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.

As much as I'm a proponent of possession-based metrics, I'm not the type who wants to throw the baby out with the bath water.  I like Joffrey Lupul and I think there's a place for him on this team, I just think that it's incumbent on the coach to get him on the ice in offensive situations or against favourable opposition.

What has irked me about Carlyle is the way that he's deployed this team's fringe talent.  Guys like Kostka and Fraser saw way too much icetime in critical situations last year.  If we're taking a possession hit by dressing a guy with Lupul's ability to produce goals on offense then I'm OK with it.  Why we'd be willing to take a possession hit for a guy like Frazer McLaren or Colton Orr however is beyond me.

Now this isn't intended to be an argument on the value of fighting.  If McLaren or Orr were pushing the puck in the right direction, I'd be thrilled to have them on my fourth line but the reality is, we've spent the duration of Randy Carlyle's tenure icing a fourth line that has handicapped this team's ability to outshoot / outchance the opposition.

If you're building a team and you're looking for a tactical advantage, it seems to me that putting good possession players on your fourth line seems like a pretty good way to go.  The league's best possession players are, unsurprisingly, also the players who are among the best in more traditional metrics which means that they're paid appropriately.  Skating a fourth line full of Leo Komarov-types seems like a cost effective way to use advanced stats to your advantage.  It also means more offensive zone faceoffs where you can shelter the Joffrey Lupuls on your roster.

A lot of the frustration around the blogging community with Randy Carlyle revolved around the way he deployed his talent but there wasn't much of an impetus for him to change that strategy because, let's face it, the results were pretty good.  Now I know that you're betting against the odds if you keep Kadri on the third line in favour of Bozak or skate Kostka with Phaneuf but I'm actually more curious to see if he changes his stripes when the results aren't there.  If the Leafs lose 3 of 5 to start the year with McLaren and Orr in the lineup, do they get the scratch or does Carlyle lay the blame where it doesn't belong?  Whether he correctly identifies the problem when the results aren't there is something I'm keen to see.

While we may not agree on the value of psychological factors or on the impact a fight can have on a game, I think we can all agree that having a fourth line that can play competent hockey would be a good thing.  Getting some affordable forwards who move the puck down the ice may not be the sexiest way to go from mediocre to good but I do think it's the simplest answer for this Leafs team.

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