Hemming and hawing about line combinations

Leafs practice at Boston University (via @mirtle)

So Mike Kostka broke his finger at some point during Game 1. I have a hard time believing after his performance in that game that he’d draw back into the lineup for Game 2 regardless, but with the injury we can put him on the shelf, probably for the rest of the season. He’ll probably end up as a free agent this summer, sign with a team like Pittsburgh and have success with a team that deploy hockey players like rational adults, or he’ll sign with a team like Carolina and have success with a team that has a truckload of ex-Maple Leafs.

But the injury does open up a roster spot for Game 2 of the series that runs on Saturday. The smart money is that Ryan O’Byrne gets the call, because he’s a right-shooter, and it’s the playoffs so it’s more physical and blah blah blah blah blah.

Either way, Jake Gardiner is probably not going to see time unless the team really needs to do something drastic.

The Bruins out-shot Toronto 40-20 in Game 1 and literally everybody is talking about it. Jim Hughson said on the broadcast to the effect of “I don’t know much about advanced stats, but I do know that if you don’t have any shots it’s tough to score” which is true, even if shot statistics are about the furthest thing from “advanced stats” you could find.

Gardiner is, realistically, the best offensive defenceman that the team has. He has the most skill, the most awareness when he jumps up into the play and the most proficiency in the offensive end. Having good offensive end proficiency does equal good defence, because when your team has the puck, the opponent sure as beans doesn’t. There’s nothing advanced about that concept, it’s just that calculating who is on the ice for which shot deviates from the normal NHL Event Summary.

While Kostka is the man who is out (and honestly, he’s in my ideal Top Six for the guys on the Leafs current roster. I think he’d do fine in sheltered minutes with John-Michael Liles. They’ve had some relative success together this season at with the Leafs getting 49.2% of the shots when they’re on the ice) it is almost a certainty that Ryan O’Byrne will be the player who is in. Carl Gunnarsson works from the left side. John-Michael Liles works from the left side and Mark Fraser works from the left side.

It’s increasingly obvious that Carlyle will never pull Mark Fraser out of the lineup. Fraser started the year as a scratch, then had some success in the third pairing with Franson and now they’re an inseparable second pairing despite losing a lot more battles than they’re winning in scoring chances lately. I’ll have a more complete analysis of that pairing when I get around to it once the season is finished.

For now, shots for and against, Leafs left-side defencemen:

  Shots For Shots Against For %
Gardiner 9.5 10.2 48.2%
Fraser 9.0 10.5 46.1%
Gunnarsson 8.5 10.6 44.7%
Liles 8.0 10.3 43.6%

Fraser’s numbers are a little skewed because he got to play so much with Nazem Kadri this year. Why Gardiner isn’t the lineup over Fraser or Liles at this point though… ergh. I like Liles, but the only left side defenceman better than Jake Gardiner the Leafs have is Carl Gunnarsson, and his numbers are increasingly skewed because he plays with Dion Phaneuf against the David Krejcis, Rick Nashes and John Tavari of the world on 70% of his shifts.

The other thing to note is that “shots against” per 20 minutes is pretty similar across all defencemen. The difference is mostly on offence.

If only Toronto had a healthy scratch who was good on offence they could bring in.

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

In the grand scheme of things, O’Byrne is O’Kay, as long as he isn’t playing a glutton of minutes or forcing better defencemen out of the lineup.

As for the forwards…

Big news today with Joffrey Lupul re-uniting with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. This isn’t a huge development. Randy Carlyle has tended to go with better line combinations in practice but changes them for the games.

Not sure why he flip-flopped Kadri and Grabovski last game. You get the sense Carlyle would be able to handle his bench better if he thought he had the pieces. Steve noted in the Game 1 LFR that Carlyle’s unit during the 2007 Stanley Cup run of Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer was one of the most consistently deployed. Like him, I thought at the time that Pahlsson ought to have won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his work.

This year on the checking line, Carlyle has used the following combinations:

Grabovski – McClement – Kulemin
Komarov – Grabovski – Kulemin
MacArthur – Grabovski – Kulemin
van Riemsdyk – Grabovski – Kulemin
MacArthur – Grabovski – Komarov
Grabovski – McClement – Komarov
Komarov – McClement – Kulemin
Hamilton – Grabovski – Frattin
Grabovski – McClement – Frattin

Every possible permutation of the Leafs’ third line appears to have been used for at least 1% of the Leafs’ season. That’s no small amount either: all these lines have been together for at least 24 minutes of time this season.

MGK, the line that was at one point called “the best second line in hockey” was together for just 62 minutes this season. Neither Grabovski, MacArthur or Kulemin can find a consistent place in the lineup together. I’d love to see them back together as a checking unit that gets a few offensive minutes. 


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Side note: I’m getting crunched in this:

Going with the safe picks tonight (or what should be perceived as safe) Anyway, it’s pretty fun and you can hop in at any time. Pick 8 games in a row (you can do this over the weekend no problem) and you have the lead. Sign up here and pick the winners each night.


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  • Jeremy Ian

    I watch Koska in the finals last yr and all this yr with the Marlies. He’s a good D. I was happy for him that he got to the show, was even happy with his play, for the most part. However, he should not play another playoff game for the Leafs. He’s not alone but gm 1 was the worst display of how to play defence I’ve ever seen. Atrocious. There is no good reason to keep Gards out for one more game. He is fast, and skilled and can’t be any worse in his own zone that anyone in gm 1. I think what Hughson was saying was he doesn’t understand advanced stats but he understands SOG and its tough to win if you only get 20 shots. He wasn’t putting SOG in among the advanced stats. Advanced stats make my hair hurt and after reading about them, I usually need a nap. I know this, I’ve watch and played hockey all my life and it looks like the Bruins have more skill than the Leafs. Well the good news is we have some skill, watching from the press box. Add speed a skill, add Garnier and Fratten and if you wan’t to get crazy, put jumbo Joe in as well. The few shifts I saw him play with the big club I thought he looked good. Don’t miscast him though, he’s never in his life been a 4th liner, he’s a second liner, put him there, tell him he’s in and if/when he makes a mistake put him back out there, nothing kills confidence like being afraid to make a mistake, that was Kadri’s problem last yr, kid was afraid to make an error less he be benched or demoted, look at him now!