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Maple Leafs have too many defenders that can play — here’s who could be in

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Photo credit:Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Hobart
8 months ago
Recently, the Leafs have been on an insane shopping spree, primarily loading up their depth on defense. After acquiring Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson, the Leafs have 10 healthy players who have played at least 10 games this season. If we take out Jordie Benn, who seems pretty clearly at the far end of the depth chart, that’s still 9 defenders who theoretically should be playing. Unless you’re converting one or two of them to forward, or running 7 defenders with 11 forwards, there’s too many cooks in this kitchen. I’ve yet to see any analysis that says 11F/7D is a bad idea, but it feels like a bad idea. I’d rather see a team load up on forwards and use maybe 5D with 13 forwards, with three combinations of 4F/1D units, and a few penalty killing specialists. Putting that aside, the Leafs have what they have, and they need to figure out what they’re going to do with those bodies.
Last night we saw Keefe roll out a somewhat frustrating combination of pairs that left little possibility for upside. The primary concern is the usage of Morgan Rielly with Justin Holl. There’s a lot of history with both of those players here in Toronto, some of it very good and some of it very bad. Those two polarizing figures on one pairing is a recipe for criticism, so that begs the question: what is the best way to lineup the back end for the Leafs?
For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that Toronto is actually keeping all of the defenders they have right now.

What has worked so far?

Before we look at how the new players should fit in, I thought it would be prudent to see what defense pairings the Leafs have used this year have really worked well. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Leafs have used 7 pairings for at least 100 minutes of ice time that don’t involve the now-departed Rasmus Sandin, and this is how the results look for those (all stats are 5-on-5, score and venue adjusted):
PlayerPlayer 2GPTOICF%GF%xGF%PDO
TJ BrodieConor Timmins14156.133333355.6660.0860.571.02
TJ BrodieMorgan Rielly31275.416666752.8844.4953.790.98
Mark GiordanoTimothy Liljegren50180.2552.6369.1755.31.037
Justin HollMorgan Rielly45158.852.1550.0650.510.984
Mark GiordanoJustin Holl60487.566666751.2152.0354.980.995
Morgan RiellyTimothy Liljegren35156.250.4265.2450.381.015
TJ BrodieJustin Holl38145.866666748.3964.3453.51.047
With all the new faces, Timmins is almost certainly going to struggle to crack the lineup. I also wouldn’t enough stock into the Brodie-Timmins pairing with only 156 minutes of ice time to say that Timmins should definitely make the team. But that is an intriguing option.
I’m more interested in the fact that Brodie-Rielly have been a very strong pairing at around 53% CF% and xGF%, while struggling for goals (GF%) due to terrible on-ice shooting percentage (6.4%). Right behind them are Giordano and Liljegren who at an eye test level have seemed to work pretty well. A PDO of 1.037 certainly helps, but they have the shot attempts going for them in the background too.
Holl has worked well enough when paired with either Giordano or Rielly, but has struggled with Brodie (also in a pretty small sample so take with a grain of salt). Holl’s splits away from Giordano show that Giordano is much more effective with other defenders (51% together, Holl w/o Gio 50%, Gio w/o Holl 55%) so I’d stay away from that.
If we assume that Brodie, Rielly, Holl, Giordano and Liljegren all keep their spots (not a safe assumption but a convenient one at this point in the article), we’re left with:
1st pair: Rielly – Brodie
2nd pair: Giordano – Liljegren
3rd pair: ?  – Holl

Who have we added and what do they do?

To see which of the new additions deserve to take that 6th spot with Holl, and/or if any of them deserve to take Holl or someone else’s spot in the roster, we should compare their performances this season so far.
To do that, I’ll be looking at Evolving Hockey’s GAR model. For some info on how those work, feel free to take a look at my analytics primer on the subject. You can also consult their References section where you can find some articles explaining how the model works. At a high level, GAR is a “Goals Above Replacement” model, similar in concept to a “Wins Above Replacement” or “WAR” model which you may have heard of before. The idea is to look at how much better at creating goals a player is versus a “replacement level” player. A replacement level player, in theory, does nothing that increases or decreases a team’s total goal for or against, so they are rated as a 0 GAR. The model is created by looking at how individual stats lead to future goals scored, for instance: shot attempts, hits, faceoff wins, and penalties drawn. The more shots your team gets, the more goals your team gets, so if you take a lot of shots, that will make the model show that you’re better than a replacement level player.
PlayerSeasonTeamTOI_AllOff_GARDef_GARPens_GARGAR
Erik Gustafsson22-23WSH1242.310.21.21.512.9
Tj Brodie22-23TOR827.4-0.88.22.59.9
Jake McCabe22-23CHI/TOR1092.46.60.51.68.7
Conor Timmins22-23ARI/TOR374.851.106.1
Morgan Rielly22-23TOR1034.25.5-0.91.46
Justin Holl22-23TOR1255.80.93.515.4
Mark Giordano22-23TOR1187.80.34.9-1.63.6
Timothy Liljegren22-23TOR93430.40.13.6
Luke Schenn22-23VAN945.35.1-4-2-0.9
Jordie Benn22-23TOR189.6-0.2-0.2-0.6-1
Looking at this chart, it’s hard to come away with a more obvious verdict than “Erik Gustafsson should be written into the lineup with permanent marker”. Also “Jake McCabe was a very good addition” and “Conor Timmins deserves more ice time”.
Combining those takes with what we saw above, I think it’s fair to say that both Erik Gustafsson and Jake McCabe should get long looks for being a permanent part of the D come playoff time.

Conclusions

I think the 5D I mentioned above are probably too good and well respected to be long-term healthy scratches. As such, the most likely option is 11F/7D unless something significantly changes.
That said, the impact Jake McCabe can bring makes him a pretty sure fire lock for top four pairing minutes. So, I think the best course of action is something like this, at evens with the score tied:
1st pair: Rielly – Brodie
2nd pair: McCabe  – Liljegren
3rd pair: A rotation of Giordano/Gustafsson/Holl
That leaves out the following players:
  • Jordie Benn, who was pretty much already on the outside before we added people to the shuffle
  • Luke Schenn, who takes too many penalties and is a negative impact defensively
  • Conor Timmins, who has committed the unforgivable crime of being a young player with minimal games played this year
If the team doesn’t want to go 7D, I think they’re left with a choice between needing offensive impact by going with Gustafsson and McCabe, or defensive impact  by going with Giordano and Holl, or a mix of both with McCabe and Giordano, most likely.
That said, there’s a lot of room for these numbers to not be telling the whole story. It’s possible that Schenn will be great when not playing for Vancouver. It’s possible that Holl has been carried by his partners and others will be a better fit. I could be being fooled by Gustafsson’s numbers being inflated by a soft role in Washington. These things are all possibly true, it’s just that the numbers I see are saying what they’re saying, and I tend to find they’re right most of the time.
Ultimately, it’ll be the conclusions that Sheldon Keefe and the coaching staff draw when looking at these numbers mixed with the qualitative aspects of choosing who dresses night in night out. Over the next couple of months we’ll likely see a lot of tinkering with the combinations to see if we can find a set of 6 or 7 D that all click well, not just with each other but with the forward groups as well.
I’m definitely excited to see how that all pans out.
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