Saturday, August 31, 2013

Toronto Maple Leafs Season Pre-Preview

Having missed the playoffs for 8 consecutive seasons, you might think that a playoff berth would mean fewer offseason changes but you'd be wrong.  With some key pieces shipped out of town, some big tickets handed out to other highly sought after players, this year's Leafs have the same frame with a different finish.

With all the roster changes, the development of some key prospects, and a coach with a little more familiarity with the returning players, we thought that we'd make our best guesses at what this team will look like headed into the 2013-'14 season.

Out: Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, Mike Kostka, Mike Komisarek, Leo Komarov

At first glance, it doesn't look like the Leafs lost much in the way of production.  Grabovski (16), MacArthur (20), and Frattin (13) all finished outside the top-7 in scoring on last year's team.  What these numbers don't show is that all three of these players had a higher O-zone finish than O-zone start, suggesting they were all pushing play in the right direction.  Of the returning Leafs, only Nazem Kadri and Jay McClement can make that claim which leads to the inevitable question, "who is going to do the heavy lifting?"

In: Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, TJ Brennan, Jonathan Bernier

The Leafs hope that the answer to that question will, in part, be Dave Bolland.  Bolland's advanced stats don't suggest that he's going to be a possession monster by any stretch but the Leafs think that he's the ideal third line centre. 

Clarkson is the powerforward that the Leafs haven't had since time immemorial.  He shoots a ton, he fights, he scores his share, and he pushes the play to the offensive zone.  What you also get, however, is a career shooting percentage under 10.  What should Leafs fans expect?  A physically dominating puck-hog who will score but whose linemates probably wont.

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....

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Departed - How Losing Grabovski and MacArthur Will Force the Leafs to Think Differently

The departure of Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur this offseason wasn't exactly unexpected. We knew that Grabovski’s style of play wasn't meshing well with Randy Carlyle’s punch people in the face first, figure out how to generate shots second approach. Meanwhile, MacArthur had found himself a healthy scratch during key games near the end of the season and into the playoffs. Even though we sort of saw these moves on the horizon, it has done little to soften the blow that losing these two has leveled on the teams top 9 forward group.

Carlyle has prided himself on being a “defensive coach”- wielding a complex system that keeps shots to the outside therefore minimizing high quality scoring chances. We can debate the merits of this system another day, knowing that research tends to indicate that shot quality evens out over time and shot volume is the best indicator of future success.

Before Carlyle, Ron Wilson also attempted to bring defensive responsibility to the Leafs, specifically on the penalty kill where he was known as a “guru” of sorts. Of course the Leafs had one of the most atrocious penalty killing units in the league (Finished last in PK% in both 2008-09 and 2009-10).

Despite a focus on defence the Leafs have actually managed to have one of the better offensive groups over the past 2 years. Last season the team averaged 3.02 goals per game, landing them 6th in the league. In 2011-12 they were a respectable 10th with 2.77 per game.

In watching those 2 Leafs teams one of their key attributes has been forward depth up and down the lineup. Kessel and Lupul have certainly been fantastic over that time, but contributions from the likes of Kulemin, Kadri, Grabovski, MacArthur, and Bozak have played a role in the team’s offensive success.

In 2011-12 Grabovski finished 3rd on the club in scoring with 51 points, with MacArthur finishing 6th, with 43 points. There is no doubt that in last year’s truncated season both players were counted on less offensively, ending the year 8th and 11th in scoring respectively. Without these two and the flexibility they afforded the coaching staff I am unsure if the team will be able to generate offence consistently throughout the forward group.

New Leafs forwards David Clarkson and Dave Bolland will help mitigate some of the lost production, but not all of it. Clarkson and Bolland have each broken the 40 point plateau once in their NHL careers. While they are useful players in their own right, they are far from offensive dynamos.

Now it’s not all bad -  perhaps the Leafs can embrace their new situation and deploy two lines designed purely for scoring. Line combinations won’t be final for a few weeks but I would expect the top 9 to look something like this:

Kessel – Bozak – Lupul
JVR – Kadri – Clarkson
McClement – Bolland - Kulemin  

In this case we would see McClement switching to the wing, allowing Bolland to play his natural position of center. The new 3rd line would feature three players known for their defensive capabilities. Kulemin's 30 goal season is more and more becoming a distant memory and McClement has consistently been an 8 to 12 goal scorer. While some have lauded Dave Bolland's offensive potential, a conversation PPP had with Chicago bloggers has me thinking his offensive contributions will be limited.
Ideally Carlyle would feed his 3rd line absurdly brutal minutes. Lining up against tough competition and starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. Essentially, these 3 guys wouldn’t skate in the offensive zone unless there was a commercial break and they were stretching their legs. (Free fantasy hockey advice: Don’t draft any of them!)

The top 2 lines would need to be used in as many goal scoring positions as possible. Offensive zone start percentages for these lines should be above 50%. Last season, both Kessel and Lupul had O-zone starting percentages under 50% (Behind the Net), which is a bit of a head scratcher for me. Neither of them are Selke candidates and should be used accordingly. They are elite offensive players and their primary focus is to produce goals (hockey being the goal scoring competition that it is).

A great example is how Alain Vigneault utilized Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver last season. Both players started well over 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone. The tougher, defensive zone starts were reserved for players like Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Christopher Higgins.

Carlyle and his coaching staff may need to take a page from Vancouver’s playbook and provide more scoring opportunities to their top 6 forwards. In years past the Leafs’ forward depth allowed for more balanced zone starts and overall deployment. However, the departure of Grabovksi and MacArthur has changed dynamic of this group – hopefully the coaching strategy reflects this.  

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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thoughts on Bernier, the Leafs' Cap Woes and.... Goldberg?

We are almost 2 months into the Jonathan Bernier era in Toronto (if we can in fact call it an ‘era’) and opinions remain mixed over whether he should have ever arrived.

Fans' thoughts around Bernier and the trade that brought him here seem to fall in line with four primary themes.

1) James Reimer's play last year did not warrant expending assets on another goalie. This is, to some extent, very true. Reimer posted some of best numbers of his career, finishing with an even strength save percentage of .924 and goals against average of 2.46.  At 25 years of age it is entirely possible Reimer is arriving as a top 10-15 goalie in the NHL. And since you can only ice one goalie at a time, Bernier represents a redundancy. That is unless the Leafs are planning to transition one of the two netminders into a forward - anecdotal evidence indicates this would be pretty awesome. 

2) Reimer has never been healthy during a full, 82 game season, forcing management to add a potential starting goalie. This again, is a valid argument. Reimer has started 43%, 42%, and 65% of Leafs games over the past 3 seasons. Yes, a lot of his injury woes can be traced back to the wayward Gionta elbow and subsequent concussion symptoms, but he still hasn’t been consistently healthy. After watching Ben Scrivens play last year many fans (myself included) were not comfortable with him as a defacto starter should something have happened to Riemer.