I wrote a post yesterday about why the Maple Leafs did so much better following neutral zone faceoff wins after the Olympics with Jake Gardiner on the ice than they did when he wasn’t on the ice. It was pretty stark. Post-Olympics, Gardiner was on the ice for 73 NZ wins. The Leafs generated 25 shot attempts for and allowed 13 shot attempts against, a Corsi% of 65.8%. When he wasn’t on the ice (128 NZ wins), they generated 25 shot attempts for and allowed 38 shot attempts against, a Corsi% of 39.7%. The league average in these situations was 59.2%.
In my last post on this, I explored the difference in how the Leafs were entering the offensive zone and how the opposition was entering the Leafs zone with Gardiner on the ice as compared to when he wasn’t on the ice. We found what we’d expect: the Leafs were more likely to carry the puck into the offensive zone when Gardiner was on the ice. Intriguingly, we also found that the Leafs were less likely to allow a carry or dump-in to their end when Gardiner wasn’t on the ice but more likely to have the opposition botch the entry altogether.
We care about zone entries because the work of Eric Tulsky and others has shown us that teams get and allow more shot attempts when the puck is carried in rather than dumped in. Today I’m going to talk about the shot attempts. As a general rule, Eric’s found that teams average 0.56 Fenwick events (shots on goal and missed shots) per carry and 0.25 Fenwick events per dump-in. I’m using Corsi, so I’m going to make a back of the envelope adjustment to these figures: 0.75 shot attempts for per carry and 0.34 shot attempts per dump-in. What do we see?
You have to keep in mind here that the samples are very small. That being said, the difference between Gardiner and the Leafs without Gardiner is tiny for everything other than carries with Gardiner on the ice – it’s a couple of shot attempts in each case. I wouldn’t really read anything into it other than chance. In fact, if we look at the earlier part of the season, we see that while the Leafs did better following NZ wins when Gardiner was on the ice, the Corsi% difference was much smaller: 60% to 54.6%. While I’m inclined to think that Gardiner does do better things following NZ wins than the Leafs do without him, I doubt the difference is as large as it was post-Olympics.
The gap between the shots generated off of carries with Gardiner on the ice versus when he isn’t quite so small. It’s large enough that I’d wonder about it if I was in Leafs management/coaching, particularly if it had persisted throughout the year. In particular, I’d wonder if the carries that were being created when Gardiner was on the ice were somehow different than the carries created when he wasn’t. It’s possible that it’s chance but, as that gap increases, we should wonder more.
There’s an important general truth here: the results that we observe in hockey, in anything, are a mix of the underlying talent and chance. The smaller the sample, the more that chance plays a role. I suspect that, while there are real differences between how the Leafs play with Gardiner on the ice and without Gardiner on the ice, there was an element of chance making the gap appear larger than it was.
I put together a little video to kind of illustrate what I see in being a difference in how Gardiner and Cody Franson moved the puck out versus the rest of the Leafs D. I just used some clean faceoff wins outside the defensive zone from the last ten games of the year or so. What I was looking for was how the puck was handled in the defensive zone and how it was moved out.
In general, the Gardiner/Franson pairing seemed more comfortable making a few passes in order to create some space in which to skate. The other guys were much more “You make one pass then fire it off the guy on the other side of the red line.” This doesn’t always lead to a carry into the offensive zone but it does make it easier for the defenceman to gain the red line. The Leafs iced the puck 40 times more than the average team at 5v5 this year. Undoubtedly, some of that was defencemen missing sticks trying to run a tip play into the offensive zone.
I thought the last one on there, with Gardiner/Phaneuf on the ice, was telling. Phaneuf had room to skate the puck after Gardiner did his little shimmy but didn’t – just bombed it towards a stick on the other team’s side of centre. There’s another example of that in there, where Phaneuf could have stepped up but didn’t. I strongly suspect that the bloodbath that occurs when Phaneuf is on the ice these days is coaching – if he has the ability to take that step but doesn’t, it seems to me like an awfully crazy thing. To me, I’d want to identify the things that were working and then ask those with the ability to do it to do that.
This is, of course, just a tiny slice of the game. This is the sort of stuff that the Leafs should be doing though, breaking the game down into tiny pieces and examining why they did so much better with Gardiner on the ice than everyone else. The big reward is if they can figure out the open play question – Gardiner was ten points better than the team as a whole post-Olympic break.
James Mirtle has a great interview up with former Leafs assistant Scott Gordon.
“We have a lot of guys that can make plays and there’s a confidence that [they have] when things are going well that you think you can make plays all the time. At the end of the day, there’s a time and place to do it. We actually got better as the season went on as far as turnovers. But it’s not just the turnovers. You’ve got to find a way to maintain speed through the neutral zone to get on pucks in the offensive zone when you are dumping it in.
Gordon goes on to talk about how this year’s team didn’t compete hard enough, which, honestly, I just kind of shake my head at. Did they compete harder when Gardiner was on the ice? Or did they do less stuff that has bad expected outcomes? Watching these videos (and looking at the data for with Gardiner on-ice as opposed to when he wasn’t), it doesn’t seem to me like they were trying to create plays. It seems to me like they were obsessed with avoiding turnovers and went about attacking them in a way that had all sorts of negative consequences. Forest. Trees.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org