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....

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