Assessing the Leafs Offence Through Passing Data

Once upon a time the Toronto Maple Leafs had a player called
Phil Kessel. With this special player offence just kind of happened for their
hockey team and whether he was playing with Joey Crabb or Tyler Bozak he
managed to make goals happen. One day the Toronto Maple Leafs realized that
they were a pretty awful hockey team and decided to trade Phil Kessel to a
place where he could be happy and they could young players who might one day
make them better. Some fans accepted it, other fans did not, but all fans are
left with the one lingering question, “who will drive the Leafs offence now?”

Now, it seems pretty obvious to look at Phil Kessel as one
of the truly elite goal scorers in the league, and that’s because he is, but
what is often ignored was his playmaking ability, and the amount of offence
that he helped generate for his linemates. Kessel might have seen his personal
production drop last season, but the past two seasons have been career years
for both van Riemsdyk and Bozak, and the passing data from Ryan
Stimson of In Lou We Trust might show why

KesselPassChart

Without knowing what is being measured in the chart, it already
looks quite impressive, but here is the glossary explaining what you’re looking
at…

passingGlossary

A full background on this work, why it’s valuable, and
downloadable spreadsheet of pass data can be found here.
Please note the total time on ice tracked number, as there wasn’t a designated
Leafs tracker and represents just a fraction of the Leafs games.

The first two columns for Kessel are by far the most telling
as he was pretty much involved in every shot taken when he was on the ice and
that’s something that the Leafs simply can’t replace. His high involvement with
entry assists is something that we can also count on making Bozak slide further
and further down the depth chart next season, assuming he’s still a Leaf.
Kessel’s slight drop in the scoring chance contributions is likely attributed
to the more tentative, perimeter style played the Leafs top line last season as
van Riemsdyk was the only player who dared venturing into the home plate area,
with Bozak preferring the high slot, and Kessel owning the half boards.

As we alluded to earlier, the Kessel era is
over, and it’s now time to begin looking at who will be generating offence in
2015-16. Looking at Kessel’s former line mates we’ve got two very different
stories.

bozakjvrpass

On one hand, you have van Riemsdyk who is very much involved
in the creation of plays, and has no difficulty finding opportunities in the
high percentage parts of the ice, than on the other hand you have Tyler Bozak,
who amazingly enough, has very little involvement in creating shots and can’t seem
to find the most dangerous scoring area. Did we mention that he was the first
line center last season? When we take shots out of the equation, Bozak was
actually better at generating attempts than van Riemsdyk, this is most easily
explained by van Riemsdyk being willing to shot the puck frequently while Bozak
would prefer to find one of the two more capable finishers on his line.
Combining Bozak’s lack of involvement in the overall offense with his inability
to find players in the high percentage of the ice should mean that we see less
of him, while it’s even more clear that van Riemsdyk will be relied on to play
a bigger role.

In many ways, Bozak’s numbers are about on par with Nick Spaling,
who no one is expecting to be a top line player.

spalingpass

Sadly though, Bozak and Spaling are part of the small,
select group of the Leafs forwards who actually surpassed the 60th
percentile in any of the categories, even it was largely for hail mary entry
assists. Joffrey Lupul, Shawn Matthias, Leo Komarov, Peter Holland, and Richard
Panik did not surpass the 60th percentile in any category, and in
many cases they failed to exceed the 40th percentile. Lupul may have
had a historically bad season for himself, and Holland or Matthias may have
been utilized differently last year, but this is a significant part of the
Leafs offensive unit that was outperformed by the player who was the salary
dump in the Kessel deal. P.A. Parenteau’s scoring chance contribution numbers
place him above the 60th percentile and make him one of the more
valuable wingers for the Leafs. It should also be noted that data was not
available for Marc Arcobello.

The player who particularly stood out on the
Leafs and appears to once again be one of the best bargains in the league is
Daniel Winnik.

Winnikpass

While his scoring chance contributions, and corsi
contributions fell below the 60th percentile, his scoring chance
shots against generated is right up there with van Riemsdyk’s and his composite
shots and shot attempts generated numbers are better than Bozak’s. Given the
current state of the Leafs it seems highly likely that Winnik is a sound option
for the Leafs second line again this season, and optimistically there’s some
hope that Babcock sees the potential to utilize Winnik in a similar fashion to
how he has used Franzen and Cleary while they were in their primes.

Finally, for the forwards we have the next best
thing to Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri. Kadri has been buried on the Leafs second
line for as long as he’s been in the league, and rarely had the opportunity to
play with Kessel or van Riemsdyk. Instead he’s lugged around a declining Lupul,
and can likely be considered one of the reasons that Daniel Winnik’s numbers
look so good. When we Kadri’s numbers we see hope.

kadripass

Potentially seeing regular time with van Riemsdyk will allow
Kadri to benefit from JVR’s strong work in scoring chance areas while van
Riemsdyk will benefit from everything else that Kadri provides through being by
far and away the only reliable option at center.

Part of me wonders if this is too much on the same line and
if the Leafs to spread around the little talent they have, but a much bigger
part of me wants to see the best players get a chance to play together because
it hasn’t been fair to either of them to be separated in the past. Perhaps
utilizing Kadri and JVR as two thirds of the top line and Winnik and Parenteau
as two thirds of the second line might be the least embarrassing option for
Babcock next year.

Finally, there’s always help from the blue line
in the form of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. While the percentiles ranges
are just looking at defensemen and not including forwards, it’s clear that the
Leafs have a couple of their best drivers of offence playing the point.

gardriellypass

For comparison, here are Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith’s
charts…

keithkarlpass

With the exception of their entry assists, Gardiner and
Rielly are in fairly strong company, and you’d hope that under Babcock they
would see increased opportunity to share their gifts instead of being forced to
chip the puck out of the zone. While the tracked time for Marincin is even
lower than the numbers for most of the Leafs, he too has the potential to be a
valuable asset in improving the Leafs transition game, and could help replace
some of what the Leafs lost when Cody Franson departed.

While the Leafs are in no way expected to be a good team
next season, and in no way will a replacement for Kessel appear this season,
these numbers give some interesting perspective on how the lineup may best
shake out. Bozak and Spaling are by no means high caliber players, but both
look to be serviceable puck distributors. There is some reason to believe that
both Shawn Matthias and Joffrey Lupul can be better than their numbers indicate
and it will be interesting to see if how much time in the top six they receive
in an attempt to rebound. If Winnik, Spaling, and Komarov are used as third
line players, as they’ve often been in the past, is there enough ability shown
in the passing data that could make a case that they can provide some secondary
offence?

I feel it’s again important to touch on the limited amount
tracking time for the Leafs and how depending on whether the bulk of the games
tracked where under Carlyle or Horachek may tell a very different story. There
is also a very different story from if the games tracked were primarily October
and November while the Leafs enjoyed some success.  There is no doubt that this data is incredibly
interesting, and has the potential to be incredibly useful. It does seem to correlate
significantly existing possession data, but seems to touch on some differences
as to more specific contributions. Hopefully someone in Leafs Nation will step
up and do some tracking on the blue and white next season (won’t be me, but I
want your data) and we can have an even greater understanding of what direction
this team is heading in.

  • Well what about sample size huh? *flips computer*

    In all seriousness when I looked at this yesterday at ILWT, the first player I thought of searching was Rielly because I figured he’d be good in this regard. Nice that it lines up with the eye test.

  • I see two general themes in the blog entries I read here
    1. One is along the line that the new management are geniuses
    2. The second is along the line that bozak is terrible

    Funny how the current management cannot still figure out and act upon #2. But instead management has chosen to trade their best offensives player for another Bozak type player by this analysis. Yes management felt Bozak is so terrible so obviously the smart thing is to trade our best player for another crappy but cheaper clone of Bozak (plus other picks/prospects).

    More seriously, have you looked to see spalings WOWY for Crosby.

  • MatsSundin#13

    Is it too early to start predicting who the Leafs four centers will be? We know Kadri for sure, and Dubas said Spaling would “slide over to center for us”, and I would bet $ on Holland playing pivot, so I guess Bozie rounds out the group?

  • Kanuunankuula

    Fantastic article, this was a pleasure to read, and super interesting. Thank you for introducing me to how pass data is tracked, I’m really interested in it.

  • Kanuunankuula

    fml we’re officially stuck with bozak, lupul and robidas forever. should have traded bozak when he was on fire. maybe if we trade a player, they could be a package deal. I would have taken a 7th round pick for bozak/lupul to be gone. without kessel, bozak is useless. we’re screwed.