Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Early Answers With The Toronto Maple Leafs

6 games into the sprint that is the NHL’s lockout shortened regular season and we’re left with number of questions and very few answers. For example, when did Patrick Marleau start leaping tall buildings in a single bound and where does he hide his cape? How is Martin St Louis playing the best hockey of his career as he nears 38 years of age? And what has happened to the Philadelphia offense? (Hint: It wears number 68 and moved to Dallas).

As it relates to the Maple Leafs, not a whole lot is known at this point. Sitting with 3 wins and 3 losses the team has shown some glimpses of being a potential playoff team, while also demonstrating defensive lapses in line with their lottery pick of a year ago. Below are some of what we know and don't know as the early season marches on.

What we know

1.       Nazem Kadri is not going back to the AHL. With an impressive 6 points in 6 games (3G, 3A) Kadri is flashing some of the offensive potential that made him the 7th overall draft pick in 2009. Nazem has that rare ability to slow down the pace of a game when he’s in possession of the puck, seemingly having an extra half second of decision making. It’s the type of offensive imagination and flair that fans have always pined for in Tyler Bozak as a first line center. If Kadri can continue his growth this season, you have to believe he’ll have a real opportunity to crack the first line heading into the 2013-14 season.

2.       Nikolai Kulemin has not regained his scoring touch. In 2010-11 Kulemin recorded a career best 30 goals and 27 assists. Last year he plummeted to only 7 goals, leaving many pundits to wonder what exactly happened to the well-rounded top 6 forward they had come to know. During the lockout Kulemin played alongside reigning Hart and Art Ross trophy winner Evgeni Malkin for Metallurg of the KHL, registering 38 points in 36 games. The expectation being that Kulemin could carry over some of this offensive momentum and reaffirm his position in the Leafs top 6. With zero goals through 6 games (he does have 5 assists) it appears his NHL scoring slump has carried forward to this season. He still brings accountability and effort to the defensive end, but on a team missing Joffrey Lupul and desperately in need of consistent scorers it remains to be seen if Kulemin can get back to form.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Kessel Question

In Monday's Toronto Star, Damien Cox did what Damien Cox does and wrote a piece designed to elicit strong disagreement or passionate approval; it is time, he suggests, to trade Phil Kessel.

While I don't agree with the assertion that Kessel looks "ill-conditioned, isolated [or] troubled", I do have some concerns that this team is running the risk of walking the line between a playoff spot and a realistic shot at a top pick.  If you're a team that's building toward something then that doesn't necessarily mean that you move your top young goalscorer to get out of it but if you expect to be in this position for a while then maybe it does.

Kessel is 25-years old and a top-tier offensive player in the NHL.  He has four consecutive years of 30+ goals and last season put up a point per game while playing all 82 in a fully healthy season.  He probably has another 5 years of all-star level production ahead of him and possibly more depending on how sharply he regresses through his non-prime years.

The problem, as I see it, isn't with Kessel as a player so much as it is with the team as it sits today.  Nobody is picking the Leafs to make the playoffs this year and while our system is improved from the group that Burke inherited, the real help (Percy, Rielly, Finn, Leivo) are still at least a couple of years away from being impact contributors.  Kadri and Gardiner are both nice players who are still in their development years but neither are the type of player who can, in isolation, bring this team from where it is now to a team that will reliably be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Re-Evaluating Luongo To The Leafs

Elite goaltending is tough to find.  Top-tier goalies are almost never traded and rarely, it seems, hit unrestricted free agency.  The only way to get an elite goaltender is to develop one, or to trade for Roberto Luongo at one of the 5-year intervals in which he seems to consistently find himself on the trade block.

With those assumptions in mind, I've been of the opinion that a trade for Roberto Luongo - particularly in light of the fact that he'd be dealt at a value that was far from commensurate to the value he provides a team - would be a good move for the Leafs.  The team is more than one piece away, but this is a piece we can add now and we may not get another chance like this.

Over at Pension Plan Puppets there was a great fanpost that measured what the impact of Luongo's contract would be to the Leafs as it pertains to the cap re-capture formula.  The post looks at what the cap penalty would be if he retired in each year of the deal and charts the results.  In a nutshell, the penalties aren't all that significant.

So if the penalties aren't significant, the cost of acquisition is discounted, and Luongo is still a very good goalie (which in my opinion, he is) then it makes sense to make the move. Strike while the iron is hot, as it were.

Also at PPP, Steve Burtch had a look at how goalies age in an effort to see how many years of Luongo we were buying.  His conclusion was that there was virtually no correlation between a goalie's age and performance which was certainly promising, on the face of it.  Building off of this post, Eric T at NHL Numbers pointed out an oversight in the original post, namely, that survivorship bias was at work.  The question shouldn't be whether your average 34-year old goalie is better than a given 28-year old but rather whether the same goalie was better at 28 than at 34.  The conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that goalies tend to get worse as they age.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kadri, Frattin And A Luongo Trade: If It Smells Like A Duck...

Michael Traikos tweeted today that Matt Frattin would sit for tonight's Marlies game because of the upcoming training camp.  No mention has been made of Nazem Kadri's status for tonight's game but no news generally means status quo so we can infer that Kadri will likely dress which raises some interesting questions as it pertains to the Leafs top forward prospects.

The first conclusion that we may draw is that the organization feels that Frattin is the more useful player at the NHL level in the short term.  Statistically speaking, Kadri has more points in fewer games in the NHL than Frattin does but on its own, the difference (4 more points in 6 fewer games) isn't significant enough to say for certain whether this assessment is off-base.

Those who suggest that Frattin is a vastly superior defensive player and is thus better suited to a bottom-6 role may be surprised to find that the advanced numbers don't bear that argument out.  Kadri, as it turns out, is a possession monster, posting the second best Corsi-Rel (10.9) on the team according to BehindTheNet.  Frattin was 14th at -1.5.  For the uninitiated, Corsi-Rel is a measure designed to capture a player's all-around game.  It's basically shot +/- for when a player is on the ice compared against the team's shot +/- when they aren't.

If you think linemates were the difference, you're probably wrong there too.  Kadri's most common linemate was Matthew Lombardi while Frattin's was Grabovski.

Furthermore, Kadri has outperformed Frattin in the AHL this season as well.  Given that all of the recent data, all of the NHL level data, and future potential all seem to favour Kadri's move to the NHL, why does Frattin seem to have the inside track?

The least Tin-Foil Hat theory is that Kadri is playing tonight because it will only be his second game back since sustaining a concussion (or... erm... not a concussion) on Boxing Day.  That's a good reason to keep him in the lineup and is certainly a plausible explanation.  If you're convinced by this then Frattin doesn't necessarily have the inside track on an NHL roster spot and the Leafs may still be very happy with what they have in Kadri.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Kessel, Lupul, And a Scientific Look At The Elusive 'Prime' Years

Everyone ages.

We all grow from infants to teenagers to adults and finish, if we're lucky enough to get there, as a member of the privileged elderly class enjoying a significant discount at all major restaurants. Throughout that process our bodies physical and athletic abilities develop and grow, eventually maximizing at a specific point in time commonly known as our “prime”.

In sports, all teams look to maximize the number of players on their roster that are currently enjoying their prime athletic years; conversely minimizing the number of players that are still developing and the ones that are physically declining leading towards inevitable retirement.

For the Maple Leafs, the contracts of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel will be expiring at the end of 2013, forcing management to consider where they fall on the spectrum of an athlete’s climb and decline. The unrestricted free agent crop of 2013 (including Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) will also tempt the team to hand out significant money and term to star players.

The problem is, we can’t predict exactly when a player is at his best; nor when he will begin the inevitable decline. Each player is different and their individual development curve could differ from that of their peers. The use of statistical data can further muddy the waters, since numbers like goals, assists, power play points...etc can often be a result of opportunity, linemates, team situations, and other statistical noise.