Maple Leafs mid-season report card: defencemen

I started off my mid-season report card by analyzing the performances of the Leafs’ enticing group of rookies. Today we’re going to cover the defencemen not named Nikita Zaitsev. You’ll notice there is more of a focus on shot metrics when analyzing the defencemen than when I analyzed the rookies, who were all forwards aside from Zaitsev. This is because I believe the most important job a defenceman has is driving play in the right direction. As long as a defenceman’s team is improving on the shot clock while he’s on the ice, he is probably doing his job. It feels like the hockey community tends to lose sight of that sometimes and we think a defenceman can only be effective by doing things in his own end like blocking shots, hitting people etc. In my opinion, the best thing a defenceman can do is make sure he’s limiting the amount of time his team has to play defence. The classic “the best defence is a good offence.” Before I end up ranting on this topic, let’s get to the individual performances at the half way point.

Jake Gardiner

Boxcar stats:

GP: 42 Goals: 6 Assists: 16 Points: 22 PPG: 2 PPP: 8 P/GP: .52 TOI/GP: 20:42

Shots: 68 S%: 8.8

5v5 Rate stats:

P/60: .94 G/60: .17 A/60: .77 PrimaryA/60: .34

Shots/60: 4 iCorsi/60: 9.7

Relative shot metrics (5v5 score, zone and venue adj.):

Corsi

Rel.CF60: 8.26 (best among Leafs D, second on the team) Rel.CA60: -1.65 Rel.CF%: 3.86 (best among Leafs D, second on the team)

Fenwick

Rel.FF60: 8.49 (team best) Rel.FA60: -.32 Rel.FF%: 4.52 (best among Leafs D, second on the team)

Scoring chances

Rel.SCF60: 2.19 (best among Leafs D, second on the team) Rel.SCA60: -1.4 Rel.SCF%: 5.16 (team best)

Expected goals

Rel.xGF60: .56 (team best) Rel.xGA60: .14 Rel.xGF%: 3.06

Mid-season grade: A+

It feels like Gardiner is finally getting the recognition he deserves from Leafs fans. Gardiner has always driven play at 5v5, even when Randy Carlyle was grossly underplaying him and even healthy scratching him. Maybe the lack of love Gardiner has received goes back to Carlyle having no use for him, but judging a player based on what Carlyle thinks of him would be a silly thing to do. These days, though, Mike Babcock is the head coach and he seems to really understand Gardiner and, more importantly, he understands that he’s really, really good. Gardiner has been doing his thing again this season, driving play, as evidenced by his relative shot metrics. I think what has finally made believers out of some reluctant fans this season are his offensive numbers. He’s on pace for a career high in points, largely due to him quarterbacking the powerplay which he has never had an extended opportunity to do before. Surprise, he’s also very good at that.

Here is Jake Gardiner having fun.

I could go on for days posting Gardiner clips and elaborating on why he’s good, but you get the point. With Rielly being injured and us not knowing the timetable for his return, Gardiner is about to see a whole bunch of ice time. While I’m not happy to see Rielly injured, I’m excited to see Gardiner play top minutes against top competition and I expect him to thrive.

Morgan Rielly 

Boxcar stats:

GP: 42 Goals: 1 Assists: 16 Points: 17 PPG: 1 PPP: 3 P/GP: .40 TOI/GP: 22.22

Shots: 91 S%: 1.1

5v5 Rate stats:

P/60: .91 G/60: 0 A/60: .91 PrimaryA/60: .66

Shots/60: 5.48 iCorsi/60: 11.3

Relative shot metrics (5v5 score, zone and venue adj.):

Corsi

Rel.CF60: 4.49 Rel.CA60: .99 Rel.CF%: 1.33

Fenwick

Rel.FF60: 4.11 Rel.FA60: .60 Rel.FF%: 1.8

Scoring chances

Rel.SCF60: -.33 Rel.SCA60: .99 Rel.SCF%: -1.03

Expected goals

Rel.xGF60: .1 Rel.xGA60: .11 Rel.xGF%: -.19

Mid-season grade: A

Rielly has shown significant improvements in his defensive metrics this season. While some of that has to be attributed to playing with a good, right handed defenceman, it is very encouraging. This is exactly what the Leafs could have hoped for from him this season, as the criticism against Rielly has always been that he bleeds shots against. He’s very young so it isn’t shocking that he’s shown a big improvement this season, but it’s fantastic news for the Leafs. He’s always been able to drive offence (shots for), but now he’s showing he can come in around break even relative to when he’s off the ice at suppressing shots as well. Obviously, the fact that he’s doing this against the opposition’s top lines every night is a huge testament to his abilities. Hopefully he can continue this improvement and climb into that “elite” category we’ve all been hoping he can attain. Unfortunately, Rielly was hurt early in the game against the Sabres the other night and nobody is quite sure of what the injury is or how severe it is.

Here is Rielly being good at hockey.

Here’s hoping that we see Rielly back on the ice doing his thing sooner rather than later.

Connor Carrick

Boxcar stats:

GP: 38 Goals: 2 Assists: 4 Points: 6 PPG: 1 PPP: 1 P/GP: .16 TOI/GP: 16:35

Shots: 54 S%: 3.7

5v5 Rate stats:

P/60: .53 G/60: .11 A/60: .43 PrimaryA/60: .21

Shots/60: 4.26 iCorsi/60: 10.98

Relative shot metrics (5v5 score, zone and venue adj.):

Corsi

Rel.CF60: 3.24 Rel.CA60: -2.51 Rel.CF%: 2.29

Fenwick

Rel.FF60: 1.69 Rel.FA60: -1.53 Rel.FF%: 1.72

Scoring chances

Rel.SCF60: -.35 Rel.SCA60: -2.09 Rel.SCF%: 4.19

Expected goals

Rel.xGF60: -.08 Rel.xGA60: -.35 Rel.xGF%: 2.65

Mid-season grade: B+

I’m a fan of Connor Carrick, but the problem with trying to quantify Carrick’s true value to the Leafs is that he’s been glued to Jake Gardiner since his arrival. Carrick hasn’t played enough minutes with any other partner either this season or last to be able to definitively say that Gardiner is carrying him or not. In saying that, he’s put up good offensive numbers in the AHL and he tore up the AHL playoffs with the Marlies last season, so I think all signs point to Carrick being a solid player. The surprising thing for me is that his defensive metrics have been better than his offensive metrics in the NHL. Again, maybe this is the Gardiner effect. Maybe Carrick is sitting back and letting Gardiner drive the offence. Either way, it’s good to see him be have a positive impact as such a young defenceman and I think there’s untapped potential here in terms of his offensive abilities. I personally think he’s been severely underrated in LeafLand.

Here is some good Carrick #content.

He clearly broke his stick on purpose there. Elite creativity, in my opinion.

He’s also a great interview, which means nothing, but I enjoy listening to him talk hockey.

Matt Hunwick

Boxcar stats:

GP: 34 Goals: 0 Assists: 10 Points: 10 PPG: 0 PPP: 0 P/GP: .29 TOI/GP: 18:08

Shots: 36 S%: 0

5v5 Rate stats:

P/60: 1.21 G/60: 0 A/60: 1.21 PrimaryA/60: .48

Shots/60: 4 iCorsi/60: 9.32

Relative shot metrics (5v5 score, zone and venue adj.):

Corsi

Rel.CF60: -9.97 Rel.CA60: 2.14 Rel.CF%: -4.98

Fenwick

Rel.FF60: -7.96 Rel.FA60: -1.02 Rel.FF%: -3.75

Scoring chances

Rel.SCF60: -.69 Rel.SCA60: 1.16 Rel.SCF%: -4.21

Expected goals

Rel.xGF60: -.27 Rel.xGA60: -.01 Rel.xGF%: -2.15

Mid-season grade: F

Hunwick is a Babcock favourite, due to reasons that seemingly have nothing to do with his actual on-ice performance. He likes to talk about how Hunwick is a “good pro” and things of that nature, but he’s ultimately a detriment to the team. Hunwick started the season playing with Zaitsev and in an admittedly small sample size they got caved in in terms of shots. Zaitsev was then put on the top pairing with Rielly and his shot metrics immediately improved. Hunwick was put with Polak to form the infamous “Hunlak” pairing and it’s been predictably bad. I’ve been pretty outspoken about my disdain for “Hunlak” and people seem to be getting defensive about them of late. Most of it is probably due to the Leafs being on a 9-1-1 run right now, so people don’t want to hear anything negative. Ultimately, I just think the Leafs could form a much better bottom pairing and I’d really like to see them try something else.

Roman Polak

Boxcar stats:

GP: 37 Goals: 2 Assists: 2 Points: 4 PPG: 0 PPP: 0 P/GP: .11 TOI/GP: 17:22

Shots: 28 S%: 7.1

5v5 Rate stats:

P/60: .46 G/60: .12 A/60: .35 PrimaryA/60: .23

Shots/60: 2.9 iCorsi/60: 8.23

Relative shot metrics (5v5 score, zone and venue adj.):

Corsi

Rel.CF60: -8.36 Rel.CA60: 4.36 Rel.CF%: -5.15

Fenwick

Rel.FF60: -5.68 Rel.FA60: 2.77 Rel.FF%: -4.54

Scoring chances

Rel.SCF60: .27 Rel.SCA60: .64 Rel.SCF%: -1.24

Expected goals

Rel.xGF60: -.11 Rel.xGA60: .24 Rel.xGF%: -2.95

Mid-season grade: F

Roman Polak is bad. Polak being a staple in the lineup is even more frustrating than Hunwick because there is a seemingly capable, right handed Frank Corrado sitting in the press box every single night in favour of him. I will say Polak is elite at hitting guys from behind, though.

Lol.

He even injures officials.

Martin Marincin

Boxcar stats:

GP: 16 Goals: 1 Assists: 4 Points: 5 PPG: 0 PPP: 0 P/GP: .31 TOI/GP: 18:02

Shots: 14 S%: 7.1

5v5 Rate stats:

P/60: 1.27 G/60: .25 A/60: 1.02 PrimaryA/60: .25

Shots/60: 3.31 iCorsi/60: 11.21

Relative shot metrics (5v5 score, zone and venue adj.):

Corsi

Rel.CF60: .67 Rel.CA60: -3.42 Rel.CF%: 1.64

Fenwick

Rel.FF60: -2.33 Rel.FA60: -.152 Rel.FF%: -.48

Scoring chances

Rel.SCF60: -.23 Rel.SCA60: -.94 Rel.SCF%: 4.23

Expected goals

Rel.xGF60: -.04 Rel.xGA60: -.51 Rel.xGF%: 4.18

Mid-season grade: B

Marincin is another polarizing player who gets praise from the advanced stats community and abused by traditionalists. He’s nothing flashy and he isn’t going to put up big offensive numbers, but I think if he’s a very good bottom pairing defenceman. His shot metrics have historically been really good due to his solid defensive play. In my opinion he gets undervalued due to his lanky stature and awkward skating style, but that’s a good thing. Due to this biased opinion of him and his low offensive totals, you can probably keep him around at dirt cheap for as long as you please. He’s currently injured, but I’d love to see a bottom pairing of Marincin-Corrado going forward, as Corrado also posted solid shot attempt differentials in his 39 games last season.

Final thoughts

Obviously the talk around the Leafs defence has been needing a top pairing right handed defenceman, which is fair, but I think this defence core could be serviceable without a huge addition. While an addition would be nice, the top pairing has been fine, the second pairing has been really good, but the bottom pairing has been a dumpster fire. I think you could easily improve that bottom pairing in-house, but I digress. Ultimately, Carrick and Zaitsev have proven to be huge value additions to the right side on defence and they’ve both been added within the last year. Carrick, a second round pick and Brooks Laich’s contract for Daniel Winnik is looking like a bigger steal every day. Zaitsev was signed out of the KHL for free in terms of not giving up any assets. Gardiner and Rielly have been really good, while Hunwick and Polak are both UFAs at the end of this season. It would be nice to see both of them traded for draft picks at the deadline, but with the Leafs in a playoff spot that’s looking less and less likely.

*stats via corsica.hockey, stats.hockeyanalysis.com and NHL.com

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