In final week, chance to sit Fraser; play Kostka

A few interesting notes from this week so far. The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the road in Florida, for a back-to-back against the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight and Florida on Thursday. It’s a fun wind-down for the rest of the year, and the Leafs get a relatively easy back-to-back against two weak opponents and then get to play a team they’ve dominated this season. Given how much has fallen right for the Leafs this season, it’s not unreasonable that the team could actually contend for the Northeast Division title.

Boston just needs three more points in their three games to clinch, but going 1-2-0 against Tampa Bay, Washington and Ottawa isn’t necessarily unquestionable. Stranger things have happened and Boston is currently in one of those slumps where even though there’s a lot to like about them, they’re trying out too many quick fixes to somehow be ready for the playoffs. That said, it’s unlikely, and given the injuries the team has seen this season and last the main thing is to get to the playoffs healthy.

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I’m generally a fan of patience. I don’t think decisions should be made hastily, and favour an approach where management works tightly with the coaching staff to balance rewarding good play and good production with having an honest eye for what’s really going on the ice. Something’s been bugging me.

This week gives you an opportunity for that. I found myself agreeing with Anthony Petrelli’s notebook post over at Maple Leaf Hot Stove on Monday:

I think if the Leafs find themselves in a situation where they can’t move in the standings either way with games to spare, I’d get the ‘reserves’ into game action. If there’s nothing left to play for standings-wise, it would be nice to get guys like [Joe] Colborne, [Ryan] Hamilton and [Mike] Kostka into games just to keep them sharp in case they need to be called upon come playoff time. It would be awfully hard to sit for a few weeks and then suddenly be dressed for a playoff game. With the first two points in mind, I’d be sitting guys who are banged up like Gunnarsson while still working on forming two good bottom six lines.

I was reminded of that when reading James Mirtle’s take about how tough Randy Carlyle was on his players at practice yesterday morning in Florida. It seems like the right time for a vacation: late April, playoff spot sewn up, may as well get in a bit of R&R while getting game legs together… or not:

What Carlyle did allow is that he may curtail the ice time for a few of his big-minute players, something that has already been evident in Phaneuf’s minutes in several recent games.

“Until the games mean nothing, we’ll play the best lineup every night,” Carlyle said. “We’re going to try and win the hockey games. We’re not going to play with anything other than attitude that we have to perform.”

I think you’d almost hope for that outcome where you get to play more guys and tailor them to more comfortable situations. Carlyle’s usage of Jake Gardiner, for instance, is quite strange. When Gardiner plays, he averages over 20 minutes a game, but most of the time he’s sitting. It’s almost as if the team had him walk into the office and told him “we want you in the lineup, but only if you can be a first pairing player”.

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That above balance is tough, but I am puzzled by the use of Mark Fraser over Gardiner. While this blog does often use statistics to make a point, I think solely relying on any one statistic is setting yourself up for ruin. If Fraser isn’t a plus-18 (I think he was one of the league leaders in +/- at one point. He’s been on the first page since the third week, it’s seemed) than no doubt Gardiner or John-Michael Liles are playing next to Franson. That pairing got put together, had success for 15 games in scoring chance differential and just sort of stuck.

But here’s the thing with Fraser’s plus/minus, and I have mentioned it many times, but he and Franson have been lucky enough to be on the ice when Kadri scores goals. No regular Leaf this season has been on the ice for a higher overall team shooting percentage than Fraser this year: 14.8% when he’s on the ice! In fact, he leads all NHLers with a minimum of 20 games in that stat category.

That of course helps his plus/minus number climb. But what is on-ice shooting percentage really telling is? That Fraser has been lucky or that Fraser makes plays that help create quality shots? I can tell you it’s not the second. Fraser has just eight assists all season, and one of them was on this play:

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Fraser doesn’t stand in front of the net to create screens. Fraser isn’t an offensive defenceman who distributes the puck or finds space in the offensive zone. There’s not much he does in the offensive zone, and it would be a fallacy to say that his play leads to the creation of odd-man rushes since you can find a dozen goals he was on the ice for where he had no effect on the play whatsoever.

Due to Fraser’s success in that statistic, that almost certainly regresses to the mean (remember, we’re only halfway through a normal season right now) he’s a difficult guy to make an argument for removing from the lineup. Remove him and it creates an issue, or some sort of belief among the players that even if they’re playing well, they’re at risk to be replaced. It’s difficult to evaluate psychology from afar but I can see where that may have an effect on you.

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Anyway the general point is that Carlyle has used that success, through luck or some awesome talent nobody knew Mark Fraser had, to help slow Phaneuf’s minutes. Even when the games mean things, Phaneuf’s been playing less, and the third pairing has been playing more. Average ice times:

I couldn’t find anybody to use as a proxy for the second pairing, since Mike Kostka, John-Michael Liles, Ryan O’Byrne and Carl Gunnarsson have all sort of bounced around on that pairing this season. O’Byrne has played 17 minutes in seven games with the Leafs, which for TOI purposes puts O’Byrne on the third pairing, since Franson and Fraser have averaged about 21 in the last seven games.

To Carlyle’s point, Phaneuf’s already seeing fewer minutes. His role is slowly being reduced.

But more to Anthony’s point: this is an opportunity for Carlyle to damn the torpedoes and rotate the second/third defensive pairing. There’s bound to be some opportunity cost by the Leafs refusing to play Gardiner, Liles and Gunnarsson in the same game. The team gives up tons of shots without Gunnarsson in the lineup and Liles is skating mighty fine this year. Just because Gardiner isn’t good enough to be in the top pairing every night doesn’t mean he can’t play in place of Fraser on the bottom pair. They’re both left shooters and Gardiner is the more talented player.

There’s also Mike Kostka to consider. He does play on the right side but his demotion has shown off a little of the “we’re just making this up as we go” quotient of the Leafs’ thinking. He didn’t commit any terrible sin to be permanently placed outside the top six, except happen to be playing the position that Dave Nonis had eyed for Ryan O’Byrne.

Strictly speaking, the team gives up fewer shots with Kostka on the ice, and the only real change in usage is that Kostka starts a higher rate of his shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive. O’Byrne is surely a nice fellow but his main attribute is not being Korbinian Holzer. Kostka, when not playing thirty minutes a night or playing on the top pair, is quite useful. Him and Liles weren’t bad together, but he also played with Jake Gardiner in the AHL and that was a good pairing. Carlyle got to scout all the Marlies defencemen during the lockout and chose Kostka for opening night and not Fraser. Did enough info change over the next 30 games to warrant Kostka’s permanent exclusion from the lineup?

Meanwhile, Cody Franson who has played well in minutes independent of Fraser, could use this silly season as a chance to show off how he can play in the top four. Give him a few PK minutes for good measure, just because I’m interested.

So you have three games to kill. Knowing you can sit Phaneuf and Gunnarsson while you wait for the clock to hit zero, in the meantime these combinations are available:

John-Michael Liles – Cody Franson
Jake Gardiner – Mike Kostka
Mark Fraser – Ryan O’Byrne

At the start of the year we assumed Kostka was giving Carlyle foot rubs and cupcakes every day. All of a sudden he developed calluses and being using non-name brand icing. I’d love to see Gardiner and Kostka get a few more looks at the NHL level together, and there is a time for it. There’s a time when you can sit Fraser because you know you have better players behind him without the fear of making it look like you’re sitting your best plus player.

Either he started seeing something different that none of us are seeing or he’s trusting that plus/minus statistic a little too carefully.

And you know, play Kostka, just in case you need him. You need to know who he can play with come playoffs.

Unrelated note yet interesting statistic: Couldn’t find a place to work this in above, but I ran some numbers and found the importance of Carl Gunnarsson. He’s played 34 games in the lineup and in those 34, the Leafs have been outshot 27.4 to 31.8. In the 11 games when Gunnarsson is hurt the Leafs have been out-shot by an impressive 24.5 to 34.6.

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  • MaxPower417

    This post is seemingly based on the premise that there is nothing left to play for. However, I’m worried about the Isle passing the Leafs and bumping them to 6th. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather the Leafs face the Habs than the Caps in the first round.

    If they win tonight then maybe there is enough separation to consider doing this for the last two games, but for tonight I’d like to see a strong lineup. By all means sit Fraser though.