Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Making Lemonade Out Of Lemons: Internal Fixes For The Leafs Lineup

As things stand today, the Leafs sit in 6th in the Eastern Conference and are 3 points ahead of 9th place Winnipeg following last night's loss to the Jets.  Not a bad spot to be and had you told me in the offseason we'd be in a playoff spot 27 games into the season, I would have been pleasantly surprised.  The underlying numbers for how we've gotten here suggest that we've been awfully lucky to be so successful but this is where we are and nobody can take those points away from us.

That said, it doesn't mean that you look at the underlying numbers, shrug, and say, "well, we've gotten away with it so far."  This team is 3rd last in the NHL in Fenwick Close.  For the uninitiated, Fenwick Close is essentially shot +/- when the game is within a goal (during the 1st or 2nd period) or tied (in the 3rd or overtime).  It may seem counter-intuitive to a lot of you, but if you isolate this number for road games it actually correlates more closely with home points than points earned on the road does.  In a nutshell: This might be the most important number the NHL has for predicting future success.

A lot of what happens during the rest of the season will hinge on how Randy Carlyle is able to manipulate the lineup in an effort to improve our Fenwick number moving forward, thereby improving our odds at success.  The good news, in my opinion, is that there are internal solutions for most of what ails this team.

First of all, I would point to our #1 centre spot.  Tyler Bozak is a woeful possession player and his inability to keep the play going on offense is the main reason for it.  Over at The Leafs Nation, Cam Charron argued that the best way to use Bozak would be to start him primarily on defensive zone faceoffs.  For all of his faults offensively, Bozak is a competent defensive player and a fantastic faceoff man.  It makes some intuitive sense that it's easier to get the puck out of your zone than it is to get a shot on net while in the opposition zone, so maybe that initial faceoff win (and possession of the puck) would lead to clearing the zone more often.  By putting Bozak on a third line with McClement and, for argument's sake Kulemin, we've built a line that can handle tough defensive minutes and move the puck in the right direction.

This means Nazem Kadri can move to the top unit which is a bit of a polarizing idea among Leafs fans.  What a lot of Leafs fans may not realize though, is that Kadri is one of the best possession players on the team.  A lot has been made of his defensive deficiencies but the reality is, what he produces offensively is so significant that he's been able to keep the play in the right zone at a rate that's better than any of his teammates.  If you were to move Kadri on to the top unit with Kessel and, again for argument's sake Lupul, then you'd be putting two talented offensive players with a guy who keeps the puck in the offensive zone.  Moreover, you can give this line the lion's share of the offensive zone faceoffs to make sure that they spend as much time there as possible.

What's left is a better zone start split for Grabovski's line (with JVR and MacArthur) so that they can produce more offense than Grabovski has been able to thus far while still matching up against reasonably tough opposition (because he's really good at it).

The way our defense has been handled is a complete mystery to me.  Carlyle's fixation with having his defensemen playing the side that corresponds with their handedness has pushed Dion Phaneuf from his favoured right side to the left.  This has meant that A) he's looked less comfortable himself, and B) he's been paired with an endless rotation of AHL defenders.  If we simply moved Dion back to the right, we could then pair him with Gunnarsson thus re-uniting our most effective duo from last season.  

Also, by moving Dion to the right side, we free up a left defense slot which means we can start operation #FreeJakeGardiner.  One of the reasons why he may still be in the AHL is that we're overloaded with left side defense right now.  Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Fraser, Liles, and Gardiner all skate on that side while the right has been left with Kostka, Franson, Holzer, and Komisarek.  It's pretty clear which side is the thinner of the two and Holzer is the only player in the group who can be sent to the AHL without having to pass through waivers.

Now all of this might look like one long diatribe whose purpose is to make Randy Carlyle look like an incompetent boob, but it isn't.  I'm not as bearish on Carlyle as a lot of people I talk to are.  I like how he's handled the goalies, I'm willing to give him some of the credit for the improved penaltykill (it can't all be McClement, can it?), and I also understand that it can be tough to change what's been working when it comes to the idea of moving Kadri to the first line.

The problem with the team is that, in a lot of ways, our success thus far has been a mirage.  That doesn't mean that it has to get worse though -- it only means that we're lucky it wasn't.  If we can improve our possession numbers on a go-forward basis by shaking up the lineup then the past numbers lose a lot of their predictive value over the team.  In economic terms, the points we have are sunk and we don't give them back.  It's what we do from here on in that will decide what kind of team we are.

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