Determining the optimal Leafs defensive pairings using WOWYs

Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Since the return of Jake Muzzin to the Leafs lineup it seems that the Leafs have been undergoing an attempt to optimize their blueline for the playoffs and with nine games remaining it’s likely we’ll see a number of unique pairings that haven’t been considered before a couple of dress rehearsals with the likely duos.
While there are flaws to WOWYs, some of which include minimal context and smaller sample sizes, I decided to take a look at what seems like they’d be the top 5v5 pairings moving forward for the Leafs. Starting with TJ Brodie, who plays the most 5v5 for the Leafs, I’ve paired the top minute defenders with their best statistical partner.

T.J. Brodie

WithTOI WithCA/60CF% WithGA/60GF% WithHDCA/60HDCF% WithHDGA/60HDGF% With
Morgan Rielly794.6353.1652.242.4954.1711.9348.871.8144.19
Justin Holl304.4049.8753.232.5651.858.4862.281.3858.82
Jake Muzzin127.6753.5856.822.8240.0011.2856.361.4125.00
Rasmus Sandin33.6774.8540.003.5633.3312.4830.003.560.00
Timothy Liljegren25.9743.9053.662.3166.6713.8645.452.310.00
Ilya Lyubushkin14.2380.0945.710.00100.0021.0828.570.00100.00
Mark Giordano10.2246.9857.890.00100.0011.7533.330.00100.00
Pair with Holl. The eye test has been awfully cruel to Justin Holl this season. At times it seems he’s facing the opposite direction, and at a complete loss for who to cover when playing in the high danger areas of the Leafs zone. Despite these negative perceptions of him, a number of the Leafs defensemen either played their best hockey with him on the ice with them, or close to it.
Holl’s WOWYs:
WithPositionTOI WithCA/60CF% WithGA/60GF% WithHDCA/60HDCF% WithHDGA/60HDGF% With
Jake MuzzinD449.7059.3750.113.3441.8611.2154.351.6047.83
TJ BrodieD304.4049.8753.232.5651.858.4862.281.3858.82
Rasmus SandinD132.8052.8652.441.8166.679.4958.821.3657.14
Morgan RiellyD40.7748.5768.272.9477.7813.2557.141.4783.33
Mark GiordanoD38.7255.7950.006.2033.337.7554.554.6540.00
Maybe this Simpson’s quote applies to Justin Holl: “I think Smithers picked me because of my motivational skills. Everyone says they have to work a lot harder when I’m around.”
Whatever the reason, playing Holl with Brodie makes sense, and it’s not surprising that Keefe had been trying that more and more prior to the return of Jake Muzzin.

Morgan Rielly

WithTOI WithCA/60CF% WithGA/60GF% WithHDCA/60HDCF% WithHDGA/60HDGF% With
TJ Brodie794.6353.1652.242.4954.1711.9348.871.8144.19
Ilya Lyubushkin172.5056.3551.353.1350.009.7458.211.0450.00
Timothy Liljegren130.1555.3259.605.0760.7114.2960.262.7764.71
Rasmus Sandin51.1569.2148.705.8728.5717.6016.673.520.00
Justin Holl40.7748.5768.272.9477.7813.2557.141.4783.33
Pair with Lyubushkin. I’m starting to get the sense that the Leafs were looking to very similar data that I was and the return of Jake Muzzin is about seeing if he can usurp anyone rather than thinking that he is presently the best fit for the Leafs lineup. While Lyubushkin was most likely brought in to play in a second or third pairing situation, not with Morgan Rielly, the fact that he has greatly helped cut down on the high danger chances and goals when Rielly is on the ice is a positive. Overall, Brodie remains the best option when it comes to limiting goals, and the Leafs used Rielly in a greater number of 5v5 situations with Brodie, but Toronto seems to be about finding balance at 5v5, and the Rielly-Lyubushkin pairing does that. Ilya seems to be what Polak and Hunwick could never be for Rielly.

Timothy Liljegren

WithTOI WithCA/60CF% WithGA/60GF% WithHDCA/60HDCF% WithHDGA/60HDGF% With
Rasmus Sandin242.0049.0957.781.9861.909.4265.450.9966.67
Morgan Rielly130.1555.3259.605.0760.7114.2960.262.7764.71
Jake Muzzin117.4551.0952.153.0750.0011.7545.242.0442.86
Mark Giordano91.6843.1955.101.9657.145.2472.410.00100.00
TJ Brodie25.9743.9053.662.3166.6713.8645.452.310.00
Pair with Giordano. All roads seem to lead to Mark Giordano for Timothy Liljegren, who has thrived with Giordano more than any of his other partners, despite being pretty darn good with the lot of them. The fact that Giordano seems to be the greatest stabilizer in Toronto’s high danger areas for Liljegren is why this pairing makes the most sense, and with that being the area that Jack Campbell has struggled with the most in the latter part of the season, that should be heavily considered for all pairings.

The Extras

WithTOI WithCA/60CF% WithGA/60GF% WithHDCA/60HDCF% WithHDGA/60HDGF% With
Timothy Liljegren242.0049.0957.781.9861.909.4265.450.9966.67
Justin Holl132.8052.8652.441.8166.679.4958.821.3657.14
Ilya Lyubushkin56.4545.7052.222.1360.006.3850.001.0666.67
Morgan Rielly51.1569.2148.705.8728.5717.6016.673.520.00
TJ Brodie33.6774.8540.003.5633.3312.4830.003.560.00
Jake Muzzin28.1372.5149.258.5320.0021.3337.506.4025.00
WithTOI WithCA/60CF% WithGA/60GF% WithHDCA/60HDCF% WithHDGA/60HDGF% With
Justin Holl449.7059.3750.113.3441.8611.2154.351.6047.83
TJ Brodie127.6753.5856.822.8240.0011.2856.361.4125.00
Timothy Liljegren117.4551.0952.153.0750.0011.7545.242.0442.86
Rasmus Sandin28.1372.5149.258.5320.0021.3337.506.4025.00
Both Sandin and Muzzin wound up on the outside looking in due to their injuries, but the burden has to be on them to make a strong case for playing in the postseason. If Muzzin comes in, it seems like his ideal partner would be Brodie, and as for Sandin, a sheltered kids third pairing with Liljegren looks like the best alternative.
It’s kind of funny that we’ve seen a lot of the ideal pairings as of late, but we just didn’t seem to notice it. I’m going to take that as a positive sign that the Leafs do in fact know what they are doing, but remain concerned about the Jake Muzzin factor.
There is likely going to be a strong desire to play him in the playoffs as he is a more physical option than Liljegren, and experience is going to carry weight in comparison to a rookie who may seem like an easy choice to scratch.
The good news is that we know from Muzzin’s injury last year that there is a strong need for a quality 7th or 8th defenseman, and the Leafs have that this go around. Unfortunately, they just don’t seem to have the same version of Jake Muzzin that had last season.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick
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