The next team we check-in on is the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs. The club is off to an impressive 14-7 start, sitting 2nd in the East and coming off a 6-0 drubbing of the Montreal Canadiens. Matthews, Kadri, Nylander, Marner, JVR, and co. form one of the top offensive units in hockey. Today, we look at their blue line. Let’s explore.
Puck movement ability by defensemen
As a reminder as to how to interpret this chart:
+ Our PMF metric (X-axis) measures a defenseman’s ability to drive possession and help their players generate scoring chances. Being far on the right (e.g., Rielly) means they have excelled as a puck mover vs on the left (e.g., Zaitsev) indicates they have struggled. The numbers cannot be directly compared with each other as quality of competition that they face needs to be considered.
+ We layer in QoC on the Y-Axis. This indicates the level of competition a player faces and is a function of opponent corsi %, goals and primary assists per 60, and TOI per gp, weighted by the time they face each opposing forward. Important to keep perspective on the “ballpark” insights the QoC tells us through just ~20 games. For example, it’s clear that the top 4 play somewhat similar minutes whereas Carrick and Borgman are highly sheltered.
Some rapid fire observations:
Zaitsev has struggled and it appears to be impacting Gardiner
+ Zaitsev struggled as a 5v5 puck mover in 2016/17 (PMF -1.5) and does not appear to have improved in this area so far this year. His PMF of -3.1 is worst on the team.
+ Gardiner, PMF -1.1) was the Leafs best puck mover last year but appears to be struggling playing alongside Zaitsev. Still, -1.1 is respectable when considering he plays the most 5v5 minutes and routinely faces strong QoC. While this represents a big drop from last year (PMF +1.4), he still has time to find his game.
Carrick and Borgman have been effective, but highly sheltered by the coaching staff
+ Connor Carrick (PMF +0.7) and Andreas Borgman (+1.63) have performed effectively in a 3rd pairing role. That said, it’s been in a 3rd pairing role. They face, by far, the weakest QoC of the defensemen and start more shifts in the offensive zone (~60%) than either of the other two pairings (~43%).
+ If one of the top 4 were to get injured or demoted (e.g., Zaitsev), would be interesting to see if either can step up and perform just as well playing tougher minutes.
Morgan Rielly having a career year
+ Morgan Rielly, PMF +2.55, is simply having an outstanding year. A smooth skating, modern day defenseman, Rielly is the current and future face of the Leafs’ back-end. He routinely drives the play from the back-end, helping his teammates generate shots and scoring chances.
+ Last summer, we looked at Rielly’s ability to enter the zone with control of the puck. In part to his excellent skating and puck skills, Rielly is among the best in the league at doing so:
+ The above chart was from this summer. We looked at the overall correlation between controlled zone entries and point production and concluded that it, among many other factors, was one reason Rielly could be on the verge of a breakout season offensively. So far, that has been the case.
Like last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs are among one of the most exciting teams to watch in the National Hockey League. With a group of young forwards only getting better, the biggest questions remain on the back-end. Can Gardiner regain his 2016/17 form? Will Zaitsev finally show improvement or will Lou et co. need to explore external options to bolster the back-end. Because one or two pieces back there could be the difference in how far Toronto goes in the playoffs.