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.