Despite having all the players, the Marlies have one key hole

Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/

Last night, we talked a bit about the Marlies bringing back Brett Findlay and having Patrick Watling on the Solar Bears, available for whenever they may be needed. After all, AHL teams need to have depth even more than their parent clubs do, with call-ups being just as much of a risk to their roster composition as injury.

Certainly, that problem is being solved and then some; by my present estimates, Toronto has enough forwards to dress more than eight lines, to go with nine defencemen and three goalies. Needless to say, until trades and injuries start hitting the top two clubs, the Solar Bears might have the best forward core the ECHL has seen in a while, but despite this massive crowd, I do see one issue at the middle-most level.

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That issue lies in the defence. The Marlies’ current core consists of Viktor Loov, Justin Holl, Ty Stanton, Willie Corrin, Andrew Nielsen, Rinat Valiev, Nikolas Brouillard, Andrew Campbell, and Travis Dermott. It doesn’t exactly have a TJ Brennan on it to expect to score a billion points, but Nielsen and Dermott should bring some youthful production punch while Loov, Holl, Campbell, and Valiev control the neutral and defensive zones. The other three can come in as necessary, and everything will be great. Right?

A fitting word, that last one. Because of those nine men, only Justin Holl is a right-handed shot.

For whatever reason, defensive shot handedness is oft-ignored in both the old-school and new-school communities. It’s strange, given that there are arguments for addressing it from both perspectives.

For example, there’s this piece from friend of the blog Domenic “Mimico Hero” Galamini from back in March, where he searches for a quantitative value in playing on your natural side. The entire article is worth a read, especially for the more mathematically inclined, but this point is the smoking gun:

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It turns out that an unsuitably handed defenseman must have a CorsiRel that is greater than or equal to 6.83 Corsi events / 60 better than a suitably handed alternative in order to be the better option to pair with a partner-less defenseman on the roster.

That’s a pretty huge gap. We’ll go into this more another day, but it could explain some of the big club’s issues too; like how Morgan Rielly had better goal based and shot based metrics across the board playing with Frank Corrado or Roman Polak, rather than with Matt Hunwick, who is typically an analytics-friendly player but cratered under a year where he played tougher minutes, but perhaps just as, if not more importantly, played with an off-side partner for the large majority of the time.

For those who shy away from numbers, applying the eye-test to this theory should be even more damning. While an off-handed defenceman can tee up a one-timer pretty well (looking at you, Dion Phaneuf), that advantage is nullified and then some by the deficiencies it creates on the side of the game they’re paid to play.

When you’re on your off hand, board play becomes extremely more difficult, as you either have to switch to your backhand or turn around to address an issue. It makes things like closing gaps along the boards during dump outs/ins much more difficult and shutting down zone entries off the wing an exercise in futility. It means that attempts at pass interception are more difficult unless you’re closer to the recipient, which in an odd-man situation would be the wrong position. You have to either trust that your body can do the talking, still limiting your surface area of strength, or that you’re as strong backhanded or one handed as you would be with both hands on your stick facing the right way. In short, it just makes things harder on yourself. 

Given that Mike Babcock is known to be a fan of left-right balance, the Leafs have made strides to address this and are expected to have four right-handed defencemen in their lineup next year in Polak, Corrado, Connor Carrick, and Nikita Zaitsev. The latter two, in particular, appear to have upside that makes them quality additions regardless of handedness, but there’s no doubt that the Leafs kept this in mind. But with the Marlies, it’s just Holl.

Left Side (15/16) Right Side (15/16) Left Side (16/17) Right Side (16/17)
Andrew Campbell (L) Rinat Valiev (L) Andrew Campbell (L) Rinat Valiev (L)
TJ Brennan (L) Justin Holl (R) Travis Dermott (L) Justin Holl (R)
Viktor Loov (L) Stuart Percy (L) Viktor Loov (L) Andrew Nielsen (L)

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Interestingly enough, the Marlies had this same issue last year, with five of their six regular defencemen being left handed shots. This is presumably one of the reasons that David Kolomatis, who isn’t overly talented but shoots on the right side, managed to sneak in 23 games last year. Of course, Toronto was able to score away their problems until running into a red-hot Justin Peters in the Eastern Conference Finals, but there were many nights where the defence did them no favours. Toronto did finish in the top half (11th) in shots against in the regular season, but one could guess that’s because they spent so much time in the offensive zone. Modern hockey at its finest, and supported by the third-best goalie group in the league, but when they’d get burned, they’d get burned hard, hence the occasional 10-5 or 9-8 final.

That makes me wonder a little bit about the thought process here, given that many of the same people making the decisions on the Marlies roster are making them up top, and that “luck of the prospect pool draw” can’t really be blamed with Stanton and Corrin being AHL signings.

On the wrong side to try to force a play along the boards, Stuart Percy makes a less than optimal but best available decision to skate back before the Albany defenceman even begins to dump the puck. Right-Handed defenceman Justin Holl goes on to set Kasperi Kapanen, who attempted to force a misplay in Percy’s place, up for the goal.

Does the team feel that their left-handed players are that much better than the available right-handed talent over the past two seasons? Are “AAAA” right-handed defencemen more likely to get NHL contracts and playing time (looking at you, Mike Kostka) due to their being fewer of them to choose from, therefore limiting their selection pool? Or is the hope that, because this is a development team, that having a few particular defencemen play their off side so they can learn trickier manoeuvres in uncomfortable positions will help them in the NHL? Tough love, if you will?

I wouldn’t expect any immediate changes, though. Even if the Marlies side of the brass sees this as an immediate issue as I do, there probably isn’t anybody on the market who is worth limiting the minutes of a Dermott or Nielsen. Once a few players move around up top or injuries begin to happen, though, I’d be checking in on some of the fringe UFA righties on the market. Even adding one more would be a huge safety net, especially with Holl now being a call-up candidate with his NHL contract.

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