Disclaimer: I do not think I am smarter than Mike Babcock. I do, however, find his personnel decisions endlessly frustrating.
Since I wrote all about the Maple Leafs’ offensive abilities while focusing on the forward lines, it’s time to talk about defence. Boring, I know. Specifically, though, I want to look into the flawed defence pairings and how I believe they could be improved.
Roman Polak is a bad NHL defenceman. Jake Gardiner is a good NHL defenceman. Polak has historically been a drag on virtually any teammate who has come across the misfortune of being thrown on the ice with him in terms of shot attempt differential. Gardiner has historically elevated his defence parter’s results, whoever it happens to be. For some reason Mike Babcock has them paired together while parking a seemingly effective 23-year-old defenceman in the press box every single night.
I’m not going to try to get into Babcock’s head and decipher the reasons behind this, but I am going to look into the six defencemen the Leafs could ice every night who I believe would give them the best opportunity to win. Spoiler alert: neither Polak or Matt Hunwick would be in my lineup.
With Babcock’s favourite bad NHLer, Hunwick, being out of the lineup for the last seven games due to injury, Babcock has had to choose six of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Martin Marincin, Connor Carrick, Frank Corrado and Roman Polak to man the Leaf blue line. Just as he was last year for the first 28 games, Corrado has been the odd man out for every one of the Leafs’ first 13 games this season. The internet is once again, understandably, calling for Corrado to draw into the lineup. The Leafs Nation’s Jeff Veillette is constantly beating that drum and I’ve yet to come across someone who wouldn’t rather have Corrado in the lineup over Polak, yet Babcock refuses to mix up his pairings. The current pairings are as follows:
Here are their shot and scoring chance rates per hour in visuals. Bonus: #FreePeterHolland.
Shot rates and scoring chance rates remain fun. pic.twitter.com/zGk9Co3L23
— Sean Tierney (@SeanTierneyTss) November 9, 2016
I believe the ideal pairings are as follows:
Last year Corrado pried his way into 39 NHL games and was a 3.3 Rel.CF%. Not a huge sample size, but encouraging nonetheless. Polak was once again a negative in that department and after ten games in the lineup he’s brought even worse results this year. Again this is a very small sample size, but this has been an ongoing trend over his career. Polak currently boasts a -5.04 CF.Rel%, better only than Hunwick’s -7.64%. Polak has been paired with Gardiner for virtually all of his 5v5 ice time and they are currently a -3.47 Rel.CF% in just under 110 minutes together. If you can manage to drag Gardiner into the negative shot differential territory, there’s probably an issue.
Compare that to the 56+ minutes Gardiner has played with Connor Carrick this season where they post a 10.57 Rel.CF% and it’s hard to imagine Corrado wouldn’t be an improvement on Polak. It also suggests that Gardiner and Carrick would be a solid pairing and if we look back to last season we can find a larger sample size than their 56 minutes this season. After Carrick came over from Washington at the trade deadline his most common partner was Gardiner. They played just under 130 minutes together and had good, not great results posting a 1.51 Rel.CF% and a 3.74 Rel.xGF%. Not quite as outrageous as their small sample size showing this season of 10.57 Rel.CF% and 17.04 Rel.xGF% this season, which will regress if they are reunited, but still encouraging. I’d like to see this pairing given significant time together.
As for the hypothetical Marincin-Corrado bottom pairing, I think it has the potential to be a very efficient, shot suppressing third pairing. This is exactly what you want from your bottom pairing. Both players have a history of driving shot attempt differential in their team’s favour when on the ice, a lefty with a righty, they both come cheap and they’re 24 and 23-years-old respectively. They haven’t played any significant minutes together to back this up, but their individual results suggest this pairing should be given a real look. I don’t mind the current Carrick-Marincin pairing as they played well together last season, but ultimately I would rather ice Carrick with Gardiner and play them a tonne. The only problem is Babcock seems to have less time for Corrado than I do for Polak.
That brings us to the only pairing of Babcock’s which I hypothetically left untouched, Rielly-Zaitsev. While Babcock talks this pairing up as though they could be “a real good pairing” I’m not sure what to think of them yet. Rielly is an elite offensive defenceman who tends to bleed shots on his own net. I love Rielly’s game, but I’ve been pretty vocal in my belief that Gardiner is the team’s best defenceman and has been for several years. Ideally, for me, Gardiner would be facing the opposition’s top lines with Rielly getting Gardiner’s power play minutes, but I digress. Rielly’s results early on this season have been encouraging, though, as he leads Leafs defencemen in Rel.CF%. Zaitsev is only 13 games into his NHL career and we’ll have to wait for a much larger sample size to decide on what he is, but the early results haven’t been great. First he played just over 56 minutes with Hunwick, which was a disaster, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt due to his partner. Since then he’s played 102:30 with Rielly and the results haven’t been as bad as with Hunwick, but they haven’t been great either. The pairing is operating at a rate of -2.73 Rel.CF% and -6.34 Rel.xGF%, which leaves a lot to be desired, but they’ve been getting the toughest competition every night. I think they’d be better suited as the second unit behind Gardiner-Carrick so Rielly could have more freedom to play his run and gun style, but that isn’t going to happen.
Unfortunately, I doubt my preferred pairings will ever come to fruition, as the last seven games were probably the best chance of that happening with Hunwick out, but Corrado still didn’t get into a single game. It sounds like Hunwick is on the verge of returning from injury and Babcock will most likely go back to playing him an indefensible amount. Sigh.
Moral of the story:
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) October 29, 2016
*all stats via corsica.hockey
*all stats are 5v5 and are adjusted for score, zone and venue