The Leafs’ defence has been in a bit of a tailspin lately. There was that disaster in Carolina, allowing 73 shot attempts at even-strength. Over the last 5 games, they’ve allowed an average of 53 even strength attempts against, which is significantly higher than the current league average of 44 per game. Before this bad stretch, the Leafs were averaging 43 per game on the season, and in 5 games that has risen to 45.
In particular, this season has not been favourable for Nikita Zaitsev. A significant sectino of the Leafs community has turned on the player, in some part due to his contract, but also in some part due to his poor on-ice play. There’s no denying that betting 7 years on one year of NHL experience wasn’t a bet the Leafs should have been comfortable with. However, this doesn’t condemn Zaitsev to being bad, or even being overpaid.
So far this year, using Corsica’s “Adjusted” stats, Zaitsev has been a +0.63 relxGF% player (meh) and a -5.67 relCF% player (bad). Over his year-and-a-bit career it’s been -2.15 for relxGF% and -2.49 for relCF% (both kinda bad). So what’s going wrong?
Many have noted that his breakout has been piss-poor, relying entirely too much on chipping the puck out into the neutral zone, bringing us all back to the Randy Carlyle days. There’s also some concern he’s playing too much PK time, as he and Ron Hainsey are 1 and 2 in PK time among defencemen this season. This could definitely be leading to some fatigue which is hindering his abilities at even strength.
Last night’s loss to Washington had Jake Gardiner paired with Nikita Zaitsev, as has been the case since the start of the year. To start this season, the thought was that this would be a good top pairing, something the Leafs haven’t truly had since Kaberle/McCabe. Alas, this has not been the case. Twenty-ish games into the season this pairing has started to be supplanted by the Rielly – Hainsey pairing. It was always a 1A/1B situation, with the Borgman pairing being the clear 3, it just seems MoRon has become the 1A when they were originally slated to be the 1B. I believe as the season rolls on, this will continue to trend into a 1/2/3 pairing situation, as Babcock continues to favour the grizzled veteran Ron Hainsey (to some degree, deservedly). However, there may be an argument that sticking with and slightly adjusting the 1A/1B model would be the better move.
Here’s a table quickly showing the two pairings’ “adjusted” stats for this season:
|TOI||CF%||Rel CF%||GF%||Rel GF%||xGF%||Rel xGF%||PEN+/-||PDO|
Neither is really dominating, nor are they really being destroyed. It seems the 1A/1B balance has worked a lot better for these pairings. Last year we saw top pairing with Zaitsev and either Rielly or Gardiner get filled in for the most part. But there was another form that the top pairing took to note, which was Marincin and Zaitsev. Their “adjusted” numbers are below:
|TOI||CF%||Rel CF%||GF%||Rel GF%||xGF%||Rel xGF%||P+/-||PDO|
Those are some dominant numbers, in an admittedly small sample, but still really encouraging. They were able to shut the game down to a crawl gave them a significant shot attempt advantage. The goals didn’t go in their favour, but the 95 PDO is atrocious and with time as that corrected closer to 100, their GF% would rise accordingly.
I’m not here to argue the Leafs should call up Marincin (they absolutely should but that’s a different conversation). But is it possible there is something going on here they can explore?
Consider this Marincin/Zaitsev pairing for a minute and what might have made them so successful. Marincin’s strengths are in zone-entry denial and slowing the game down to a crawl to neutralize opponents’ offence. For Zaitsev, his strengths are maintaining the offensive zone with good cycling puck movement and good D-zone coverage. Neither excel at skating circles around their opponents, neither are good at transitioning to the offensive zone, and neither create offensive chances with dangerous shots/passes.
Now, consider this: is Ron Hainsey a better version of Martin Marincin? He has similar strengths in denying zone entries, and plays at a similarly slow pace. He does other things well and generally better, but stylistically it doesn’t seem like a stretch to compare the two players. Could it be a good idea to put Hainsey and Zaitsev together? I think so. Obviously, this is not a case where it’s something that Babcock & Co. definitely should be doing, but I believe there is a real need to get Zaitsev playing in a different role. Hainsey and Zaitsev already play the PK together, surely this could work at even strength.
The primary advantage to this is supposed to be Hainsey and Zaitsev being a good pairing, and obviously we don’t know that to be true until we see them play a stretch of 5-on-5 minutes. But there are other advantages.
If you find yourself in a game where you’re killing a lot of penalties, Hainsey and Zaitsev are going to be burning all of their energy up. In this situation, you can simply limit their icetime at 5-on-5 and give the other two pairings more shifts.
Additionally, the Leafs could re-unite their two most talented defensemen, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, on a single pairing to create an abundance of offence. The other option would be putting Gardiner and Carrick together, who were great last season, and Morgan Rielly with Andreas Borgman. But I think I prefer the former.
Things would have to be different, of course. Hainsey/Zaitsev would be a slow-pace pairing on a typically high-pace team in the Maple Leafs. Strategies would have to be molded around making this pairing fit, and I don’t claim to have any idea what I’m doing in that regard. All I can say is I think this is an interesting idea, and if things keep going bottom up defensively for the Leafs, maybe it’s an idea for they can explore.