middle. Clarkson, despite some concerns around his age and wear, would be a significant improvement to the team’s top 9 forwards. An additional top 4 defenseman would help alleviate some of the onerous minutes Dion Phaneuf has been forced to consume the past two seasons. Of course neither Clarkson nor a defenseman has transpired yet, but if you believe any of the news circulating this week it’s hard to think Nonis will stand pat in free agency, especially given the cap flexibility the team still possesses.

The old cliché says that a rising tide raises all boats. With some tinkering in a number of places Dave Nonis is working diligently to improve multiple facets of the roster, bit by bit. One of the outcomes of these improvements may be the departure of Tyler Bozak and his faceoff wizardry (or slightly above average-dry). And I’m quite alright with that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Drafting By Position

The following is a re-post from a while back but with the draft coming up, I think it's worth re-visiting:

About a week ago, I was talking with a friend about 2013 eligible draft prospect Darnell Nurse.  He's huge and athletic and while I'm not a pro-scout, I'd guess that he's a guy with an awfully high ceiling.  I suggested that some team that barely missed the playoffs was going to be awfully lucky to draft him and that I wouldn't even be surprised if he snuck into the top-10 on draft day.  It was at that point that my friend suggested that taking a defenseman in the top-10 was a risky proposition.

We shot some names back and forth of forwards and defense who had worked out, where star players came from, Cam Barker, &c. &c. Are your odds better of getting a good player in the first round if you take a forward?  At what point, if any, are defensemen generally safer picks?  We couldn't really come to any reasonable conclusions without doing the work.

So with that, I set about putting together a spreadsheet with 10 years of draft data (1999 to 2008) where each pick in the first three rounds was categorized as an All-Star, an Impact Player, a Replaceable Player, or a Bust.  For now, I've held fast to defining an All-Star strictly (must have actually been an All-Star) but I do think this analysis would benefit from a little more flexibility in this regard (ex. Hamonic and Subban are not All-Stars but Justin Williams and Alexander Frolov are.)  An Impact Player is a top-6 forward or a top-4 defenseman, a Replaceable Player would be a guy who has predominantly been an NHLer but generally in a support role, and a Bust would be a guy who didn't have a significant NHL career. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Maple Leafs Playoff Review

What a series.

As disappointing as last night's collapse was, the mere fact of Toronto having pushed Boston to overtime in a game 7 is cause for celebration for fans of the Maple Leafs.  No team has given this edition of the Leafs as much trouble as the Bruins and yet there we were, with them until the end, pushing Boston to the brink of elimination, and though it's the Leafs who find themselves on the outside looking in, there's something creditable in the way that they acquitted themselves during this year's playoffs -- something we'll hope to carry forward into next season.

 While seven games isn't a sample size worthy of hard and fast conclusions, it does give us a glimpse through the window of what some of our players are or aren't capable of.  There were some surprises during the playoffs and some disappointments; some things to be excited for and some causes for concern.  Below are my observations on what we saw from our boys during the second-season.

Phil Kessel, Demon Hunter - It's indisputable that Phil Kessel had struggled mightily to produce results against the Bruins during his time with the Leafs and while many people wrongly attributed these struggles to vacuous psychological shortcomings, the truth is that lining up against a Norris-calibre defenseman is hard on everyone.  During this series, Kessel was able to exorcize his demons and put to bed any fears that Leafs fans may have had that Kessel wilts under pressure.  He was almost certainly our best forward in the playoffs and will be worth every penny he earns on the extension that we'd all better hope he signs this offseason.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Burgeoning X-Factor: Jake Gardiner

I'm not much of football fan. I'll watch the sports centre highlights and what not, but it's rarely my first choice for TV viewing these days. I understand the basic fundamentals of the sport and generally how the points are accrued, the difference between on field positions, and the varying types of penalties (except for holding, which appears to occur on every play of every game).

In the fall of 2004, while not a fan of football or the NFL, I became an ardent supporter of Kanas City Cheifs wide receiver Dante Hall, commonly known to many as the 'X-Factor'. For uninitiated Dante Hall was the leagues preeminent kick off and punt return specialist between 2003 and 2007.

He was an absolute joy to watch, special teams plays become games within the game, complete spectacles to behold. At any given moment Hall could zig, or zag, or some combination of both, while bounding towards the oppositions end zone.  I was flat out mesmerized, that feeling of aw and anticipation every time he was on the field is something I'll never forget. After watching nearly all 16 Chiefs regular season games that season I can't recall the name of a single player outside of Hall, but I can remember vividly how I felt.

While watching Jake Gardiner and the Maple Leafs in Game five on Friday night I found myself reminiscing about Dante Hall. That feeling of imagination and expectation is something that Gardiner's play conjured up in me during the game. Much like Dante's ability to completely transform the momentum of a football game Gardiner seemed almost omnipresent in Friday's game.

I've tried to watch the 22 year old blueliner closely throughout the series, to better understand  both his rave reviews as an offensive catalyst and his limitations defensively.

First off, his defence. Yes, it could be better. But before we label him an all round poor defender it's important to understand no defenseman is all things in all situations. At times throughout the series Gardiner has displayed splendid composure in the defensive end, maintaining his body position against the significant girth of players like Lucic, Horton, and Thornton. The root of many pundits criticism is that he can be prone to poor decision making. This has manifested itself at times in the form of bad pass, the wrong choice for outlet of the puck, or failing to clear the puck from the defensive zone. The good news, for fans, is that these limitations appear more mental than physical. Decision making is something that can be worked with the coaching staff and through on ice instruction and video review. With only 90 total games of NHL experience it's fair to say that he will continue to learn and the nuances of the pro game and hopefully minimize those errors.

In the offensive zone, Gardiner has shown at both the AHL and NHL level, that he could be something special. Last year, as a rookie with the Maple Leafs he amassed 30 points (7 goals, 23 assists) in 75 games. This year, while playing with the Marlies throughout the lockout, he had 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in 43 games.

Over the past 2 games Gardiner has shown a Neidermyerian (this may not be a word) ability to drive a teams offense from the back end. Judging from his ice time during that time, 24:05 and 27:45, Randy Carlyle has been warming to his style of play.  He's made a number of slick outlet passes from within the Leafs zone to a streaking forward on Boston's side of center. Allowing players like Kessel and Lupul to maintain their momentum and enter the zone with speed.

When carrying the puck himself, Gardiner has proven to be devastatingly elusive to the Bruins. His skating stride and lateral agility forces the opposition to give him space, lest they be beaten to either side. When Jake possess the puck in the Leafs zone you can see how difficult it is for Bruins forwards to press him. He will routinely look up ice, insinuating a pass, only to turn, or pivot, leaving the defender off balance. If you look closely you can see how well Gardiner uses his shoulders to mask his intentions, dipping them to either side to ward off defenders and confuse them as to his intentions.

With the possible exception of Phaneuf the Maple Leafs defensive corps doesn't typically carry the puck through the neutral zone to generate an attack. Choosing to instead dump the puck in along the boards, or pass off to forwards. Gardiner, however, routinely takes the puck into the zone, thus creating odd man rushes and generating possible scoring chances. He has done a great job of finding the right player at the right time with deft passes upon entering the attacking zone.

The challenge for the coaching staff moving forward is to help Gardiner blend his offensive risk taking with his responsibilities as a defenseman. The most successful example for Gardiner to emulate today is Ottawa's Erik Karlsson. Another player with whom fans have taken umbrage in the past for his lack luster defensive play.  Over the last 2 seasons Karlsson has successfully maintained his offensive flair without compromising the teams defensive needs.

I by no means believe that Garinder has become "must see TV" around the NHL. Dante Hall, during his stretch of dominance, was a star across the entire NFL. But what we have witnessed from Jake this post season, that feeling I've gotten when he has the puck, you can't help but wonder what he could become in the future.

The Maple Leafs success or failure on Sunday night will hinge on a number of factors. But the one that most excites me, the one I'll be watching most astutely, it's number 51, Mr. Gardiner.

Go Leafs Go!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Leafs Hybrid Approach to Beating the Bruins – Using Speed and Pugnacity

At one time or another in our lives, most likely during adolescence, we’ve all experienced what it’s like to be bullied. This bullying can range from simple teasing, a swirly in a nearby toilet or something more egregiously bad.

What amazes me about bullying is the strategy sometimes employed by parents in trying to curtail the bullying. The answer, in many cases is “If he hits you, stand up for yourself and hit him back – he’ll leave you alone after that”

This I never quite understood. In most cases (at least from what I have seen) the bully tends to be a significantly stronger or meaner kid than the one suffering the bullying. Which means if the smaller victim were to punch the larger aggressor in the nose the odds are he’s going to get walloped pretty hard back. Suffice to say we as a society need to institute better methods of addressing bullying, but since this is a hockey blog we’ll park the social commentary for now.

We all understood that physical intimidation and to a degree, on ice bullying, were going to play a role in the Leafs-Bruins series. For the past 3 or 4 years the bruins have been, in the opinion of many, the biggest, nastiest, meanest team in the NHL. This is born in large part from their roster containing both Zdeno Chara and Milian Lucic, who are able to do a bit of everything on the ice.

In game #1 the Leafs players attempted to punch the Bruins in the nose, metaphorically and a couple of times literally. The Bruins played a physical game and Leafs tried to match them, finishing every check and engaging in every possible post whistle scrum. In one instance Cody Franson abandoned his position as the lone remaining defender to throw a big hit, leading to a Boston goal.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Manufacturing Goals in the Post-Season – The Power Play

This week will mark the first playoff appearance by the Maple Leafs in nearly 10 years. While the act of simply extending the season past April has many proclaiming this year a success, there’s no doubt that fans would also enjoy a playoff round win as the proverbial cherry on top of any already thrilling year.

After reading a number of articles over the last week it appears the Leafs need a myriad of different tools in order to win in the postseason, chief among them: confidence, momentum, toughness, focus, enthusiasm, gumption, quick-starts, effort, mental fortitude, and concentration.

While those things are critical ingredients for any Hollywood portrayal of a sporting event, the winner of a hockey game is only 50% of the time the team that spews the greatest number of platitudes. The winner, almost without exception, is the team that manages to score the most goals. As hockey, at it’s very core, has always been, and remains, a goal scoring competition.

The website provides a chart (shown below) that compares the average number of goals per game in an NHL regular versus post season game. Throughout nearly the entire history of the league goal scoring has seen a decrease going into the playoffs. There are some exceptions, most notably in the 1950s where scoring seemed to increase in the post season. However, during the modern era of the league goals seem to be scored less frequently when the games matter most.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

10 Playoff Thoughts for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Blue Chip Prospects started churning out articles in May of 2010.  When we first started out, the blog was more general hockey-related stuff and we spent a fair bit of our time just making fun of other teams and their fans.  Over the years, we've become increasingly focused on the Leafs and, in my opinion, found our niche in one of the best blogging communities the internet has to offer. 

Before I get going, I'd like to say a quick thank you to the guys over at Pension Plan Puppets, Maple Leafs Hot Stove, Vintage Leaf Memories, and Hope in the Big Smoke for all of their support.  In addition to the work going on by the group at The Leafs Nation, the guys who contribute on these sites are all bright, insightful individuals who have pushed me to understand hockey in a more complete way and they've all shown BCP a tremendous amount of support over the years, for which I'm tremendously grateful.  The community of Leafs bloggers is a group that I'm very proud to be a part of.

When I started blogging 4 years ago, this was the post that I wanted to write: A collection of thoughts on the state of the team as they head into the playoffs.  It was pretty clear at the time that I wouldn't be writing this post about the 2010 Leafs, but I sure didn't think I'd have to wait until 2013.  As I put pen to pad (or finger to keyboard) the Leafs have three games remaining before facing what looks like either Boston or Montreal and I think I can safely speak for all of you when I say, "PLAYOFFS!!1"

Here are a few things that are on my mind as we inch closer to hockey's second season.

1) Doesn't Mikhail Grabovski strike you as precisely the kind of player who was made for playoff hockey?  Grabbo is, for my money, one of the better two way centres in all of hockey and he's the kind of guy who would put his face through the boards if he thought it would help his team.  On a Leaf Matters podcast a little while ago, Anthony Petrielli said that he thought Grabovski was the toughest player on the Leafs and I have a hard time arguing the point.  I worry that he may continue to get under-utilized in the playoffs but if he gets the icetime that I feel he deserves, I think he'll emerge as a more mainstream hero among Leaf fans.

2) James Reimer has been stealing games for the Leafs all year and I wouldn't be surprised if the Leafs' playoff run lasts longer than most expect because of it.  You don't need to delve too deeply into the aforementioned blogs to find a post that laments how badly the Leafs have been outshot this year which means the reasons they're in the playoffs are 1) a lucky shooting percentage, and 2) James Reimer being one of the better goalies in the NHL this season.  I've written more extensively on Reimer here so I wont go on a long diatribe but suffice to say that in addition to being an A+ person, James Reimer has developed into a goalie deserving of our trust.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Six Seasons And A Playoff Appearance!

(Stick Tap to Cole for the Art)
Guess who's going to the playoffs?  That's right!  Guess who's not going to the playoffs?  Scott Hartnell.
Go Leafs Go

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What To Expect Moving Forward From Nazem Kadri

If you spend time hanging around Twitter, you've probably heard someone say that Nazem Kadri has had a pretty lucky season.  The 22-year old former 7th overall pick has been plugging along at roughly a point per game pace most of the season -- he's sitting at 41 points in 42 games right now -- and has put to bed any fear that he may not have the chops to skate in the top-6.

Anyone who watches the games can tell that Kadri is a dynamic offensive player.  He creates chances more consistently than any Leaf forward aside from Phil Kessel, and he's done it while often carrying 6'3", 205 lbs gorilla-winger Colton Orr on his back.

That said, when you look at the numbers, it's clear that things have been going Kadri's way more often than we should reasonably expect.

As things stand today, Kadri's on-ice shooting percentage is a remarkable 14.98 percent which is tops in the league among forwards who have played more than 20 games.  Now, while there is some evidence to suggest that on-ice shooting percentage can be sustained at high levels and has predictive value (I'll point you to this post from David Johnson at Hockey Analysis) I would suggest that this season's sample is too small to expect Kadri to definitively be the type of guy who can impact a line's shooting percentage in such a significant way.  By way of illustration, I'd point to last season's 9.17 percent in 21 games (7th among Leafs forwards).

What mean should we be expecting Kadri to regress to exactly?  Well, I would certainly say that Kadri is an improved player from the Nazem Kadri we saw last season.  The challenge is that so few players post an on-ice shooting percentage of over 11 percent (only 22 last year).  Is Kadri the kind of talent we can expect to do this on a regular basis?  I'm a bit of a homer but personally, I think he can be close.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

James Reimer Is A Very Good Goalie

For the better part of ten years, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Achilles' heel has been their goaltending.  Even when the team in front of the goalie was terrible, the goaltending was worse.  Not since a 40-year old Ed Belfour have the Leafs had any stability between the pipes and it's probably for that reason that some people haven't been able to fully embrace James Reimer.

It isn't as though we haven't seen the odd flash of competent goaltending.  After an abysmal start to his Leafs career, Vesa Toskala was able to finish his first season strong and salvage a .904 save percentage on the season.  His strong second-half tricked management into believing that we'd solved our goaltending woes but Toskala would go on to post consecutive seasons of sub-.900 goaltending to close the book on his career as a Maple Leaf.

When Reimer started his NHL career with a .921 save percentage in 37 games, fans were optimistic with an asterisk.  It was only half a season -- let's see how he does in a full year.

Well, Reimer started 2011-12 just fine and it looked like we may have finally solved our goaltending problems when a 5'6", 168 lbs ball of fury made an unintentional hit to the head that would have made Scott Stevens proud and de-railed the rest of the young goalie's season.  Reimer did return from the injury but he wasn't the same goalie the rest of the year and he struggled in posting a .900 save percentage (partly because of an abysmal penaltykill. but I digress).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Shootout and Sample Sizes: Addressing the Leafs' Shootout Woes

The Leafs lost on Wednesday night to the New York Rangers in the shootout, dropping their shootout record to 0 wins and 5 losses on the season. The players are collectively 3 for 24 on shootout attemps for a 12 percent success rate – 2nd worst in the NHL. Something must be done! We need to figure out a way to fix the team’s shootout woes lest we be forever doomed to leave with only one point in the vaunted 3 point games!

Would the Penguins trade us Jussi Jokinen? Is the trade deadline already passed? Damn. What about Jason Allison, is he still skating with those cement laced boots that prevent him from skating from the center ice line to the goal? Gosh darn. What about Sundin or Mogilny? Surely in their early 40s they still have some finesse and could be used as a “shootout specialist” if called upon.

Ok...deep breaths, everyone. Long, deep breaths --especially you Nick Kypreos-- the sky is not falling and the Leafs are not necessarily bad at shootouts.

Over the past week or so the mainstream media has been harping on the Leafs lack of shootout success this season. They’ve layered on statistic after statistic, showcasing the abysmal shootout percentages of all our forward corps. All 3 of the team’s shootout goals have been scored by Tyler Bozak, with the rest of the team sitting at a combined 0 for 21.

As a result of all this media attention and my inability to escape the mainstream media (try as I might) I have spent some considerable time thinking about the shootout. The way I see it there are two basic things we want to know:

1. Are the Leafs forwards good, bad, or average at scoring in the shootout?

2. If we are in fact incapable of scoring goals, what steps do we then take to become good at it?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

On the Playoffs and John Michael Liles Future in Toronto

We seem to be stuck in a sort of Leafs fan limbo these days. Ever so close to mathematically clinching a playoff spot, butt wary of making any official proclamations given the 10-year hiatus. The team currently sits 5th in the East with 49 points through 40 games; staring down a likely first round matchup with either Boston or Montreal.

Well, I’m going to say it – the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs and there is no such thing as jinxes.

Ok, ok! To make sure I’m not struck down by some wayward bolt of lightning in the coming days I’ll hedge it a bit – there is a reasonable if not probable expectation that the Leafs will make the playoffs this season.  Better?

These playoffs will have significant ramifications for the Leafs not only this year, but on their actions or lack thereof in the summer. For fans, there is no doubt that a playoff run of any length will be a moment of pure ecstasy, allowing us to collectively unleash 10 years of pent up Leaf fandom. For the team however, the playoffs will represent a final opportunity for Nonis and the front office to evaluate the roster and decide what changes, if any, will be made in the offseason.
This summer the Leafs have the following players as either a UFA or RFA.

UFAs: Clarke McArthur, Tyler Bozak, Colton Orr, Ryan O’Byrne, Mike Kostka

RFAs: Cody Franson, Mark Fraser, Carl Gunnarsson, Leo Komarov, Joe Colborne, Frazer McLaren, Nazem Kadri

Reviewing the names above it’s clear that this offseason could bring about a number of changes to the roster. Interestingly, the player that most intrigues me is one not listed above, that being John Michael Liles. His play could be the catalyst for a number of changes this offseason and directly impact some of the players listed above.

JML played hockey at Michigan State University for 4 years before signing on with the Colorado Avalanche AHL affiliate Hershey Bears in 2002. He played the 2003-04 season in the NHL with Avalanche amassing 34 points in 79 games as a rookie. Over his first 5 seasons in the league he scored over 10 goals 4 times and registered north of 39 points on three occasions.  Expectations were high when arrived when Toronto traded a 2nd round pick to acquire Liles in June of 2011, as he was coming off o 46 point campaign and carried a reputation as one of the games better offensive blueliners.  

Liles' time with the Maple Leafs has been somewhat turbulent, marred by both inconsistent play and time spent in the infirmary. Last year, he registered 7 goals and 20 assists in an injury shortened 66 game season. Brian Burke rewarded him for his strong play midway through the 2011-12 season with a new 4 year, 15.5 million dollar contract. The contract received mixed reviews, while the cap hit of 3.875 is manageable, the term of 4 years for a player 32 years of age raised questions. Since signing the contract, Liles suffered through a concussion at the end of the last season and spent a string of games alongside Mike Komisarek as a healthy scratch this year.

Since re-entering the lineup Liles has shown signs of life, displaying the offensive creativity and puck moving acumen that he was known for in Colorado. Over the past 6 games he has registered a goal and 3 assists, despite seeing somewhat limited ice time in the team's 3rd defensive pairing. At many times during games he is jumping into the offensive zone and helping to create odd man rushes. In the playoffs, when goal scoring typically sees a decline due to tighter checking, having your defence generate offensive chances will be critical. Additionally, he has made a number of sublime passes while on the attack, making the backhand spin-o-rama pass a regular part of his repertoire.

The questions surrounding Liles seem to center less on his physical ability, which appears to still be intact, and more around how Randy Carlyle intends to use him. If Randy is using Liles as the 4th or 5th defenseman, seeing some time on the 2nd power play unit, then his $3.8 million dollar cap hit can be managed. However, if Carlyle sees Liles as more of 6th defenseman who spends some time in the press box as a healthy scratch then the contract could be detrimental over the next 3 years.

Adding to the complexity of the Liles situation is the future of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. There is the potential that one, or both, could be skating in the NHL next season, rendering a number of the skills possessed by Liles redundant. While you can never have too many offensive puck moving defenseman on your roster, Carlyle and Nonis have proven to favour having an injection of size and truculence on the back end.  

Which brings us back to this year’s probable playoff run and what it means to JML. Should Liles continue his strong play and assert himself as an integral piece of defence it will provide Nonis with a number of options. He can decide to keep Liles, perhaps allowing Cody Franson to leave as a RFA and exploring trade options for the highly regarded Gardiner for a potential centerman or upgrade elsewhere. Now I’m not recommending the team trade Gardiner, merely pointing out it would be an option. However, should Liles falter, or fall further out of favor with the coaching staff; Nonis may work to ship Liles out in the offseason. JML’s contract isn’t necessary ideal, but it’s not onerous to the point of being unmoveable. Teams like Detroit and even the Avalanche have been rumored to need a solid puck moving defenseman and Liles may be a player they could use.

As the team closes in on the playoffs I don’t expect fans to be thinking about next season and beyond, as the thrill of a post season push will certainly be riveting. However, for the MLSE front office the playoffs look to be a blend of emotion and strategic planning as players like Liles audition for future roles.