We’re 15 games into the season and we’re starting to get a clearer picture of what kind of team the Leafs are. They sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and have a record of 8-5-2. They have a Corsi of 47.52%. Guys like Phil Kessel and Leo Komarov have been awesome, while others like Stephane Robidas have not. For this article, I wanted to take a closer look at one small part of this Leafs team: how Randy Carlyle and the coaching staff are utilizing the players.
You can mostly tell which players play with which based on their proximity to one another. For example, Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel, and James van Riemsdyk are all closely cluttered to the center top of the chart. To make it easier to tell who is playing with who though, via LeftWingLock.com, here’s a list of the Leafs most frequent lines and pairings (based on percentage of even-strength ice-time together):
Leo-Komarov-Mike Santorelli-David Clarkson 11.03%
Daniel Winnik-Joffrey Lupul-Nazem Kadri 8.98%
Richard Panik-Peter Holland-Brandon Kozun 2.64%
Dion Phaneuf-Cody Franson 21.58%
Morgan Rielly-Roman Polak 14.17%
Jake Gardiner-Stephane Robidas 11.32%
- We’ve seen a bit of a juggling of checking lines this season, and that is reflected in this chart. It looks like the Leafs are kind of rolling a 1A and 1B of checking lines, with the first line facing tougher opposition but getting more favorable zone starts, while the (when the lineup is healthy) third line of Komarov-Santorelli-Clarkson is facing somewhat easier opposition while getting tougher zone starts.
- I gotta say, this chart just makes me appreciate Roman Polak even more. He’s looked solid for the most part this year and here you can see that he’s playing the toughest minutes on the team while also playing the most even strength minutes. Stuart Percy, who is paired with Polak when he is in the lineup, is also playing very difficult minutes (pretty impressive since he’s a 21-year-old rookie).
- The Leafs are doing something interesting with their fourth line. Panik, Holland, and Matt Frattin are all facing easy opposition but getting really low offensive zone starts. In other words, Carlyle is mostly using his fourth line against the other team’s third and fourth-liners, but he’s doing it in the defensive zone. So he’s saving the offensive zone starts for his more offensively-inclined players, but he’s doing it in a way so that the fourth line doesn’t get burned. I like that.
- Generally speaking, most of the players are playing pretty similar minutes, not on one end of the extreme of competition or zone starts spectrum. That goes back to the whole idea that’s been mentioned about the Leafs wanting to spread it out and not overburden their top guys.
IS IT WORKING?
Here’s the same chart, with the color of the circle now depicting Corsi Rel %:
Now here’s a comparison of the above chart (this season) with what it looked like last year:
There certainly are some improvements. For one, the top pairing (Phaneuf and Franson this year, Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson last year) are doing a lot better with easier minutes. You’ll also notice if you examine the numbers on each axis that Leafs players this season generally are playing easier minutes both in terms of competition and zone starts. And while the Leafs team Corsi% isn’t as high as you’d like it to be, it is a full 4.70% better than last season. How much of that is due to usage and how much of that is due to both a change in player personnel as well as a mild shift in team system though? That’s hard to say. Again, I didn’t want to so much criticize the coaching staff with this article as much as just highlight how the coaches have approached player usage so far this season. It will be interesting to see how much this usage shifts over the course of the season as the team succeeds or struggles and as the lineup continues to change by way of performance, injury, and transaction.
Need help understanding fancy stats, check out this Analytics Cheat Sheet