Using shot assists to identify the Leafs best passers

New data has recently been made available by Ryan Stimson, with the help of his volunteer trackers, which provides great insight into who the best playmakers in the NHL are. “The Passing Project” tracked every NHL team, most for 20+ games, and recorded every pass that led to a corsi event. This is very exciting news, as advanced stats previously didn’t have much data revolving around playmaking abilities. Sean Tierney, who provides fantastic visual data for hockey fans, put all of this information into interactive visuals here.

The data produced some predictable results, Henrik Sedin led all forwards with 21.4 SA/60 and Erik Karlsson led all defencemen with 11.25 SA/60. The data also produced some surprising results, most notably Dan Girardi actually being above average in something. Another surprising revelation was Kris Versteeg racking up shot assists at the third highest rate in the NHL, behind only Sedin and Joe Thornton. I could go on for hours about interesting findings across the league using this data, but for this piece I’m going to focus on the Leafs, as per usual.

Nazem Kadri racked up shot assists at the highest rate of any Leaf at a rate of 15.70 SA/60, while Tyler Bozak produced 15.30 SA/60, both well above league average and significantly higher than any of their teammates. For context, the average NHL forward produced 10.1 SA/60 and the next best Leaf, Brad Boyes, produced 12.7 SA/60. Some league-wide comparables include  Patrick Kane (16.1 SA/60), Claude Giroux (15.1 SA/60) and Nick Shore (15.8 SA/60). Kadri and Bozak ranked 19th and 20th among NHL forwards in this department. The Leafs forward group’s median SA/60 was 10.1, exactly what the average NHL forward produced. I was actually kind of impressed by this, considering the forward group the Leafs had last season.

Tierney also found that Jake Gardiner was one of six NHL defencemen who was a positive outlier relative to his teammates in SA/60, meaning he produced SA at a much higher rate than the rest of his teammates. The other five defencemen in this category were Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karlsson, Brian Campbell, Kris Letang and Keith Yandle. In other words, we’ve found another category in which Gardiner ranks among the elite defencemen in the NHL. The average defenceman produces 5.421 SA/60, while Gardiner racks up 8.9 shot assists per hour. That is good. The next best Leaf defenceman in this category is, not surprisingly, Morgan Rielly who produces shot assists at a rate of 7.35/60. There is a steep drop off after Rielly, as the rest of last year’s defencemen who had enough time tracked to take the data seriously produced shot assists at a below average rate. Scott Harrington and Martin Marincin score especially low in this category, with Harrington assisting on 3.5 shots per hour and Marincin assisting on 3.97 shots per 60. While Harrington was traded to Columbus for Kerby Rychel, Marincin is almost exclusively a shut down defenceman who is never going to produce a lot of offence. In saying that, it would be nice to see him improve a little bit in this department. Another thing to note here is that Connor Carrick was not tracked enough to be included in this data. I’ll be very interested to see where he ranks in this department next season, along with Nikita Zaitsev. The Leafs defensive unit’s median SA/60 was 4.91, producing slightly below the average NHL defenceman.

I wanted to dig into Gardiner’s playmaking abilities a little deeper, so I found a game on youtube that was also tracked by the Passing Project. This game happened to be versus the Chicago Blackhawks on January 15th and the Blackhawks won 4-1 behind a Patrick Kane hat trick. Gardiner played 15:36 5v5 minutes in this game and had three primary shot assists, which is very good considering that averages out to almost 12 SA/60 in this particular game. The first shot assist occurred at 13:50 which set up a Leo Komarov shot attempt. It’s listed as a “t” (tip) after an “of” (offensive face-off). Kadri wins the offensive face-off back to Gardiner, Gardiner shoots, Komarov tips it and it just misses wide. It’s a good scoring chance, but it’s not exactly the best example of Gardiner’s passing skills since it’s a shot attempt turned pass assist.

The second shot assist is listed at 9:40 of the second period on a Dion Phaneuf “o” (one-timer).

This one starts with some offensive zone pressure, leading to a nice feed by Bozak to Parenteau who is cruising into the slot. Parenteau tries to one time the puck but completely whiffs, as Bozak’s backhand saucer pass is about an inch off the ice still. The pass slides all the way back to the point for Gardiner, who puts it onto a tee for an awaiting Phaneuf. It’s a nice play, but a relatively simple one for Gardiner.

The third Gardiner shot assist comes with 7:28 remaining in the third period and it’s another Phaneuf one-timer with Bozak contributing the second assist.

Again it’s a nice play by Bozak who wins the battle along the boards and chips the puck back to Gardiner. Again, Gardiner puts it on a tee for Phaneuf who pounds it on net. Matthias gets a good chance off the rebound, but he can’t find the back of the net. This pass by Gardiner was a bit harder than the first one due to the fact it’s a one-touch pass, but again it’s a relatively simple play. Simple play or not, though, it creates a quality scoring chance for his team.

In this same game, Nazem Kadri was credited with two 5v5 primary shot assists in 13:40 5v5 minutes. His first shot assist came at  14:07 of the first period on yet another Dion Phaneuf shot attempt.

The Blackhawks have just killed off a Leaf power play and Kadri jumps onto the ice while the Leafs have possession of the puck. He comes streaking down the wall where Rielly feeds him a pass near the face-off dot. Kadri records an iCF and the puck bounces right back to him. Without breaking stride he carries the puck around the net before passing the puck to the point where Phaneuf takes a weak shot which is blocked/received like a pass. Nice job of creating offence here by 43.

Kadri’s other credited shot assist comes on a Jake Gardiner one-timer with 6:14 remaining in the third period. As it turns out, this pass was actually made by Bozak.

The play begins with Bozak turning toward his own end in the neutral zone where he feeds Gardiner. Gardiner starts doing that cool thing he does where he pivots nonchalantly and it looks like he’s floating up the ice with the puck. He chips the puck off the boards where Matthias chips it over the blue line to a streaking Bozak. Gardiner is wheeling in to join the play and Bozak gives him a nice pass, but Gardiner whiffs on the one-timer.

Even without being credited with that shot assist, Bozak was credited with producing four other primary shot assists in 15:06 5v5 TOI. The first coming at 12:03 of the second period on a Kadri shot attempt.

Kadri and Bozak create a two on one out of nowhere with solid defensive pressure. Hossa picks up the puck at the top of the circle where Kadri is giving him no room, forcing him to make a bad pass which is intercepted by Bozak. Bozak puts the puck just a little in front of Kadri who tips it over the net and inadvertently(?) crushes Darling. This is an especially impressive play by both players when you consider they forced Marian Hossa to make a bad play.

Bozak creates his other three credited shot assists all in the final 1:24 of the second period. The first one comes on a, you guessed it, Phaneuf shot attempt. It’s a simple face-off win back to the point where Phaneuf throws it on net which results in a quality chance for Parenteau. I won’t bother linking to that one, you get the picture.

The next one comes with 27 seconds remaining in the period.

Bozak takes a feed in the slot from Parenteau, but Kane is right on top of him. Bozak makes a nice quick pass back to Hunwick who has his shot tipped wide, the puck comes to Matthias on the post where he seems to have an empty net and he can’t put it in. The Blackhawks end up icing the puck and Kadri wins the ensuing face-off back to Rielly who walks into the middle of the ice and gets a shot on goal, but the shot assist is credited to Bozak. So they’re even now.

There’s a common theme here, with Leafs defencemen taking most of the original shot attempts. Mike Babcock encourages his team to shoot a tonne and the Leafs did so last year. They ranked fourth in the NHL in shot attempts for behind only the Penguins, the Stars and the Kings. The easiest place to find room to shoot from in the offensive zone is further out, at the point, so a lot of the Leafs even strength offence revolved around moving the puck back to the point and throwing it toward the net.

It will be interesting to see how much this changes this season, with a lot of changes to the lineup and a significant increase in talent. I suspect Babcock won’t change his philosophy, but Matthews seems to like to play with the puck down low and we know Nylander likes to shot the puck. One of Bozak and Matthews will be regularly deployed against the opposing team’s third lines and both should be capable of contributing significant offence in such sheltered situations. Assuming Carrick and Zaitsev play regular minutes we will also see a lot more of the defenceman joining the rush, where last year only Rielly and Gardiner were capable of doing so regularly.

I’m just scraping the surface of the information you can gather using the Passing Project’s data and I can’t wait to see what the data reveals this season.

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