Welcome to Round Three!
Generally, the Friday TLN Roundtable is where our smart and handsome writing staff take turns tackling the tough issues, but we’re switching this up a bit this time around. Last week, you got to check out some articles from the five finalists in our Next TLN Blogger contest. This week, we gave them the keys to the Roundtable and told them to be back at a reasonable hour.
The question I posed to our finalists…
Who will be the Leafs’ *surprise* player this upcoming season? (Good or bad.)
Check out the answers below and when you’re done, leave a comment and let us know who had the best answers. Be part of the process! Democracy!
I’m choosing Nazem Kadri as my surprise player for the Leafs next year. I realize that we probably all expect Kadri to develop and grow as a player, but I think that he’s poised to have a breakout season bigger than any of us expect, for all of the reasons listed below.
1) He won’t be second fiddle to Tyler Bozak much longer
A lot has changed in the brain trust of the Leafs. The additions of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Cam Charron, Darryl Metcalf, and Rob Pettapiece to the front office signal a new analytics based approach to the on-ice product. Kadri is an analytics darling, while his competition as a top-six center, Tyler Bozak, is, well… not.
As well, new assistant coaches Peter Horachek and Steve Spott won’t be tied down to the line combinations Randy Carlyle trotted out last season, and will bring fresh ideas to the coaches meetings.
Speaking of Carlyle, who knows if he’ll even last the whole season? If he’s fired, perhaps a new coach will increase Kadri’s ice time. If there’s ever a time for 28 year-old Bozak to lose that first line job or cede 24 year-old Kadri some first unit power play time, this is it.
2) He’ll start his shifts in the offensive zone more often
Zone Start (ZS)% tells us a lot about how a coach utilizes a player by tracking where he starts shifts, and has a significant impact on a player’s performance over the course of a season. Kadri had the highest offensive ZS% at 5v5 (among players who played more than 200 minutes) on the team last year at 49.3%, meaning that he was used as much as possible in an offensive role.
It’s an open secret that a lot of the bottom-six forwards the Leafs brought into the organization this summer were sought after because of their good possession statistics. Booth, Komarov, Winnik, Santorelli, and Frattin bring much better possession numbers to the table as an overall group than their predecessors Raymond, Kulemin, McClement, Bolland, McLaren, and Orr.
This likely means that the Leafs will spend more of each game with the puck in the opposing team’s end this year than they did last season, which will lead to more offensive zone faceoffs. It’s very reasonable to expect the whole team’s offensive ZS% will bump upwards, with Kadri riding the crest of the wave. Let’s say that 50 faceoffs he would’ve taken in his own end last year are now taken in the opposing team’s end; that could lead to 2 or 3 more goals over the course of the season.
3) He’s entering his prime
Eric Tulsky, who was hired by an unknown NHL team this summer, wrote an interesting article on how the average player’s point production changes with age, which you can find here.
He found that most players peak offensively at around age 24-25 and then decline slowly for the rest of their career. This is good news for our boy Nazem, as he turns 24 two days before the season begins.
Jonathan Willis, a writer for OilersNation.com in The Nation Network and for Sportsnet, used Tulsky’s NHL aging curve as a tool to help project possible goal scoring totals for players on the Oilers; I’ve added a link here to the first piece of the series, where he explains his methodology if you’re interested. Using Willis’ procedure, I came up with a conservative estimate of 25-28 goals for Kadri this season, a huge jump from 20 a year ago.
Kadri has the potential to be a fan favourite here in Toronto. He’s got a chippy edge that he combines with slick skating and great hands, and he could be a Leaf for a very long time. He stands to make huge leaps and bounds in his offensive game as he grows into his prime, is utilized more effectively, and the team around him gets better. Add in that this is a contract year for him, and all of these factors could mean a perfect storm is brewing for Nazem Kadri, Toronto’s next big surprise.
Petter Granberg. Now, unlike a lot of people who seem to be pumping his tires, I actually think Granberg will be a surprising player for the Leafs this season in a bad way. I just think that there are a lot of signs that point towards him not being as good as people might think, especially when you’re using shot-based metrics. Let me explain.
Fact number one: Petter Granberg had 38 shots on goal in 73 games played for the Toronto Marlies last season. Fact number two: on average, 56% of an AHL player’s shot rate is maintained in their transition to the NHL. Using this math, Granberg’s shot rate at the NHL level would translate to 24 shots on goal over an 82 game season, or a shot-per-game rate of .29. Only two NHL defensemen had a similar shot rate last season: Chad Billins and Mark Fraser. So that right there is a pretty big red flag.
Now, in fairness to Granberg, he was a 21-year-old AHL rookie playing his first full year in North America last season. However, I averaged out the shot rate of every European NHL defenseman that played at least 30 games in the AHL at the ages of 21 and 22 in recent years. What I found was that in their 22-year-old season, those defensemen’s shot rate only increased, on average, by .05. In other words, the shot rate of Granberg isn’t likely to increase by very much, if at all.
Lastly, and this is just to reemphasize my point more than anything, AHL shot rates are a good indicator of a player’s potential NHL readiness. Most AHL defensemen that can average within the vicinity of 2.00 shots-per-game have a good chance of playing at the very least a few NHL games, whereas players below 1.00 shots-per-game usually don’t have much of an NHL career to look forward to. All in all, of every AHL defenseman that played at least 1 NHL game last season, the average shots-per-game of those players in the AHL was 1.55. Petter Granberg’s 38 shots in 73 games are good for a .52 shot-per-game rate, which is actually the very worst shot rate of any of the pool of players I just mentioned (unless we’re counting Mark Fistric’s .50, though he played just 2 AHL games). There are 99 players that fit the criteria I just mentioned. So out of 99 defensemen that played in both the AHL and NHL last year, Petter Granberg ranks dead last in shots-per-game. The next worst player in this regard, Denis Grebeshkov, had an AHL shot-per-game rate of .61, which actually leaves a pretty sizeable gap between him and Granberg. And by the way, overall just 14 of those 99 players we’re talking about had a shot-per-game rate below 1.00.
While it’s maybe oversimplifying things to say that Granberg is going to fail because he didn’t have a lot of shots in the AHL last year, the evidence is strongly against him. For that reason, while many people think he could be a really nice piece for the Leafs this season and beyond, I think his place for the foreseeable future is most likely with the Toronto Marlies.
Before I start I’d like to define some of my criteria when making my selection for who will be the most surprising player for the Leafs this year.
First, I’m answering this question only taking into consideration the current Leafs roster. Many players had a strong rookie tournament showing, and while some, such as Nylander, had particularly strong performances, whether they’ll be a permanent fixture on the Leafs roster for the 2014-15 campaign remains to be seen.
Second, I’m answering this question considering strictly on ice performance only. There are many events which could take place off ice during the season which could drastically shape the way a player’s year, possibly even career, unfolds. These kinds of things are hard to account for.
Finally, again, current roster members only. Meaning I’m not including former Leafers Mason Raymond, David Bolland, or Nikolai Kulemin (now joined by Mikhail Grabovski on the island) because in traditional fashion I’m sure they’ll all go on to have productive years as most do when traded away from the Leafs.
So who do I think is going to be the most surprising player for the Leafs this year? David Clarkson. In a good way. That may be the easiest answer but I’m not being lazy in making that choice.
So why is this surprising? For us, the ones who look at hockey analytically, it isn’t. But we have to understand that we are a very small population of fans which look so critically upon the team, well critically with some stats to support our reasoning, any Leafs fan is a self-proclaimed pundit. For the average Leafs fan, the overwhelming majority of which make up the general fan base, any kind of improvement from Clarkson is seen as surprising.
It would take some kind of miracle for Clarkson to have another year like he just had in 2013-14 with the Leafs, statistically his worst year since becoming a regular in the league. Though Clarkson only dressed for 60 games the past season he’s proven before that he is capable of producing better numbers over a shorter period of time. In 2009-10 he only dressed 46 games for the Devils but still earned 24 points, and again he produced 24 points during the lockout shortened season in 2012-13. Will Clarkson ever again be the 30 goal scorer he was in 2011-12? Probably not. And I think most of us would be okay with that.
What Clarkson needs to focus on doing is taking scoring off of a pedestal and focus on playing his game. We all know how snake bitten Clarkson was last year but part of it, I as well as many others would argue, was because he was too focused on scoring. If he focuses on playing his game the points will come, he’s had a full year to settle into the day-to-day of what it means to be a Toronto Maple Leaf and I fully expect we’ll see a much more settled player this year. Clarkson can speak to teammate Phil Kessel who once struggled with the same issue, or may even want to consider picking up Derek Sanderson’s book Crossing the Line in which the former NHLer discusses the same struggles he faced with scoring when returning to the league.
Clarkson’s three years in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers from 2002-2005 was spent under the guidance of Peter DeBoer and more importantly Steve Spott who now joins the Leafs this year from the Marlies as an assistant coach. Spott knows the kind of capacities Clarkson plays well in, but more importantly the systems which best suit his playing style. Given yesterday’s kerfuffle with Kessel over Spott’s systems I’d say that’s a good sign that the assistant coach is being given some big responsibilities early.
Clarkson played on the second line with Lupul and Kadri for most of last season, if he stays on this line he has the potential to produce points. Arguably Lupul and Kadri are better linemates than Clarkson had in New Jersey during the 2011-12 season in which he recorded a career high 46 points. Though rumour has it he may be demoted to the third line for this season. Given Nonis’ recent comments about the amount of ice time we can expect from the bottom six this year I expect we’ll still be seeing a lot of Clarkson on the ice definitely doing more with the scoreboard than what we saw before.
Aren’t you excited about William Nylander?
The young forward was picked high in the draft for his high-end skill, and some scouts had him rated even higher than the eight spot, where he was taken.
He’s confident, he’s highly skilled and you totally have a right to be excited by him.
You know who else you should be excited about?
He’s a young forward who was picked high in the draft for his high-end skill.
He’s confident, he’s highly skilled and he’s already put up a 50-point-season at 23-years-old.
Nazem Kadri is going to surprise you this year.
After a “lackluster” performance in the eyes of some last season (it wasn’t) Kadri is poised to show you that you haven’t seen the best of Nazem Kadri.
But how will he show us, you ask? Why will this be his breakout season?
Carlyle on Lupul-Bozak-Kessel: “We played them in Anaheim. They kicked our butt.”
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) September 18, 2014
Randy Carlyle and the Leafs coaching staff are considering putting Lupul back on the first line.
This sort of tinkering bodes well for Kadri, because if Lupul ends up on the first line, that drops James van Riemsdyk back to the second line on Kadri’s left side.
Just imagine a Kadri feather pass to JVR. It just feels right.
Kadri played most of last year with a jumble of wingers on his right side, most notably Mason Raymond and David “square peg in a round hole” Clarkson.
With the potential of having JVR on his left side and the added depth at wing, there will be fierce competition for that 2nd line right-wing spot. Hopefully there will be at least one combination that gels.
Or hey, maybe, just maybe, they will finally give Kadri a long look on the first line.
Stranger things have happened.
If Cam Charron can join the Leafs front office, Nazem Kadri can play with Phil Kessel at even strength.
With the backing of a few of the analytically minded in the front office, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Kadri could be entrusted more minutes.
With the bottom half of the line-up filled out with guys like Daniel Winnik and Leo Komarov to eat up the tough minutes, look for plenty of offensive and neutral zone starts for Kadri.
More minutes and even more starts in the offensive zone for Kadri mean more points. More points mean more points in the standings. More points in the standings mean, well, you get the idea.
Over the last two seasons, Kadri is second behind only Phil Kessel in Points/60 played at even strength.
Not to mention he actually leads the Leafs in primary assists at 5v5 over the past two seasons, with 32. (Kessel has 30.)
But enough about silly, advanced statistics like “points,” Kadri was also the strongest possession player among Leaf forwards last season with a Corsi Rel of +7.7%.
No one on the team was a possession world-beater, but Kadri routinely held his head above water better than any other Leaf forward.
If you go back to 2012-2013, Kadri was third among all forwards in Corsi Rel, with the only two players ahead of him being Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur, also known as two of his more frequent line-mates. (MacArthur was first, Frattin was fourth.)
Yes, he played softer minutes, but the numbers are encouraging, particularly for someone on such a woeful possession team.
This is a big one.
The theory about NHL players and their peak age is of constant debate, but a recent study places its beginning around age 24.
Kadri turns 24 on October 6.
The Maple Leafs are under new management.
The old guard is going to have to try everything to win hockey games and when they try Nazem Kadri more, they’ll find that it is in their best interests… but only if those interests involve keeping their jobs.
Kadri, who enters his prime with a clean slate and a new management team more in line with him philosophically, will be the Maple Leafs (not so) surprise player this season.
Morgan Rielly’s sophomore season will be a surprise in the truest sense of the word.
Drafted 5th overall in 2012, Rielly’s 27-point rookie campaign this past year was a bright spot in an ultimately disappointing Leafs season. Smooth-skating and offensively minded, most would agree the Vancouver native performed admirably in his first NHL season. Having no shortage of talent but still room to grow, Rielly’s ceiling appears to be high.
Looking to select a ‘surprise’ player might lead one to try to find a player putting up a career high in points or a steep decline from their usual production, but Rielly isn’t tabbed as a surprise player because he’s going to break out or break down. Instead, Morgan Rielly’s 2014-15 season will be a surprise because it’s nearly impossible to know quite what to expect for and from him this upcoming year.
Rielly’s second season with the Leafs won’t make or break his future as an NHL defenceman, as it appears like he’s well on his way to becoming a very solid blueliner. Being one of just five defenceman born in 1994 or later to play at least 70 games last season, it’s clear Rielly’s valued among the elite of his draft class by his team. A report from Sportsnet analyst Nik Kypreos earlier this year indicated Rielly is viewed as one of the Leafs’ most valued assets.
— Nick Kypreos (@RealKyper) June 6, 2014
Whether the Leafs’ recent changes in their front office will think otherwise about moving these players is unknown, but it’s unlikely the Leafs believe trading a budding talent such as Rielly is an answer to any problem they’re currently having. So even if Rielly’s one of the key pieces in the team’s long-term future, how exactly he’ll contribute to the current roster is anybody’s guess.
Questions loom of how exactly head coach Randy Carlyle sees Rielly fitting in to his lineup. With who, where, and how often Rielly plays are factors that will directly affect Rielly’s performance and growth.
Rielly started his shifts in the offensive zone more than any other Leafs defenceman last season, an indicator that he hasn’t earned the trust of Carlyle in many situations just yet.
Additionally, much of this year Rielly will play with a new partner, as 409 of his 1088 5 on 5 minutes came with either Tim Gleason or Paul Ranger- that’s over one-third of his even strength minutes. With both of those teammates now gone and an absence on the top pairing due to the Carl Gunnarson-Roman Polak trade, the Leafs defence corps will have a makeover compared to last season. Although some combinations are more realistic than others, Rielly’s main partner and expected ice time is still undetermined.
In his rookie season, Rielly played just over 10:18 on the Leafs penalty kill the entire year. If Carlyle offers Rielly a shot at killing penalties could have a direct impact in developing his defensive game, or at least add a new tool to his skillset.
But perhaps where Rielly is most valuable (and underused) comes on the power play. This past year, Rielly ranked 1st on the team and 7th league-wide for 5 on 4 (power play) points per 60 minutes of ice time for defenceman (minimum of 100 5 on 4 minutes), a seemingly incredible feat for a first year player. It may appear that’s a remarkable stat for Rielly to hold (and might lead one to wonder why Rielly’s not used more on the power play, as he was just the fourth-most used defenceman on the Leafs roster). Whether Rielly should be used more on the power play is one thing, but it’s a whole different matter whether he will be.
However, further probing offers insight as to how these numbers came about. Rielly’s on-ice shooting percentage (that is, the shooting percentage of his teammates while he was on the ice) under the same parameters was first in the league out of all defencemen at 18.63%, partially contributing to his 11 power play assists. For the unfamiliar, having a high team or individual shooting percentage is often a sign of an expected large regression the following year. That may be the case with Rielly, but his production may still go up with more power play time.
Essentially, we’ve got more questions about Rielly than answers, many which are dependent on Carlyle’s confidence and flexibility with the sophomore. 2014-15 will be a surprise for Morgan Rielly- imaginably moreso for him than anybody else.