If O’Byrne forces Gardiner out of the lineup, that’s a problem

We know from earlier that Ryan O’Byrne is an unspectacular, yet usable defenceman that was acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs for a fourth round pick. The fourth round pick hardly matters. Few fourth round picks become National Hockey Leaguers, and after about the second round teams will go into the depth sections of consensus boards and dig 6’8″ defencemen out of Austria playing in the Swiss junior league.

As with the Korbinian Holzer contract, this trade indicates something worse, that the Maple Leafs current process for making decisions is flawed. I like the deal for O’Byrne in a vaccuum, since he can immediately jump on the ice and play with John-Michael Liles or Carl Gunnarsson in 2nd pairing minutes. That opens up Dion Phaneuf to play alongside Cody Franson, and gives room on the third pairing for a Jake Gardiner-Mike Kostka pairing in sheltered minutes.

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Except it may not be that way.

Some warning signs may have showed up that the Leafs may not be all that interested in sheltering Gardiner and Kostka. This tweet shows what the Leafs could be thinking:

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James wrote a full take at the Globe, too.

Jake Gardiner has been held out of the Leafs lineup for the last two games. Toronto has won both games, but that doesn’t excuse Randy Carlyle from making an ill-informed decision. There’s some lingering distrust between Gardiner and Carlyle it seems like. I think Gardiner has had a fine season in his limited minutes, particularly since his second call-up. There isn’t enough of a sample for us to declare that any statistic we have would have any predictive value.

From MLHS:

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“I think Randy wants me to hit guys more,” Gardiner told TSN.ca on Thursday morning, “not necessarily hit them I guess, just finish my check, rub [the opposing player] out at least. I did it last year, but I didn’t really think about doing it as much as I probably should now.”  …. “Guys are a lot more skilled,” he said of the difference between the two leagues, “and it’s harder to close on guys. It’s definitely something I need to work on.”

If you ask me, it’s less about hitting and being physical, but using the body to take away offensive opportunities.  One such example is perfectly summarized by Gardiner’s lacklustre attempt to take out Hamilton on the boards.  It is less about punishing Gardiner and more about educating the prodigy before the wheels fall off.  I don’t think I need to remind anyone how kid gloves and a lack of communication worked for Luke Schenn.

That’s from a post called “the Carlyle approach”.

Obviously, good defence is good defence. One of the issues with defence is that it’s nearly impossible to quantify individual defensive plays. I’m not even sure you can.

A good defensive play is something that doesn’t exist. It’s the prevention of a scoring chance, but there’s no way to record scoring chances prevented against a player. You can record which ones come against a certain player, but those are warped by ice-time, positional responsibility and difficulty of minutes. There are a tonne of defencemen you can look at in one context and say “he makes too many giveaways” but in the other context you say “he has the puck a lot”.

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The problem with judging Gardiner by giveaways or lack of hits is that he’s a defenceman who likes carrying the puck, ergo, he’ll have more giveaways. You wouldn’t judge a quarterback by the number of incompletions he throws. That is without context. You can’t judge how physical a defenceman is by the hits he throws, since the purpose of a hit is to separate a player from the puck. However you do that is successful, whether it’s with a thunderous body check, a good poke check, or if you position yourself to force your opponent into making a bad pass.

After today’s trade, the Leafs have six, count them, six National Hockey League-calibre defencemen:

Dion Phaneuf – Cody Franson
Carl Gunnarsson – Ryan O’Byrne/John-Michael Liles
Jake Gardiner – John-Michael Liles/Mike Kostka

If you’re queasy with Phaneuf going back to his natural side when he’s had so much success on the right, well, then you have the option of playing him with Jake Gardiner. It’s not that Phaneuf or Gunnarsson needs superstars to perform with them, they need warm NHL bodies and they will probably be more successful.

Mark Fraser is an AHL defenceman. Mike Kostka is an AHL defenceman. Kostka never played an NHL game before this season despite being 26, and Fraser spent one year playing more than half the season for his team’s games, averaging just 12:23 of ice-time on the 2010 New Jersey Devils.

By contrast, Ryan O’Byrne has played 74, 64, 67 and 55 games in the last four seasons, and 34 of Colorado’s 36 games this season. He’s not a spectacular NHL body, but he’s an NHL body, and he’s played on average more than 18:50 in each of the last three years, so he’s not just an NHL body because there isn’t an NHL body in reserve. He is a player that management has looked at playing one third of his team’s hockey games and said “we could be fine if he did this next year”.

But there’s this absurd half-season on the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive unit where bad decisions have been made since the start of the season. Korbinian Holzer played 12 games on the top pairing, playing some of the most difficult minutes in the National Hockey League, despite getting shelled night after night after night. Jake Gardiner wallowed in the minors, and then in the press box. Liles, signed to a four-year contract last season, was put in the press box while Holzer was playing on the top pairing.

It’s altogether too wacky, and because in the short season the Leafs have got the best goaltending since Ed Belfour was on their team, Carlyle has gotten away with it. And he will keep rolling with a defensive corps he should not be getting away with until there is a long stretch where it is clear he will not get away with it.

The Leafs still give up an awful lot of shots. The best way to prevent against giving up shots is to have the puck more. Jake Gardiner helps that, but if O’Byrne has been acquired so that the Leafs can dress a righty alongside Liles and keep Gardiner out of the lineup, something in the process is horribly, horribly wrong

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  • Jess Taylor

    I don’t see how O’Byrne would be replacing Gardiner. Gardiner is a puck-moving defenceman (like Phaneuf, Liles and Franson who are better than him right now which is why he doesn’t get to play) and O’Bryne is a shut-down, hard-hitting (led the Avalanche in blocked shots and 2nd in hits last season), stay-at home defenceman that was acquired to replace Kostka and Holtzer who are clearly not up to task. He fills a need on the roster – this is a great acquisition.

  • Jess Taylor

    i think its more now fraser will be keeping gardiner out of the lineup since obyrne will most likely replace kostka, but gardiner didnt play that great the few games before he was sat

  • Jess Taylor

    You make a good point, to prevent scoring chances you should possess the puck more. But to get the puck more you have to separate the opposition from the puck, Gardiner isn’t great at that part yet. O’Byrne sucks at puck possession, but playing him with a guy like Liles will be better than playing Gardiner with Liles.

  • Jess Taylor

    The thing you miss is how the GMs have done a poor job finding R handed defenders. Stop putting this on the players and stop blaming the coach. If you are going to direct blame then put it on Nonis and Burke.

  • Mason from NC

    @tnleaf: Isn’t it generally accepted that right-handed defencemen are hard to come by?

    At any rate, Jake Gardiner is a player who, in the course of a year, has been a healthy scratch for multiple games, and also described by management as an “untouchable.” Doesn’t require much to see the irreconcilable disparity there.

    I wonder if Carlyle isn’t being too stubborn with his ‘ideal’ defenceman’s play. He wants all six of his d-men to play their side. He wants all six of them to hit and play a physical game. Perhaps Gardiner doesn’t play as physically as Phaneuf, as Fraser, maybe even as Gunnarsson, but isn’t the bottom line question, “does playing Jake Gardiner give Toronto the best chance to win?” I believe the answer is yes.

  • acg5151

    At this point, Gardiner in the AHL will stunt his development. He will only get worse playing against worse competition at this point. Trading for O’Byrne makes no sense – they already have a glut of defensemen capable of playing in the NHL. Gardiner, Phaneuf, Gunnarson, Franson, and Liles are all NHL defensemen and Fraser is passable. With guys who (should be) depth defensemen, Holzer and Kostka being 7th and 8th defensemen, they didn’t need this.

    Time for someone to reign Carlyle in. If Gardiner is going to be getting played behind Mike Kostka, Mark Fraser and Korbinian Holzer, what’s the point. The Leafs were far better off with Burke at the helm, because I doubt he would have been okay with how Randy Carlyle has played the defense.

  • acg5151

    It’s not that big of a deal. I doubt O’Byrne will be here long-term. Even Liles could be gone next year and free up a spot for an offensive guy.

    Earlier this year, Liles was playing a bit soft. He sat and came back better. I’m sure Gardiner will come back in and play harder.

    There will probably be an injury on defence or somebody needing a rest. Gardiner needs to come in and make the best of his chances.

    Imagine how good Gardiner could be with just a bit better defensive play and some snarl in his game? Kadri now picks his spots on the high-risk plays and has some nasty in his game. Why not Gardiner?

    I am fine with the degree of accountability Carlyle is imposing.

    • Derek342

      “I am fine with the degree of accountability Carlyle is imposing.”
      But he’s not applying it evenly. Gardiner sits out because he’s not separating players from the puck, but other players can get completely shelled and nothing? Re-read the third last paragraph, and explain how accountability is being imposed.

  • Derek342

    Cam, why are you so critical towards defencemen who have played well all year for the Leafs? Fraser clears the net and prevents rebounds which is something Toronto FAILED at big time for years.

    Gardiner makes too many giveaways to play big minutes. If it was up to people of your mind the Leafs would have ZERO accountability and just play the most talented players regardless of performance.

    Carlyle is great. His critics are not.

  • Derek342

    “Re-read the third last paragraph, and explain how accountability is being imposed.”

    The third paragraph:

    “But there’s this absurd half-season on the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive unit where bad decisions have been made since the start of the season. Korbinian Holzer played 12 games on the top pairing, playing some of the most difficult minutes in the National Hockey League, despite getting shelled night after night after night. Jake Gardiner wallowed in the minors, and then in the press box. Liles, signed to a four-year contract last season, was put in the press box while Holzer was playing on the top pairing.”

    They gave Holzer a long look. Early on, the Leafs did win with Holzer in the lineup, but Holzer couldn’t keep it up and they sent him down. That seems like accountability.

    You are forgeting that Gardiner had a concusion. Holzer did not.

    Gardiner “wallowed in the minors” because he had concusion which can be a tricky long-term injury. They wanted to give Gardiner as much time as possible in the AHL after his concusion so that they could be sure he was ready and had his game back. Plus, he was getting close to losing his waiver exemption, which is now gone. If they had brought him back earlier and he wasn’t ready, then couldn’t send him back to the AHL which is the the position they are in now.

    It’s not perfectly fair, but there are bigger considerations in managing assets under the CBA.