Why does the first line have a lousy scoring chance differential?

Phil Kessel sometimes does take shifts that go on a bit too long.

In the third period Saturday night, during a frantic bit of action, two Toronto Maple Leafs players were caught on the ice at the end of their shifts: Phil Kessel and Mark Fraser. Since the Leafs were skating broadcast right to left, Mark Fraser as a left side defenceman was slightly further away from the bench than his partner Mike Kostka, who got off for Dion Phaneuf. No excuse for Phil Kessel, who plays a bit of a rover position, but is generally expected to be a right winger for the Leafs.

Still, Kessel stayed on the ice even after Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk had gone off. Streaking through centre, he used his speed to get around Penguins forward Craig Adams and made a subtle outlet to Nazem Kadri who had come on the ice. Kadri moved the puck in over the line with possession, halted just enough to stall Penguins shutdown man Paul Martin and find Kessel, who had burst into the slot.

Kessel was knocked off the puck by a Penguin player, but Clarke MacArthur, who read the play and went in for support, was there to easily recover the puck against Tanner Glass, made a move around another Pittsburgh player and found Mark Fraser, who had all kinds of space at the point for a shot. The three Leafs forwards swarmed the front of the net, and after Fraser’s attempt was blocked, Kessel easily scooped up the rebound and tied the hockey game.

So what happened here? Toronto looked dangerously efficient in both the neutral zone and the offensive zone, taking just nine seconds off the clock from the time they left the defensive end of the ice.

Getting away from Tyler

Commenters on the post that summarized Toronto scoring chances from last week noted that the line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk has been pretty bad. When the players are on the ice, the Leafs give up more scoring chances than they take, even though Kessel and van Riemsdyk have been two of the most consistent Leafs at generating scoring chances game in and game out.

The three got lit up in Pittsburgh. Bozak and van Riemsdyk were on the ice for just one scoring chance for and seven against. Kessel was on for two for and six against. Regular commenter leaferfan said the following:

The leaf first line seems to be a major problem with scoring chance differential. And this differential gets worse against more talented teams (boston and penguins).

But when I look at your data it doesn’t really point if the problem is Bozak entirely. Or if some of it is on the wingers (Kessel and JVR). Or also the defensive pairings (usually Phaneuf/AHLer of the week). Or the system the team is playing under Carlyle.

I see no real upgrade route to improve scoring differential for that top line. Weiss seems more sideways to slight upgrade to Bozak. And Kadri is not ready yet to play top line just yet. In fact, I’m not sure Kadri will ever be enough as because kessel/jvr the leafs will need an exceptional 2way #1C like a kopitar or bergeron to clean up for kessel’s/jvr/lupul lacking defensive game.

I coming to the conclusion that the leafs will struggle with 1C and defensive problems on the first line for years to come.

I very much disagree with leaferfan’s conclusion in that respect. I don’t think that the data at all shows that the problem isn’t Bozak entirely. Unfortunately because I’m working with pen and paper on the scoring chances project this season, I don’t have with-or-without-you capabilities to see how many chances Phil Kessel gets away from Bozak and van Riemsdyk as opposed to with.

However, you may note that scoring chances corellate closely with Corsi numbers. Don’t be scared by the term ‘Corsi’ below. All it is is a percentage calculated by the shot attempts FOR the Leafs divided by the total number of shot attempts by both teams. If the Leafs took 20 shots and the other team took 25, that’s 20 / 45, or a Corsi % of 0.444 or 44.4%. It’s an indicator of zone-time, so we use Corsi as a proxy for possession.

What I want to do is highlight how Kessel has done with Leaf centremen over his time in Toronto. The following numbers are from David Johnson’s excellent website that split up how players do with and without each other on the ice. I tallied up how Kessel does with Tyler Bozak, Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Nazem Kadri:

  TOI Goals Points Corsi % Goals/60 minutes Points/60 minutes
With Bozak 2102:23 29 73 0.476 0.83 2.08
With Connolly 246:10 5 7 0.451 1.22 1.71
With Grabovski 250:25 5 13 0.556 1.20 3.11
With Kadri 177:50 2 4 0.477 0.67 1.35

Or if you want to look at it a simpler way:

  TOI Goals Points Corsi % Goals/60 minutes Points/60 minutes
With Bozak 2102:23 29 73 0.476 0.83 2.08
Without Bozak 674:25 12 24 0.500 1.07 2.14

I like to talk about lineup optimization, and while Bozak is good at winning face-offs, he’s not good at a heck of a lot else. Comparatively, Kessel plays some of his best minutes with Mikhail Grabovski as his centreman. The two put up very high puck-possession numbers and Kessel gets more points since he has a better natural scorer to pass to than Bozak.

Bozak is a faulty NHL player with one discernible talent, which is winning face-offs. He doesn’t enter the zone, he isn’t hawkish around the net and he is out of his element against power lines when he has to turn the puck over. I’ve done the work in the past and shown that Kessel and Grabovski would be a good match together, and the numbers bear that out as well.

Bozak is also a free agent this summer and there’s talk about what the Leafs ought to do with him. They’ll probably re-sign him to a big money deal because Kessel has made him look pretty good for three and some years, although it’s clear that he’s holding Kessel back as far as I’m concerned.

Further reading on the topic, one post from Jeffler and one from David Johnson:

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  • Bozak is not a first line C in the NHL… I think we can all agree on that one.

    He’s not as horrible as everyone thinks he is either.

    My question: How do two NHL coaches with comletely different ways of how to play the game have him in the 1C hole? The stats you have offered here and in the past clearly show Kessel and Grabo are more effective together than apart. Does the team not have a guy/girl tracking these sort of things? I assume that both coaches have had access to this data (or something similar to it) and have chose to ignore it. Why?

    Makes me think that we’re missing something here.

    Either that – or NHL coaches and managers don’t hold Corsi in as much high regard as the vast majority of posters on TLN do.

  • NHL coaches and managers certainly do hold Corsi in regard. Well, some do and some don’t. The Leafs are on the “don’t” side but that’s the least of their worries.

    I thought that perhaps the Leafs don’t want to totally stack one line, or that was the case last season. Remember a year ago they only have Bozak and Grabovski as Cs. This year they have Nazem Kadri, so I think there’s a bit more room to move off the start of year line combinations.

    But mostly I think Randy Carlyle legitimately believes that you don’t tinker with a winning lineup, even when the underlying numbers are poor. That’s not something that only affects Toronto, there are about 29 other teams in the NHL that respond to results. It’s a results business, but I don’t think it’s the right move to think that way.

  • Agreed.

    I wasn’t implying that Corsi numbers aren’t regarded by NHL managers and coaches – just that it’s one small tool in the very large “player evaluation” tool box.

    In a perfect world the Leafs get something of return for Bozak at the deadline and go with Grabo, Kadri, McLemnet and Steckel down the middle. Let`s be honest.. McLement as a 4th line C on this team is a bit ridiculous.

    …but if the Leafs are still holding a playoff spot at trade deadline I’m doubtful this will happen. May have to wait until next year before these changes are made with the C corps.

  • On that goal, Kessel did something that he does not do enough of – namely his refusal to drive the net. This has been one of my frustrations with kessel. He often peels off to the side board waiting for the puck rather then mixing it up and driving the net. And the goal shows what happens when someone that has as much hockey sense and amazing hands as kessel can do when he drives the net.

    We need more of this from Kessel. He has so much potential if he only is opening to coaching and improving his game.

    I look at Kessel at this point as say a younger Kovalchuk (Kovi is bigger or perhaps more physical). Now Kovi will never be great defensively as say Parise but he has improved his game in all aspects from a few years back. This is what I want from Kessel and what I don’t want Kessel to become is Heatley or Kovalev type player. The ball is in Kessel’s court because he can truly be an elite forward and not just another great forward. I hope I’m not being unfair on Kessel but I expect more from him just because he has so much talent and potential.

  • I cannot disagree with the work regarding Bozak dragging Kessel down. My concern is with the assertion that Grabovski would be a fit based on the numbers. It is safe to assume that, since Grabovski is clearly the better player, however isn’t using 250 minutes a pretty small sample to be using the numbers as evidence of that?