Gardiner, Phaneuf, and quality of competition

Cam Charron
July 08 2014 09:36AM

A reader writes:

You think Gardiner is the Leafs' best defenceman? According to what criteria would that be?

Bolding these four words will draw the eye to those four words since they're starkly different from the rest of the text on the page. The words themselves don't matter, but the presentation is slightly different. It's the departure from familiarity which attracts our attention.

In my last post I wrote out the Corsi rates (table at the bottom) of the six defensive pairing combinations that were together for more than 200 minutes in 2013-14. What stood out was Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, posting an elite-level 54.6% Corsi rate on a team where so many players fail to crack 45%.

That stands out. That's the highlighted section. The next two highest Corsi rates for a defensive pairing also happen to have Jake Gardiner on them. That also stands out. It's no secret that the Maple Leafs are a team that struggles with puck possession, but they also happen to have a player who struggles a visibly less.

We've established that this stands out. What we haven't established is whether or not the numbers mean anything. After all, this was also written in the comment section:

More importantly, when it comes to defencemen, time on ice and quality of competition are very important - Gardiner has been playing sheltered minutes against low quality competition because he hasn't been able to handle strong forwards.

Hmm. This is a testable hypothesis from leafdreamer. What really stuck out to me was the next line in the commenter's case against our defendant:

I'm not saying that Gardiner sucks or that he's not the most talented guy on Leafs' defense…

I'm going to snip the rest there. It's interesting that "talent" doesn't get equated with being the best defenceman on the team. It goes beyond talent—Gardiner gets results like no other defenceman. Since the end of the 2011-12 season, all you can say about Dion Phaneuf, the other man in the discussion, is that he faces the best competition in the league. Phaneuf doesn't have the results to show for it (he used to!), however. Toronto were out-shot significantly with the Captain on the ice for the past two seasons.

Over at mc79hockey, Tyler has done some great work comparing "skilled" defencemen to "defensive" defencemen against the same competition. His latest post, where he looked at Matt Niskanen versus Brooks Orpik, shouldn't surprise too many people: Niskanen is a quality blueliner, and Orpik's major selling point is that he's big.

Using the pages at Hockey Analysis, I spent some time looking at the star players Phaneuf spent the most time against, and compared how Gardiner played against the same players. The minimum qualifier was that the players needed 15 minutes of ice-time against Jake to qualify:

Phaneuf versus Star Forward Gardiner versus Star Forward
Player TOI SAF SAA CF% TOI SAF SAA CF%
Bergeron, P 86.7 53 114 31.7% 48.7 46 50 47.9%
Callahan, R 61.3 55 51 51.9% 32.7 25 37 40.3%
Gaborik, M 65.7 61 58 51.3% 18.1 15 13 53.6%
Giroux, C 102.0 102 109 48.3% 18.5 17 23 42.5%
Horton, N 67.4 59 92 39.1% 27.9 19 46 29.2%
Little, B 64.2 40 73 35.4% 16.0 22 13 62.9%
Malkin, E 63.2 54 58 48.2% 17.4 13 20 39.4%
Marchand, B 81.5 43 114 27.4% 47.7 33 49 40.2%
Moulson, M 141.8 120 148 44.8% 41.4 41 37 52.6%
Ovechkin, A 102.5 108 96 52.9% 26.3 22 22 50.0%
Pacioretty, M 121.7 124 138 47.4% 39.0 39 43 47.6%
Seguin, T 91.4 62 102 37.8% 36.1 31 27 53.5%
Spezza, J 82.9 87 106 45.1% 26.5 26 26 50.0%
St. Louis, M 103.9 106 98 52.0% 25.4 19 40 32.2%
Staal, E 91.6 77 96 44.5% 18.9 20 18 52.6%
Stamkos, S 90.1 87 86 50.3% 26.5 23 46 33.3%
Tavares, J 119.8 96 133 41.9% 30.1 27 31 46.5%
Vanek, T 103.8 94 104 47.5% 18.3 20 19 51.3%
Wheeler, B 61.3 56 64 46.7% 25.7 30 24 55.6%
TOTAL 1702.5 1484 1840 44.6% 541.2 488 584 45.5%

(Note that since Hockey Analysis calculates shot attempts in rates per 20 minutes rather than raw, the numbers may not be exact)

If our earlier hypothesis was correct, then Phaneuf should have much better numbers against these players than Gardiner. But he doesn't. In fact, Gardiner's Corsi rate is much higher. Perhaps not to the extent that we can definitively say Gardiner is better than Phaneuf as much as Niskanen is better than Orpik, but considering these numbers are since Gardiner's rookie season and include that one last great year from Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, it's impressive that Gardiner's numbers would be a percentage point higher.

And, yes, Phaneuf plays more against stars. He plays much more against stars. But he still doesn't have results that clearly separate him from Gardiner when you try to control for the fact that Gardiner plays against mostly scrubs.

Gardiner doesn't visibly play much defence. He represents the future of defencemen, however. I think in a few years, the majority of defencemen coming up through the junior ranks are going to be more of the puck-moving defencemen, as teams begin to recognize that in hockey, the best defence is a good offence. Since the game is played with a single puck, every second spent with the puck on Jake Gardiner's stick is a second that the opposition does not have the puck. It's why we're more willing to forgive giveaway-prone players at this level: if you never have the puck, you're never going to give it away.

Those of you who will write in the comment boxes about the defensive gaffes that Gardiner makes that hurt the team are sort of missing the bigger picture. The purpose of hockey is neither to score goals nor to prevent goals. It's a combination of both, and the best players will do things that help you score more goals than the other team. Corsi, an approximation of possession, is an indicator of whether a team is doing the right things with a player on the ice. If the Leafs, a terrible, terrible possession team, suddenly become respectable when Gardiner and Rielly are on the ice, is that not an indication that the pairing is up to something that you're missing as a viewer with your own inherent biases about the way defence should be played? Being a good defenceman doesn't mean being big and mean. Some players, like Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger, can work being big and mean to their advantage, but a lot of players who can't move the puck as well as those two get snuffed out of the NHL before they get close to making it.

To conclude: if I'm Jake Gardiner's agent, I bring these numbers up when I'm negotiating my client's contract this summer. Once the Leafs get rid of Randy Carlyle and start to play like a real hockey team instead of one that relishes being caught in its own end, Gardiner's possession and scoring rates will probably some of the best in the league. If I'm Brendan Shanahan, I'd recognize this and try to sign Gardiner on a long, cheaper deal now that will pay Gardiner slightly more in the first year or so, but eventually provide far more value on the back half. He's going to be really, really good some day. Don't be surprised when it happens. If he's standing out this much now, imagine how much he'll stand out when he's on a good team.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#51 Quasijr
July 09 2014, 05:31PM
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The only thing I come up with this post is that yes its time to give Gardiner more time against top lines. Then we can see if he's ready as this small sample says he is. Gardiners CF is basically the same as Dions playing 1/3 the time. If he played as much against the top lines would they have eaten his lunch & took his money too. My view is Jake plays 5 minutes a game against Dions 13-15 mins . Its time to move Jakes time up to 8-10 mins a game lightening the load on Dion. This automatically makes the Leafs defence better.

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#52 Mironovs Nose
July 09 2014, 06:10PM
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JDM wrote:

Jesus... I don't read that much of Leafs Nation, being a Vancouver guy, but had no idea the comment section was so utterly and irredeemably awful. Do you guys not have a "ban" button? How do you manage to put up with this low-level trolling interspersed with one-off drive by posts extolling the virtues of plus/minus as a stat for measuring defensemen?

The level of patience it must take to write for this blog is unfathomable to me.

The best part is that some of these guys post comments like that on every single article.

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#53 Mary J
July 10 2014, 11:51AM
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Gardiner-Reilly wrote:

"An offensive d-man who may or may not be soft on certain match-ups". Would you be talking about Gardiner because then I think you should re-read the article because the purpose was to show that Gardiner does perfectly well against tough opposition. Just as well as the captain in fact (according to the numbers). Now, I don't think that Gardiner can do as well as Phaneuf against this sort of competition if he were to play the sort of minutes that Phaneuf does against them. However, at the same time Gardiner should be given a chance (for a longer amount of time than last year) on the first pairing because he has not shown himself to be "soft on certain match-ups" as you claim he has shown.

Also a "defensive d-man who can contribute offensively" that you so desire. Would that be Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, or Zdeno Chara? Point is, the description you gave basically describes the best d-men in the league and of course anyone would want them if they could have them. And wouldn't you know it, they all have excellent corsi. Why are they the best d-men in the league? They keep the puck away from the other team. Who on the Leafs does that remind you of? Gardiner. Why? Because he's a damn fine hockey player. His occasional atrocious giveaway is easily correctable (as we saw throughout the course of the season last year).

This guy missed the point entirely...

He wasn't talking about superstars:...

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#54 Gumby
July 10 2014, 12:40PM
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@Back in Black

Intelligent and well reasoned ?

I'm sorry, but no.

His response was to call me a monkey.

If that's all that you got out of my posts, then perhaps you're a lost cause?

Oddly enough, a few people did seem to understand what I was getting at

There's more to the game than "goals win hockey", and possession stats. And if you don't get that, well I guess that's where the "do you even play" argument constantly comes up.

Call them anecdotes or whatever makes you feel better, but hockey people know the importance of such things. As do the ones in charge of the NHL teams

And as long as there's people like Cam that have never played a game of high level hockey talking like they're geniuses, there will be pricks like me bringing them back down to earth

The backwards thing is that this site treats hockey experience as useless. On a hockey fan page.

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#55 Gardiner-Reilly
July 10 2014, 02:53PM
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@Mary J

Well I guess it depends on your definition of contributing offensively because to me, that means a 30-40 point player at least. To list some of the names Gumby wrote about earlier in the comments, Orpik got a measly 13 points. I certainly would not consider that contributing offensively and his -3 rating would lead me to believe at least on the surface that he is not terribly good at defending either. Another name mentioned, Willie Mitchell got 12 points. Certainly not contributing offensively. He did however perform well in the playoffs which matters but one should not solely base a player off one playoff performance. Point is, if you're looking for defensive d-men that contribute offensively (30-40 points in a season), you have to look at the best d-men in the league.

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#56 Mary J
July 11 2014, 12:19PM
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@Gardiner-Reilly

You think that minimum requirement to contribute offensively is 30-40 points from a d-man.... What.

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#57 Steve Burtch
July 12 2014, 11:43AM
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@Steve Burtch

I AM COMMENTING SO KEN CAN FIND THIS. also hi again.

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