Over the weekend, Ontario-native and sun-drenched Kitsilano resident Blake Murphy made an excellent case in breaking down the debate between the “advanced” statistics relating to Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski. It’s true that there are some good metrics out there used for evaluating certain aspects of defensive play that, yes, some NHL teams do use in making player evaluations, but I don’t think that the concepts are particularly advanced. There is definitely a lot of opposition to the objective reaction of Dave Nonis’ recent moves which is based on some mis-understandings.
But I want to circle back to Tyler Bozak, and I want to hammer home this point because Kessel will likely re-sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs and play out a large chunk of his career in Toronto, including the portion of his career where he can no longer be counted on to score 30 goals a season. Without a legitimate No. 1 centre by his side, he has become one of hockey’s most productive wingers, and barring his slump at the start of the season when pucks weren’t going in, an absolute treat to watch down the stretch and into the playoffs.
On the TSN Free Agency broadcast, I was a little peeved that the only regular panelist that seemed to encroach on my belief that Tyler Bozak’s contract was not a positive for the Leafs was Ray Ferraro. In The Reporters segments, Bruce Arthur straight up called Bozak a “lousy player” but that wasn’t about it. I noticed towards the end of the coverage, the tone had changed from “will Nonis get his man” to “Bozak isn’t a No. 1 centreman… but he’s not being paid like one” which sort of misses the point.
I haven’t yet gone to check what other teams are paying their No. 1 and No. 2 centremen, but we’ll have to check that at the start of the season once the rosters are set. The Dallas Stars introduced Tyler Seguin and Shawn Horcoff today, making $5.75-million and $5.5-million against the cap, respectively, and they’ll be the No. 1 and 2 centremen for the Stars. I don’t think that Bozak is even making what would be considered second-line centreman status, but that’s not really the point. The point is that Dave Nonis had the following good players:
- Phil Kessel
- Joffrey Lupul
- Mikhail Grabovski
- Nikolai Kulemin
- Clarke MacArthur
- James van Riemsdyk
- Nazem Kadri
- Jay McClement
- Dion Phaneuf
- Carl Gunnarsson
- Cody Franson
- Jake Gardiner
- James Reimer
I’m unsure on whether Lupul’s offence really washes out his defensive ineptitude, but let’s keep him there regardless. When injuries forced Bozak and Mark Fraser out of the lineup in the playoffs, we saw a different team. Granted, it was only three and change in games, but the Leafs seemed to work much better as a unit with those working parts making up the core. When Dave Bolland came along, you could have made the argument (and I did) that with Bolland pushing Grabovski and Kadri up the depth chart, the Leafs centremen were improved.
But that was torn down, and it leads to a lot of questions of who was “traded” for whom. Was Grabovski traded for Bozak? Grabovski for David Clarkson? Grabovski for David Bolland? There seems to be three “one or the other” options, but if I were running the Leafs, I would have sprung for Grabovski, Clarkson and Bolland and found a way to work that under the cap, since those are the three best players of the four.
Nonis didn’t. He went with Bozak, Clarkson and Bolland, and regardless of the end of this statement, I think it’s pretty obvious that the Leafs were making a bet between Bozak and Grabovski:
“How Randy uses him you can easily draw that conclusion,” Nonis agreed of deeming Bozak a better fit for the club than Grabovski, denying however that their choice came down to one player over the other. “Not that Grabo isn’t a great player, it’s just for us, Bozie is a better fit; plays more minutes. But it wasn’t about Grabo or Bozak.”
I think it’s an awful bet, and it has nothing to do with Corsi, Fenwick, PDO or whatever a few people in the comments will accuse me of doing. Not everything is about “advanced statistics”, but it’s just basic player forecasting. In the last six years, we have so much more data to work with than we ever did, and a lot of it is breaking down some of the old thoughts about hockey, which has changed so much in the last decade.
Gare Joyce, in his criticism of certain metrics, seemed to side with scouts that have “worked decades in a hockey rink”. It doesn’t seem to matter to guys like Joyce that the game has changed, and perhaps some scouts have kept up with that and some haven’t. The ability to raise the puck with a shot would have been seen as a huge plus in the 1950s, I’m guessing, but with the advent of curved sticks, it’s a real basic skill that anybody can do by the time they’re 8 if they’re playing hockey. There are so many good hockey players coming from so many non-traditional spaces and probably 1000 of them could be successful NHLers, but the league only has room for 690. The 800th best player in the world looks really really good and can do all these things, but he barely looks worse than the 500th best in a neutral setting? How do you make a decision between the two?
You can go to a junior rink and in any given night, watch a dozen guys that you could see being in the NHL. “He’s so fast” “he’s so big” “he’s so talented” but realistically if you’re watching a junior hockey game, just one of them will be an effective player. The gap between success and failure is so slim and in a salary cap league with a limited number of contracts and roster spots, teams need to weigh a lot more information than in the past when making choices.
Do I think that the Leafs weighed those things? No. There is a distinct lack of objective data that would show Tyler Bozak is a better bet than Mikhail Grabovski. I’ve covered that hundreds of times on this blog. Just for the hell of it, here are two more charts. Over the last three years, I looked at the three players that had at least 200 minutes with both Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski, and compared their goals and points numbers over 60 minutes of even strength time:
Simple, right? It’s not like this is fairly advanced. You are taking the raw points number (you can find them on Hockey Analysis’ player pages, for Grabovski here and Bozak here), dividing it by minutes played with the player, and multiplying by 60. There is nothing advanced about it, and yet Steve Simmons calls Grabovski the “lone wolf” and calls these metrics painfully advanced, because a) it is unlikely he can add 3 and 4 together and b) after being on Brian Burke’s bad side, Simmons wants to suck up to the new regime and break more stories.
As an outsider, I have no reason to feel like I’m on the inside or break stories. I watch the Leafs because I like watching the Leafs and I like maintaining this blog, and when the Leafs are worse, then that just makes my nights worse. I’m quite sure that the Maple Leafs do not use resources like Hockey Analysis to make decisions.
“If you go back and look at (Bolland’s) junior numbers, they’re exceptional,” Nonis told reporters at the NHL draft, referencing the 299 points Bolland scored during 254 games with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. “He played behind some pretty good people (in Chicago) and I think Randy won’t pigeon-hole him as a third-line center. I think he’ll probably be put in more of a prominent role with us than he was in Chicago.”
Emphasis mine. What’s wrong with that? Well, it’s patently false.
Joel Quenneville did not pigeon-hole him this year. Bolland played all but 33 minutes of his 5-on-5 time with Patrick Kane, who had a 45.0 percent Corsi rate with him, and 56.3 percent without, while Bolland’s second-most frequent linemate, Patrick Sharp, had a 41.9 percent Corsi rate while skating with Bolland, compared to 59.8 percent without.Bolland’s overall Corsi rate was 44.7 percent.
Okay, maybe those numbers are a little more advanced, but it’s worth taking into consideration that Nonis went on record saying that he’ll have a prominent role in Toronto, while completely ignoring the established fact that David Bolland’s two most prominent linemates in Chicago this year were Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp! That is the key here, not the Corsi, or any other metric. I don’t care about Corsi when looking at Dave Bolland, because for two-and-a-half seasons, he was the team’s primary option in the defensive zone and should be expected to have a low Corsi rate. This year though, he lost his full-time job to Marcus Kruger, and then Chicago went and traded for Michal Handzus to replace him in the lineup. Michal Hanzus is a formerly good two-way centreman that worked his way onto a Chicago roster that was starved for centremen.
Nonis didn’t seem to realize that. I would bet money that Nonis spent more time on Dave Bolland’s HockeyDB page checking to see where he was born than he did tracking video to see how David Bolland was deployed in Chicago’s lineup. It’s not rocket science, and nothing is advanced.
The good news is that the Bolland bet can a) pay off, and the Leafs will have a good defensive centreman this year or b) not pay off, and he’s gone this year. It’s risk-free. Long-term deals to Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson are not, and buying out your best two-way centreman to make room for one of them is catastrophically stupid.
Actually, the move itself isn’t catastrophically stupid. It’s “understandable” for a new general manager who saw his superior get fired by new ownership and figures he needs to lead the team in a new direction. It is catastrophically stupid that the Leafs don’t seem to be consulting any outside data that would have given them the slightest hint that perhaps they were betting on the wrong space on the roulette board.
To quote a line from 21 I guess, the Leafs aren’t card-counting. They’re gambling. They’re hitting on 17 based on a gut feel. If the bet works out, it is not with any information we currently have available, it would just be based on blind luck.