Head coach Ron Wilson was extended last week for at least another season behind the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bench, and other than the fact that it’s an extension given out without much success to show for. I don’t mind the deal too much since the Leafs have seen a fair bit of improvement and have been a pretty good hockey team ever since James Reimer took over, giving Wilson a reliable starting goalie.
In the 81 games since Reimer had his first NHL start on January 1st 2011, the Leafs have gone 42-28-11, right on a playoff pace, although their underlying numbers are more modest: their posession rate is 47.5% according to score-tied Corsi rate, and they’ve been helped by a 101.7% PDO, which doesn’t imply the team was crazy lucky, but it shows room for improvement.
A lot of my criticism for the Leafs stem from Phil Kessel’s line’s inability to keep the puck moving forward, but I don’t think it’s really on him. We know how much a single offensive zone start can help a player get an extra shot or two, and when you look to see how Ron Wilson has been dishing out Toronto’s minutes, you might be un-impressed by the help he’s given his first line:
Looking at the first and second lines (I arrange them according to TOI/60 of the centreman over at Behind The Net) you have to think that maybe in there, there’s an opportunity for the top line to get a few more shifts, as Mikhail Grabovski’s line is more than capable of bringing the puck forward on any given shift, far more than Kessel’s line is, but the first line is more adept at shooting the puck. Given that the second line (with Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin) is much better defensively, I’d like to see Wilson somehow adapt to giving out more defensive shifts to the second line and use the first line almost exclusively on offense. You need to shelter Bozak, Lupul and their minus-5 Corsi/60 number somehow.
If you look to see how the best possession teams in the league divvy up their minutes:
There’s an unreal gap. Jonathan Toews is having an exceptional year offensively, but he’s been given the reigns by his coach Joel Quenneville to succeed at even strength.
Not seen here is Patrice Bergeron’s 44.9% rate. Him and David Krejci take a lot of the tough minutes away, allowing the young Tyler Seguin to succeed offensively. He’s also occasionally put out on the ice with Bergeron, giving the Bruins’ second line both offensive and defensive capabilities.
Hence ‘The Sedin Treatment’. I find it so weird how the sheltering of the Sedin twins’ minutes is discussed at length on the hockey blogosphere but rarely makes it into the papers in Vancouver. Henrik and Daniel are awful defensively, but their sheltered minutes have allowed them to come away with scoring titles the last two seasons.
Toronto definitely has the guys who can handle slightly tougher roles. I quite like what Dave Steckel has brought the Leafs, and he’s one of the better faceoff guys in the league, but he isn’t the only one who should be given tough assignments. I think that Mikhail Grabovski has shown an ability to bring the puck forward (he lead the NHL in Corsi Rel last season) and that shouldn’t be squished by Wilson’s desire to hand out even minutes.
I think that the way Ron Wilson uses his bench is what keeps the Leafs as a below 50% possession team. The best teams in the league send out their top scorers in easier situations. What’s also interesting is that Toronto appears to have more offensive faceoffs than most teams in general, but that advantage hasn’t helped the team out on the shot clock, which hurts their chances to win on more regular occasions.