On handedness and the Maple Leafs’ defence corps

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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke/TSGPhoto.com

There’s been a lot of talk about Matt Hunwick on the Leafs side of the internet in the past few days. Part of it comes from an interesting piece on Pension Plan Puppets from Arvind on Morgan Rielly’s defensive partners, that largely came to the conclusion that his pairing with Hunwick was a bit of a tire fire. The next day, a post on /r/Leafs questioned the predictive qualities of Dominic Galamini’s HERO chart visuals, citing the last two years that show up for Hunwick as proof that there’s a lack of consistency.

Of course, anybody who puts more than a passing thought into this would know that Galamini’s visuals are designed to show you what’s happened in a clean format, rather explain why they happened, or how it can be applied to the future. They’re a way to easily consume some of the more mainstream production and possession analytics without having to search through a pile of results on Corsica or Puckalytics or whatever site you might use today. In that regard, they’re probably the best closer of the bridge between the casual and analytical fan that anybody has come up with.

Nobody should have ever used them to predict Matt Hunwick’s future; even the “predictive” bar at the bottom just reflects a history of repeat performance rather than an actual guess. That’s because teams aren’t built on a raw sort of relative Corsi and points-per-60; excelling in those regards is a sign of skill level, but there’s still a level of roster composition that has to come into play.

As Galamini has pointed out in his written work, shot handedness on the point is one of those things that has a proven value. Back in March, he wrote a piece on Hockey-Graphs where he mapped out the value of playing on your natural side.

His findings were as follows.

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 an incredibly steep number, considering that any +6.83 relative Corsi defenceman would be praised as being near the top of their class. For those who are more interested in the “eye test” than the numbers, there’s a lot of logic backing the end result of this.

Here’s what I wrote in a post about the Marlies’ shortage of right-handed defencemen two weeks ago:

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. 

Curious as to what kind of impact this made on the Leafs, I took a look at how they did this year when deploying two left-handed defencemen compared to using a left-handed player with a right-handed one.

Situation CF CA CF% CF%Rel TOI CF60 CA60
Left+Left 2105 2100 50.06 -1.29 2114.13 59.75 59.6
Left+Right 1441 1360 51.45 0.11 1486.73 58.16 54.89

The gap is pretty decent; not quite as big as the one that Dominic saw while using the league-wide, 8-year data, but you can see that the Leafs do a better job of suppressing shots when they have a right-handed player (Roman Polak, Connor Carrick, or Frank Corrado) on the right side. I wondered what could be keeping the left-handed shooters this close, especially when you consider that Hunwick/Rielly was the team’s de-facto first pair.

Situation CF CA CF% CF%Rel TOI CF60 CA60
Jake Gardiner + Left 832 718 53.68 2.34 777.83 64.18 55.39
Jake Gardiner + Right 475 453 51.19 -0.16 500.98 56.89 54.26

But then it hit me. Jake Gardiner breaks everything. The 26-year-old was the one sent out to make Dion Phaneuf look good, and it worked in spades; the two put up a 52.9% CF over 572 minutes before the former captain was traded to Ottawa. He also made basically everyone he played with better on both sides of the ice. It blows my mind that this fanbase still questions the kid; he is objectively the cheat code of this defensive corps. So let’s take Gardiner out of the equation and look at how these two scenarios stack up without him. 

Situation CF CA CF% CF%Rel TOI CF60 CA60
Left+Left (No Gardiner) 1273 1382 47.95 -3.4 1336.3 57.16 62.06
Left+Right (No Gardiner) 966 907 51.58 0.24 985.8 58.8 55.21

That’s more like it. Curiously, the Left+Right improves, but I think that has more to do with so many of their minutes coming from the Gardiner+Polak (49.03%) pairing. While Martin Marincin seems to do okay with some equally-handed partners, and a pairing of Rielly+Harrington did well in an extremely small 41-minute sample, most combinations of left handed shooters are a hot mess.  

Situation CF CA CF% CF%Rel TOI CF60 CA60
Hunwick+Rielly 689 750 47.89 -3.47 727.03 56.87 61.9
Hunwick+Other Lefts 173 206 45.65 -5.7 186.01 55.81 66.45
Hunwick+All Lefts 862 956 47.42 -3.93 913.04 56.65 62.83
Hunwick+All Rights 78 113 40.84 -10.51 81.3 57.57 83.4
Hunwick Overall 940 1069 46.79 -4.56 994.34 56.73 64.51

Interestingly, Hunwick doesn’t do particularly well in any situation. Playing with Gardiner gets him to 52.43% (starting to think Jake should’ve been a Norris finalist), but he’s just 38.18% with Marincin and 44.34% with Phaneuf, both of whom are also lefties and aren’t exactly mobile. Then there’s Rielly, who he fares better with, but the latter isn’t the case by any means.

Situation CF CA CF% CF%Rel TOI CF60 CA60
Rielly+Hunwick 689 750 47.89 -3.47 727.03 56.87 61.9
Rielly+Other Lefts 519 480 51.95 0.61 484.35 64.29 59.46
Rielly+Lefty 1208 1230 49.55 -1.79 1211.38 59.83 60.92
Rielly+Righty 192 200 48.98 -2.37 185.16 62.22 64.81
Rielly Overall 1400 1430 49.47 -1.87 1396.54 60.15 61.44

Rielly seems to be a shot bleeder no matter where he goes, but playing with others (especially Gardiner) seems to help him get the puck to the net just a bit more, which alters history to an extent. Gardiner and Marincin are both somewhat capable of keeping the puck away from the net when he’s on with them but tend to do a better job with it when with other partners. While Rielly is a dynamic young offensive defenceman who should only get better over time, I’ve got reservations in placing the blame on his pair entirely on the man next to him.

Now, back to Hunwick. He’s even worse when playing with a rightie, counter to the point we’re making, but it’s worth noting that 100% of that time is spent with Roman Polak; he had no opportunities to play with Connor Carrick or Frank Corrado.

Polak is actually a bit of a rule-breaker himself, in the sense that he was objectively terrible with anybody other than Gardiner or Martin Marincin, with the latter being the only player he was actually impactful with.

Situation CF CA CF% CF%Rel TOI CF60 CA60
Left+Polak 779 795 49.5 -1.85 837.49 55.81 56.96
Left+Other Rights 662 565 53.96 2.62 649.51 61.16 52.2
Polak+Marincin 325 267 57.47 3.87 339.3 57.47 47.21
Marincin+Other Rights 112 81 58.03 6.68 110.41 60.9 44

On the flip side of the coin, the Leafs are well above water, pushing 54%, as a matter of fact, when the right-handed shooter that their left-side defenceman is paired with is Frank Corrado or Connor Carrick. While both have been questioned for their lack of experience, their mobility and handedness alone seems to be enough to negate it.

It’s also worth keep in mind that, in the case of both players, we’re talking about once-touted defensive prospects that got lost in logjams; Washington’s being one of talent, and Vancouver’s one of questionable talent evaluation. That shouldn’t be held against them as long as they’re putting up the results, and with Corrado looking physically stronger as the year progressed and Carrick dominating in the AHL playoffs, it’s not crazy to believe that they can be full-time contributors to the Leafs.

Add in Nikita Zaitsev, who was undoubtedly the KHL’s best right-handed defencemen over the past three years and still has room to grow at 24 years old, and you have three very good options for pairing balance to go with what seemed like the nuclear option in Polak from last year.

dpairs

If I were a betting man, I’d guess that the Leafs were aware of all of this when making their offseason moves, hence the lack of aggressive push to acquire a defenceman. Their analytics guys aren’t slouches, and even if they were, Mike Babcock is no stranger to this idea. 

“We got seven left-hand D. I’d love (to have a righty), but how do you get it?” the then-Red Wings coach said to mLive reporter Ansar Khan at the 2014 Entry Draft. “It’s great to have this fantasy; like (general manager) Kenny Holland would tell you, there’s no tree. I’ve been all over him, but there’s no tree to grab them off of, so we’ll get what we get.”

It seems pretty clear to me that with the moves of the past few months, the Leafs are in a position where they can let their left defencemen focus on what they do best instead of having to compensate on the other side of the ice. While they have no “sure thing” talent on the right side, the group of Zaitsev, Carrick, and Corrado at least has a glimmer of promise and some already existent results to back it up.

How the lineups will pan out remains to be seen. I’d guess that Hunwick will get the short end of the stick on the left side, because the despite the fact that he was buried by playing with less than fitting teammates all of last year, he’s likely still not overly great. As for Roman Polak, well, he should at least be a good mentor to a very raw group, but I can’t see him drawing into a completely healthy lineup.

The Leafs probably aren’t losing sleep over that, though. Thanks to the potential for greater line balance (along with development curves and more time to learn the system), should be more effective in the year ahead than they were last season.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Do you realize all the flaws in this analysis?

    Hunwick-Rielly (lefty+lefty) playing against the top players in the world.

    Hunwick-Carrick (lefty+righty) playing against junk.

    You see! Handedness does make a difference!

    Also, Dion is a much, much better player on his off side. Gardiner is good, but this is, again, poor analysis. Look at Dion’s performance when Carlyle would play him on on the left side. Dreadful.

    Handedness does make a difference, but this isn’t the right way to go about it as other variables are changing when the switch is made. Namely THE PERSON YOU’RE PLAYING WITH, AND THE QUALITY OF THE PEOPLE YOU’RE PLAYING AGAINST.

    Also, you said that playing your off side off the rush and defending the blueline making is more difficult. This is incorrect. A right D that is playing the left side has a better chance of breaking up plays off the rush and standing players up at the blueline. You’re picking off passes on your correct hand and poke checks are done with your left hand, which is closer — and with more range — than on your proper side.

    Keep at it tiger.

    • a) QoC has been largely discounted as noise by the analytics community, mostly because it’s next to impossible to keep lines properly matched against each other. Players do better against weaker opponents but “who we want them to face” is a lot different than who they actually face.

      b) Dion’s issue wasn’t that he magically plays better on his left side. As you’ve said, quality of teammates matters (and is actually controllable), and his typical partners were Gunnarsson, Holzer, Aulie, Kostka, and others who were barely replacement level. The only two players that every really “worked” for him when he played right-side here were Beauchemin and Gardiner, so I’d be inclined to believe that it’s a matter of them being good rather than him being better on the off-side.

      That’s amplified by the fact that he looked stellar on the left of Karlsson, who is unmeasurably elite, and had numbers that weren’t great but better than most of his Toronto cases with Ceci, who is a righty but not really in the “good” territory.

      c) From a playing the game sense, I feel like I’d rather have my dominant hand than the extra little bit of reach, and for pass interceptions, you’re just as likely to be pivoting at the time of interception, so that’s kind of a wash.

      I do see where you’re coming from, but I think there’s more to consider before being so blunt and hostile in your response. Thanks for reading!

      • Kanuunankuula

        QoC is discounted by a fraction of the analytics community and it actually makes zero sense. Look no further than Hunwick playing on the first and bottom pairings and how he improved on the bottom pairing vs playing the best players in the world.

        We have years of data watching Dion play on his left and on this right. He’s significantly better on his right. Everyone knows this (except for the Ottawa Senators, apparently). Using the most extreme example possible — him playing with Karlsson — doesn’t change this.

        I know you make fun of the fact you’ve never played the game, but if you’ve played defence in a game, you’d understand that defending off the rush on your offside is more comfortable, but overall, it’s much easier on your correct side.

        And further, you’re conflating the thrust of the argument, which was that you don’t have a constant; you can’t have a scientific experiment if you’re playing with different players. *and* switching handedness. Further, it’s almost a certainty that they’d be playing with different forwards wihich further muddies the data.

        There’s no way to split it up accurately — to say nothing of the extremely small sample sizes used.

        • Kanuunankuula

          QoT is still much more important. Hunwick and Rielly pair is not good, since neither of them is very good at D.

          Also please don’t use the argument “never played the game”

  • JB#1

    I think Dion’s situation was simply that he had played more minutes on his off-side and therefore felt way more comfortable there. In essence, it was what he was used to.

    Babcock should be a little happier this season with the choices he has on defense as he has a good set of lefties (Rielly, Gardinder, Marincin, Hunwick) and now a pool of decent righties (Zaitsev, Carrick, Corrado, Polak) from which to choose. He’ll be able to tailor his line-up based on the opposition. Playing a heavier team like the Kings or Ducks? Insert Polak. Playing a skating team like the Lightning or Pens? Insert Corrado.

    It should be a fun season to watch our D-corp to see who is going to take the next steps.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Good article Jeff. I wish I shared your optimism though on Polak & Hunwick. Babcock is a great coach, but is not without his faults. Namely overplaying “his guys”, one of whom at least Hunwick seems to be.