The cool thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs doing so well is unlike the typical listing of the scapegoats, we get to hear the reasons for the Leafs success. Some are reasonable (Jay McClement and both Goalies), some are great but sample sizes leave you weary (Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul), and some are just plain wrong (Tyler Bozak, Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, anything to do with Randy Carlyle and line matching). But in all of these, two guys are left unmentioned. Which is odd, because realistically, these two are the franchise players, and when the team goes cold, they’re first to blame.
Dion Phaneuf is one, and I’ll touch on him in a little while. But today, let’s talk about Phil Kessel. Amidst all the hype that the forward core is getting, few are talking about the fact that their best forward may be having the best year of his career.
Why is he being left out?
I mean, it wouldn’t be hard to accuse everybody of saving Phil for usage as a villain, rather than play a bipolar back and forth game with perception projection. I mean, if there’s any media hub that could get away with it, it’s the over saturated one in Toronto. But that’s a silly conspiracy. More realistic is the thought that he’s not playing to his role,so nobody has thought to dig deeper.
His role, of course, is being a sniper. People expect him to put pucks in the back of the net, first and foremost.And lets be honest – he hasn’t had the best of years in that department.
Pretty simple, before we move forward. I’ve taken this year and the three prior he’s played for the Leafs, and adjusted the minutes (similar to this article). I use 1640 again, because that’s 20 minutes a game over 82 games. Not the most unrealistic expectation, considering he played 1645 least year, and was close to it the season before, and would approach it over 82 this year. Really, it’s main purpose is to make his 70 game season’s numbers usable.This season is highlighted in the pre and post adjusted parts of the chart.
To create the adjustment, the formula is (Statistic/MinutesPlayed)x1640.
The last column, RNK, is the rank of this year’s adjusted numbers amongst the four. Moving on.
Pucks In/At The Net
As you can see, the man originally acquired to score goals, while still very good at that job (tied for 27th straight up, 33rd in 5 on 5 goals per 60 for players who have played 500 minutes, a stat that is less specific than it sounds), isn’t doing so as much as he did in previous years.
Not that 30 goals is something to scoff at, and it’s not like his game winners have disappeared. Not to mention something very noticeable – a trail off of shots. Is it because of his linemates? While I’m sure having actual quality wingers (Lupul/van Riemsdyk over the old days of Joey Crabb and whatever other NHL/AHL seesaw candidate he had in his first year and a bit) gives him more options as he goes down the ice, a higher quality line will also have more opportunities, which should even things out. Time to pull out something different.
Individual Corsi, which I literally figured out the definition of right before starting this article (I’m just finally embracing advanced stats), is Shots on Goal + Shots that miss the net + Shots that are blocked. Looking at that, you can see that Kessel is still trying as much as ever to get pucks on the net, it’s just not happening. Whether that’s a matter of team’s figuring him out or a player who’s had a few scoring droughts this year firing out of desperation to snap it is debatable, but I lean to the latter in this case.
Tape To Tape
Whether it’s a matter of ability or tendency, Kessel’s playmaking has lead to progressively better results in the past couple of years, each season being better than the last. Going back to talent playing with him, seeing Lupul or JVR on his wing is much more palatable than prior choices, allowing passing to be a weapon in his tool set. Add Bozak’s increased shooting percentage this year (15.7%, up from 12.5%) into the equation and another spike this year isn’t a shocker.
Dreams of Art Ross
If anything, a year like this shows that what we saw last season wasn’t an outlier, but rather the next step in Kessel’s progression as a player. Granted, his last year in Boston carried an 84.9 point pace, but under sheltered minutes with a high shooting percentage (sounds familiar). Despite goals not being as much of a focus, Kessel has found a way to make this his most productive year yet.
Odds And Ends
I’m not big on real time stats. But here are a bunch anyway. He’s taking more penalties, he’s hitting more people, and blocking more shots. Carlyle is probably thrilled. His plus minus is even for the first time as a Leaf, which is reflective of everyone else on the ice just as much if not more so than about him. The giveaway/takeaway ratio is intriguing, but remember that a as bad as giveaway’s sound and as good as takeaways do; a giveaway implies you had the puck at some point, and a takeaway implies you were lacking it. What matters there is getting into opportunities to give or take away the puck, and the jump from ~90 to ~115 is intriguing.
Faceoffs are completely unimportant, seeing as he’s not a centre, but put in there for fun. As for the shootout, he, along with the rest of the team, need to start practicing some moves in their goof around time.
I’m Going Back To 5on5
Here’s another way at looking at his production – how important is he to the plays that happen when he’s on his ice? That’s where percentages kick in. These numbers show how many of the goals and assists that happen on the ice are his doing. As you can see, he’s progressively become less likely to be the scorer, and more likely to be the playmaker. His overall points percentage, however, remains relatively stable in the mid-high 70’s. Also interesting is looking at how many of his assists are primary, and the answer? A lot, never below 64% and usually in the mid 70’s. Not a shock – plenty come from rebounds and him using his speed to create 2 on 1’s.
The Difference Maker
That said, things get very, very interesting if you apply the same concepts to Kessel’s powerplay time. (PPG/A/PTS include 5 on 3 & 4, rest 5 on 4 only)
What’s evident here is that Kessel is earning assists at a very high rate on the powerplay – nearly triple his first year, and double a career high last season. In fact, the powerplay alone appears to be responsible for 9 more points than last year. Evening them up would bring his 84 point pace down to 75, still very impressive but not his career best.
Also, this year sees a bounce back in primary assist percentage. Usually in the 70’s, Kessel fell to 27.3% in this regard last year. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the Leafs tendencies to go with John-Michael Liles and/or Joffrey Lupul to finish the play up last year, with those two being the goal scorers on every Kessel secondary assist.
What’s even crazier is looking at his production percentages. Despite being on a slower pace, Kessel is scoring a higher percentage of the goals he’s on the ice for than most seasons. That’s great, but when you realize he’s in on over 20% more assists, it’s outstanding. The end result? He’s in on over 9 of 10 goals that the first powerplay unit scores.
To put that into context – Alex Ovechkin leads the league in powerplay points, with 22. Many consider him to be carrying the Capitals into their playoff spot right now. He’s in on 71% of his powerplay’s points (however; 45.2% of goals). In the top 20, 7 players are under 70%, with only PK Subban and Joe Thornton joining Kessel above 80%. Kessel sits 9th in powerplay points.
Granted, Kessel isn’t the only case of an abnormally high percentage. Looking at players who have played at least 100 minutes of powerplay time this year, you’ll find Dustin Byfuglien (90%), Patrick Kane (90%), and Sam Gagner (92.3%) in the same range, and Columbus forward Vaclav Prospal contributing to every Columbus powerplay point he’s been on the ice for.
But it’s still impressive, especially when you consider that Prospal and Kane are the strong pieces of weak second units, and that Byfuglien, while probably the best player of his powerplay unit, also quarterbacks the 28th most effective one in the league. This leads to high percentages, but lower numbers per 60 minutes. Particularly Prospal (2.97 Pts/60), but Kane (4.97) and Byfuglien (4.56), ultimately don’t hold a candle to Gagner (7.0) and Kessel’s (7.27) numbers.
Combining points percentage and points per 60, one could make the case for Kessel being the most valuable powerplay player in the league this year. He competes with Gagner, Ovechkin, and Subban, but there’s no doubt that he’s essentially running Toronto’s powerplay production without needing to use his shot (14.05 shots per 60, 4 less than Subban, 6 less than Ovechkin).
As far as structure goes, the Leafs (like every other team) use an Overload formation (Youtube Link -Jeff).
What that means is that one half of the zone is flooded with players, while on the weak side, a player (or maybe 2) await passes across for one-timers. This would explain some of the assist totals, considering that puck movement likely goes from the point, down low, to the point, off to the side and then another shot on goal.
Cody Franson on the right point is also key here, since puck movement would start from the half boards with Kessel, to the point, and then across to Franson who likely has the shot and takes it.
Another issue is the early season shooting funk Kessel endured. He’s a bit predictable off the half boards in that it’s a quick snap or wrist shot from the top of the circle, that isn’t effective if there are men in front. Likely doesn’t go in clean. I haven’t researched this, but JVR being more of a net presence is likely getting the rebound, or having the puck deflect off him and influencing the numbers.
Whether or not Kessel can maintain this effectiveness on the powerplay remains to be seen, but it’s a bit more sustainable than typical strong runs. “Luck” factors like shooting percentage are nowhere to be found, and the Leafs top unit provides plenty of other players for him to use and for the opposing PK units to get distracted by. Odds are he’ll taper off – but it’ll be gradual rather than sudden.
Amidst all the hype, Kessel has (surprisingly) quietly put together another season that verifies his status as a top end NHL forward, and an elite winger. He appears to be using the full potential of his linemates, earning assists at times you’d usually expect goals. This year has seen him act as one of the league’s best players on the powerplay, though it’s uncertain whether he’s able to maintain it.
I could go on about how he’s better defensively now – which seems to be the recent topic if Kessel is brought up, but to be honest, it’s not worth the extra explanation and stats to describe how he’s gone from “not horrible” to “pretty decent” in a secondary part of his game. So you’ll have to trust the word of his teammates on this one.
In the end, all that matters is this – Phil Kessel is, and will continue to be, good at what he does for a while yet.
This was written yesterday for LeafsHQ; Kessel’s game winning goal probably boosts the paced numbers up a bit