The Leafs made the wrong choice sending Gauthier to the minors

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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

To get this out of the way off the start, here’s a link to TLN’s own Dom Luszczyszyn‘s piece on why fourth lines and bottom pairs matter. Great, now that that’s out of the way… 

The Leafs sent down Frederik Gauthier to the Toronto Marlies yesterday. Ben Smith was able to come off of the Injured Reserve and join the team to re-claim his spot at the team’s fourth-line centre for last night’s game. So, between Gauthier and Smith, they chose Smith. But, based on what we know, they were 100% wrong.

Let’s knock off one-by-one the possible explanations why this could have been a good idea. To start off with some quick ones:

  • It has nothing to do with the expansion draft. Ben Smith doesn’t qualify for the 40/70 rule as a UFA, and Gauthier doesn’t need to be protected. If the Leafs plan on signing someone just to expose them, I’d rather it be one of the other plentiful UFAs that will meet this rule, in case they don’t get claimed.
  • It has nothing to do with trade value. Ben Smith has been on waivers this season and has had injury problems. No one is going to trade for him knowing they can get him on waivers, should they actually want him.
Now for the real meat.

BEING GOOD AT HOCKEY

The first possible reason is that Ben Smith is just better at hockey than Frederik Gauthier. Let’s look at some possession-based stats (prior to last night, where Smith was a team worst 35%) to see if that’s the case.

Player Relative To CF60 CA60 CF% ixG60
BEN.SMITH
Team
-17.37 4.99 -9.54 -0.25
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER -8.42 -6.78 -0.67 0.05
BEN.SMITH
League
-7.15 7.07 -6.23 -0.20
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER -2.74 -3.30 0.29 0.10

Stats are 2016-17, 5v5, Score, Zone and Venue Adjusted from Corsica.hockey

The table shows that in every aspect, Gauthier is the better player. So that’s a pretty huge loss for Smith. In case anyone is wondering, Gauthier has played 18 games and Ben Smith has played 24. This Sample Size Analysis tool from Emmanuel Perry suggests that at this point, we have a R2 of approximately 0.35. You’d like to get closer to the 35 game mark, but right now we don’t have that option.

RESULTS

Maybe it’s not numbers that predict future quality that Babcock and Co. are interested in. It could be that Ben Smith has had better goal based results, and that is working in his favour. That’s something that coaches definitely use. 

Player Relative To GF60 GA60 GF%
BEN.SMITH
Team
-1.03 -0.35 -10.82
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 0.63 -0.23 9.05
BEN.SMITH
League
-1.49 -0.42 -14.95
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 0.17 -0.22 3.95

Stats are 2016-17, 5v5, Score, Zone and Venue Adjusted from Corsica.hockey

That table should speak for itself, but if it’s necessary to add to it: Gauthier absolutely eclipses Ben Smith in terms of how well their time on ice has gone thus far, in terms of goals.

USAGE

Well, obviously Mike Babcok simply believes he can use Smith as more of a defensive specialist, right? Clearly Ben Smith is more capable of being the defensive load bearing wall of the forward corps. Right?

Smith and Gauthier have basically the exact same role. Sure, Smith faces tougher QoC rel CF% (not a reliable metric anyway), Gauthier gets tougher zone starts. So it’s a wash.

INTANGIBLES AND OTHER CRAP

Surely, then, it has to be all of the other elements of the game. Ben Smith must be good in the room! And also there’s no doubting his faceoff prowess. And toughness! You have to have toughness in the NHL.

NHL Fights Hits per game FO% Post-game interview skills
BEN.SMITH 0 0.8 54.59 Link
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 1 0.7 54.62 Link

Stats are from NHL.com (ugh)

It seems unlikely that smiling, lovable Goat is bad in the room compared to monotonous blob Ben Smith. And given that everything else is a wash, there’s no reason for Ben Smith to win this battle etiher.

CONCLUSION

This is a complete and total win for Frederik Gauthier. There are only 2 reasons I can think of that could possibly be steering the Leafs in this direction.

  1. Waivers. Smith would have to be on waivers to be sent to the Marlies. But given how he looks in this piece, that might be a good idea anyway.
  2. Internal metrics. Some might have noticed I left out Corsica’s xGF numbers. This is because they aren’t as predictive as CF. But Smith has a stark advantage over Gauthier there. It’s possible the Leafs have a metric that is better than Corsica’s xGF, that paints Smith in a good light. That actually is plausible.
But all in all, like the introduction said, based on what we know, the Leafs made the wrong call here. 

    • tealeaves

      From what I have seen of the folks on twitter and PPP, the right answer appears to be to use the stat that most reflects your personal opinion of the player.

      • Ben

        Then it seems like looking at both would be particularly useful right now.

        Smith has an xGF% of 53.5, compared to Gauthier’s 45.2. Pretty big gap.

        Great news for Gauthier is his xGA/60 and CA/60 (just the defensive side) are both best among current Leafs forwards. He also started more frequently in the D-zone than Smith. So he appears to be the best pure shutdown guy we’ve got, which is pretty fantastic. Only thing I’m not sure is if there was a big difference in the competition Babs let the Goat go up against.

  • jimithy

    Meanwhile. Austen Mathews is sitting on the bench waiting for his shift and watching his team mates on the ice, when it suddenly occurs to him that #42, #25, #8, #43, #51, #12, #18, #44 and #52 are not very good hockey players. Then he takes off his helmet, scratches his head and lets out an inaudible sigh, puts his helmet back on and gets ready to hit the ice.

  • DukesRocks

    Good article Ryan, but some of Bab’s decision defies logic sometimes. If you polled Leaf fans and asked based on performance who would they choose… a very high percentage would say Gauthier. I’m not overly concerned with the decision. What is interesting is: what Babs said to Gauthier before being sent to the Marlies. He wants him to go down and dominate, which he believes he can do. This statement makes me think that Babs holds Gauthier in high regard and is aware that Gauthier is the better option over Smith. Another thing interesting is that Babs stated he sees Nylander as a future centre. Since we’re getting into the silly season of trades, sending Gauthier down may have something to do with it. The person I see being moved is Bozak, how would this effect the Leafs lineup? If Bozak is moved, does Nylander move between Marner and JVR? Or will Babs go with Mathews, Kadri, Gauthier and Smith at centre? I don’t know, maybe sending Gautheir down might have something to do with burning a year of his contract. I feel many of Leaf fan questions will be answered between now and trade deadline. We’ll just have to see how all these decisions play out.

    • Kevin

      The Leafs are thin at center both at the NHL level and prospect level. They will not trade Bozak (with another year on his contract) and while they will likely ease Nylander into the role, that will not be this year.

      • DukesRocks

        Agree with the Nylander statement, however in reference to Bozak and others on trading block. It really depends on what make sense to the Leafs. The strategy of building a contender depends on many things like expansion draft, needs etc. If the return for Bozak makes sense to advance the build, I don’t see them waiting due to depth at centre. Currently the Leafs are not contenders for the cup and I don’t see Bozak as a key piece, he will be traded at some point.

        • Kevin

          You make a good point, the Leafs will make transactions based on the future and not necessarily their current needs. I just see JVR as being the most valuable (to other teams) and don’t think Bozak will garner enough of a return to justify trading him at this point. Next year with him being a UFA (at the trade deadline) will be different, I think the Leafs would be willing to trade him to recoup assets.

          • DukesRocks

            It is interesting that the perceptive market for Bozak is low. I find this strange when he’s between 50 to 60 points for the season, therefore making him a bonafide 2nd line centre that is good on the draw. This year he will have one off his best years. As they say when you play the market, sell high. I’m hoping the Leafs can get a legit young top 4 D for JVR. Anaheim has some depth at D and JVR would be a perfect fit there.

          • DukesRocks

            The next 3 weeks leading up to the deadline will be interesting. I was watching the other Greenway brother at the WJC. Man I wish he was a Leaf prospect. Good drive, size and can skate. Hope the Leafs can get their hands on him.

          • LukeWarmWater

            Wow brother Luke we do think alike I just posted a comment to Dukes a minute and go and you said exactly what I had to say as I hadn’t scrolled down enough to see your comment.

          • DukesRocks

            Lol, just checked my email and see reply from Luke. Wondering why is he replying with the same comment. Then I read the great minds think alike and the light bulb went on… oh is my other brother Luke. With the Aves asking an arm an a leg for Matt Duchene, Teams might see Bozak as a bargain.

          • LukeWarmWater

            Kevin the timing of dealing J.V.R. is crucial. I don’t see a deal at the trade deadline as any team talking Stanley Cup isn’t going to give up good talent to get J.V.R. and if it was say a first round pick again, that pick would at best be 16th or higher. So in the off season, then leaping Lou can wheel and deal J.V.R.

          • Kevin

            It just depends on the type of return. The main component could be a prospect rather than a pick. However, with the Leafs in the thick of the playoff race and the expansion draft on the horizon, the most likely time for a major trade would be following the expansion draft. I don’t see the Leafs doing much at the trade deadline this year, they already purged themselves of unfavorable contracts last year and there aren’t many expiring contracts (or rentals) on the roster that would bring much return.

  • Simon Bud Wake

    I would guess it has more to do with development than the Leafs success this year. I guess they feel like right the difference between Gauthier and Smith, isn’t enough to effect their playoff chances, and more time in the Marlies developing his offensive game will help make Gauthier the better player for years down the line.

  • STAN

    It’s clear to longtime Leafs fans and ardent Leafs-watchers that to the naked eye ( xyNFE/2 ) Gauthier is better than Smith in virtually all aspects of the game. His skating was his weakness, but he’s getting better at that every day. It’s still not his strength, but if it every is… watch out ( wGS/4).

  • Kevin

    The Leafs see Goathier as more than a fourth line center who plays 10 minutes a night. It makes more sense for him to be in the minors refining his game and have Smith take the fourth line center position. Babcock trusts Smith who also happens to be the second best Leaf on faceoffs and can be an effective role player on the team. I wouldn’t have an issue with him being resigned to a cheap one year contract as he can provide some depth (both on the Leafs and Marlies) if he is not taken by Las Vegas in the expansion draft.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Smith got injured playing for the Leafs. What sort of management would waive a guy a soon as he is healthy enough to play? The team owes him a couple of games to get back in shape.

  • Stan Smith

    I think back to comments made by pretty much everyone in Leafs management that has been interviewed, and they have said that any moves the Leafs would make would only be made with the long term future of this team in mind.

    That, plus Babcock’s comments to Gauthier about going down and being a dominant player, makes me think that while Gauthier was doing an equal job as Smith, if not better, at 4th line centre, that management feels he can be much more, and that playing a higher role with the Marlies is the better option for him.

    • Ron K

      You are absolutely right Stan. The Goat was sent down to hone his game and get more playing time to do so. He’ll be the 4th line center come September and will undoubtedly get called up this spring should the Leafs make the playoffs. He’s definitely in the long term plans.