via Wikimedia Commons
Pension Plan Puppets have released their official list of things they would like to see the Leafs do between now and October, and seven of the wishes in some way have to do with the defence. Get a Top Four defenceman! Shore up the bottom pair! Buy-out Mike Komisarek!
The defence remains an issue. The Maple Leafs allowed 32.3 shot against per game last season. Quibble all you want about the “quality” of all those shots, but if you look at the stylistic comparable to the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs, you wind up with the drastically out-shot Montreal Canadiens of 2002, who allowed 32.7 shots against per game. In 2003, they allowed a similar number of shots (31.7) but won six fewer games. Eventually, bad habits catch up and the Maple Leafs right now have a very thin defence.
So let’s break it down.
So the first issue is that the Leafs have five defenders under contract for next season and two of them aren’t NHLers. It’s pretty much a done deal that Toronto are going to use one of their two amnesty buyouts on Mike Komisarek, although if they have $4-million in space prior to the end of the offseason, there’s no problem if they eat it for another season and they’ll have two in the 2014 offseason. Those can be used to help teams stuck with bad contracts unload those players along with prospects for late picks.
So the first major issue is Carl Gunnarsson. The Leafs need to get him re-signed, because he’s a key to their first pairing.
First pairing: Dion Phaneuf – Carl Gunnarsson
In 2012, the Leafs’ captain and highest-paid player managed a positive Relative Corsi of 3.3, and was a close to neutral puck-possession player with a Corsi On of -0.36. “Corsi ON” refers to the average on-ice shot differential for a team with a player on the ice, averaged over 60 minutes of play. “Relative Corsi” subtracts a player’s “Corsi ON” from his “Corsi OFF”, in an attempt to measure how a player performs relative to his teammates.
So considering this was a top-pair defence that played against some of hockey’s best forwards, it was a pretty good pairing. Not “great”. “Great” is tough to achieve, but if you look at defencemen with 18+ minutes and a Corsi Rel QoC (read: quality of competition) of above 1.300 since 2007-2008, Phaneuf actually ranked sixth out of 17 defencemen in Corsi ON and third in Relative Corsi.
That pairing wasn’t “great” or “all-world” in 2012. That would be Duncan Keith’s 2010 season, and Ryan McDonagh’s 2012 season. But they were a dependable first pairing on a team that really needed a dependable first pairing with a rookie Jake Gardiner in the top four and a former No. 5 overall pick Luke Schenn who had completely lost his legs from a solid 2011 campaign.
This year? Well, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson were broken up from the start and weren’t put back together in mid-March, right after the Leafs’ 3-1 loss to the Penguins on the 14th. Phaneuf had spent time on the top pairing with Mike Kostka, and then Korbinian Holzer, as Randy Carlyle tried to get Phaneuf playing on his natural side. It didn’t really work too good.
But Gunnarsson and Phaneuf together this season were by no means an excellent pairing. Phaneuf’s quality of competition nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013 and Gunnarsson, who spent much of the season hurt, couldn’t help bail out Phaneuf. Phaneuf ended with a Corsi ON of -18.16 and Gunnarsson with -14.21. It did not help that they played much of their minutes with the shutdown unit of Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin, started primarily in the defensive zone and didn’t get much of a chance to generate an offensive attack.
Thing is, they each had a poor season (Phaneuf’s best numbers by Corsi were with Mike Kostka) but played the toughest minutes of any player in the league. We’ve all seen the usage chart with Dion Phaneuf’s big red lonely circle in the upper left (tougher) portion of the graph, and Gunnarsson nearby.
First step to helping this pairing succeed in 2013-2014 is to ensure Gunnarsson is healthy, but also not bank on them in such tough situations. No other defencemen play minutes like that. If Carlyle keeps the minutes close to what they were like in 2012, where you’re playing nine minutes a night against top competition rather than 11, and those extra minutes are spent in the offensive zone trying to score, I’m reasonably confident that Phaneuf-Gunnarsson can still be an above average top pairing.
Second pairing: Jake Gardiner – Cody Franson???
This one is a little up in the air. Cody Franson played with Mark Fraser on the third pairing this season, then they became second pairing players as Carlyle upped their role midseason. After Fraser took a puck to the face, minor-league callup Gardiner got put with Franson on the Leafs’ second pairing and they didn’t look back. The pair were on the ice for the overtime goal in Game 7 against, but I don’t think it’s possible to look at the way that pairing played in the playoffs and suggest that they didn’t do enough together to at least not earn a look going forward.
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve written before about Gardiner’s quality of competition in his excellent 2012 campaign. I think Cody Franson—if the Leafs get him re-signed—is good enough defensively to play on a second pairing, but I’m not quite sure Gardiner is there yet. The Leafs would sleep easier if they were more sheltered and playing on offence—similar to the minutes that Mark Fraser and Cody Franson got alongside Nazem Kadri this year. During Kadri’s scoring surge, he frequently played with Fraser, and despite Fraser never contributing to scoring chances, his plus-minus hit +18 at one point and he reached “unsung hero” status on the Leafs.
But Fraser is a restricted free agent, and frankly, once you factor in that the Leafs can’t possibly keep Gardiner off the big club now, the fourth best left side defenceman on the current roster. Fraser is a tough customer and if you absolutely need a player who can throw punches, it’s better to have him than dress an extra specialized fighter as a forward since Fraser can contribute in his own end. Beyond that, he’s fairly limited. It’s terrible to possibly lose a job to injury, but after Fraser went down in Game 4, the Leafs played some of their best hockey of the season.
The John-Michael Liles question
Should the Leafs buy-out Liles or no?
It really boils down to who you’d think would replace Liles, who was in and out of the lineup all season, his first after signing a four-year extension that was concerning at the time. Since his concussion in 2011-2012, Liles hasn’t found a regular shift. His most common partner in 2013 was Mike Kostka, at 132 minutes (and the two were close to even in Corsi and puck-possession).
The issue with Liles-Kostka is while they were moderately successful, that was mostly in third-pairing minutes. They were put together after Fraser and Franson had made the jump to the second unit, meaning Liles could have some success in fewer minutes against easier opponents.
Liles was 4th in Corsi among Leaf players this season, but he had the 3rd easiest quality of competition, the highest offensive zone shift start rate, and 6th in ice-time. Given Liles’ history as a good possession player, there’s reason to believe he can bounce back, but the Leafs would have to risk him being effective on a second pairing.
That said, there aren’t many UFAs at his price tag (a little under $4-million) that you could expect to do as good a job on the left side as Liles. Among defencemen under 30, you’re looking at players like Grant Clitsome and Jordan Hendry as your top two options sorted by ice-time. Most of the best defencemen appear to be locked up by their clubs, so perhaps a dip into the offer sheet or trading market is required.
Then there’s the question of who plays next to him. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Leafs took Kostka back (and he’s preferable to Ryan O’Byrne, as it turns out) on a cheap deal for a year while they wait for one of the prospects on the Marlies to develop into a real, live NHLer.
As for Liles, I’d hold onto him for this year and see what he can accomplish with a regular shift. Unless you can get a guy like Keith Ballard out of Vancouver for absolutely nothing, there’s no point in using one of your two compliance buyouts on a player that you have no cheap way of replacing.
As it was last summer, what separates the Leafs from having a real competent defensive unit is the right side, second pairing defenceman that hasn’t been around since the team traded François Beauchemin. We’re just where we were a year ago, except more confident in Cody Franson’s ability, less confident in Dion Phaneuf’s ability and Carl Gunnarsson’s health.
Now, this is the offseason where Toronto has to negotiate with Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson, so perhaps it wouldn’t be the wisest to anger the rest of the league and start handing out offer sheets, but there are some real interesting names that make the exercise pretty tempting.