Shuffling the deck on ‘D – Kostka out, Liles in

So John-Michael Liles will roll back into the lineup tonight, which changes up Randy Carlyle’s defensive pairings for the first time since the Leafs first game against Ottawa, when Ben Scrivens recorded his first ever NHL shutout. That was Game 15.

There have been tweaks, but for the last twelve games on the schedule, Carlyle has started his defensive units as such:

Dion Phaneuf – Korbinian Holzer
Carl Gunnarsson – Mike Kostka
Mark Fraser – Cody Franson

Three left shots and three right shots. The two defencemen in the press box eating popcorn and salary cap dollars, Mike Komisarek* and John-Michael Liles, are both left shots (*-UPDATE – It’s been pointed out that Komisarek is actually a right shot. He doesn’t play enough for me to notice these things). Carlyle evidently hates the idea of a defenceman playing on his off side, despite Phaneuf playing excellent on his right side alongside Carl Gunnarsson last season, and despite Phaneuf playing excellent on the right side of left-shooting Keith Aulie back during the spring of 2011.

The way that the defencemen have been deployed is pretty predictable. Dion Phaneuf and Korbinian Holzer match up against the top line, Mark Fraser and Cody Franson see shifts with Nazem Kadri’s line, and Gunnarsson and Kostka collect everything else in the middle.

For instance, here’s how the Leafs matched up against Pittsburgh last time. Using the Head-to-Head chart, I’ve looked at what percentage of a player’s ice-time was spent against the corresponding Pittsburgh centreman:

  vs. Crosby vs. Malkin vs. Sutter
Phaneuf 70.6% 16.8% 12.7%
Holzer 51.9% 17.0% 15.6%
Gunnarsson 12.2% 51.9% 18.8%
Kostka 17.5% 46.6% 16.9%
Franson 40.1% 11.1% 40.1%
Fraser 18.2% 21.6% 55.9%

Remember, about midway through the game against the Penguins, Holzer, who had an awful, awful game, was split up from Phaneuf and replaced with Cody Franson. That stopped the bleeding. Against Winnipeg, Phaneuf and Holzer were steadier, but it was Mike Kostka whose speed left him unable to cover the versatile Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd, who peppered the Leafs net with scoring chances during the second period.

Just for a visual representation of how the defencemen have been used this season, let’s turn to Ninja Greg’s usage chart for the Leafs’:

To read this chart: the y-axis, or vertical axis, represents Corsi Rel QoC, a statistic that measures Relative Quality of Competition. The x-axis represents Off Zone Start %, or the percentage of non-neutral zone face-offs that were started in the offensive end of the ice. Logically, the defencemen who face the hardest minutes show up in the upper left-hand corner of the graph. The colour of the bubbles represents puck possession numbers based on Corsi ON, another statistic that calculates on-ice shot differential over 60 minutes of even strength play. A red bubble is a negative number, a blue bubble is positive.

So while Franson has been the Leafs’ best puck-possession defenceman this season, he also sees the easiest minutes. Mark Fraser starts fewer shifts in the offensive zone (Franson will sometimes pair up with Gunnarsson or Phaneuf in these situations).

So here’s the defence tonight:

Dion Phaneuf – Korbinian Holzer
Carl Gunnarsson – John-Michael Liles
Mark Fraser – Cody Franson

Why Liles and not Jake Gardiner? Well, the fact that Carlyle is bringing in a left shot is a positive. I think that there are some situations where having guys play on their sides is preferable. We’re not completely sure about the advantages just yet, but to me it seems if a defenceman is going to play on his off side, it’s better for an offensively-minded defenceman to do it. Less time spent along the boards battling for pucks and more time trying to creep into the high slot looking for a shot.

Anyway, Jake Gardiner has been covered pretty in depth by everybody in the Maple Leaf blogosphere. Jeffler was out at the Marlies game last night and wrote this:

Jake Gardiner is the focus of a lot of people’s attention right now, and he had an okay game. Got an assist on the Zigomanis goal, but it didn’t mean much. At one point, broke two sticks in two minutes. He had one very sloppy sequence where he got a bit too confident, sent out a floater pass, and had it intercepted. Seconds later, he was undressed by a Lake Erie forward. One of the weaker shifts I’ve ever seen him play, but he had a confident, well positioned game to make up for it.

Jeff has said that Gardiner’s been playing better since he posted his story “Less Than Jake” back on February 22 about Gardiner’s struggles. I think if the Leafs are going to look toward the future to put together a winning roster, I’d rather have the organization give up hope on Holzer and Kostka as top-pairing prospects rather than Gardiner, and let him collect lots of minutes in the AHL as he plays his way out of a funk.

But with Liles being moved to play on his off side, Carlyle’s getting away from the lefty-righty obsession that has driven the Leafs’ defensive pairings for the last 12 games. I think Gunnarsson and Kostka has been a pretty fine pairing, but given the last three games where the Leafs have given up four or more goals, it’s unfortunately the time for Carlyle to make a switch, and the last guy in our collective memories to have a bad game on the back-end was Kostka.

I don’t think that’s the right move. Overall, Gunnarsson-Kostka as a pairing has been much better and more consistent than Phaneuf-Holzer, weighed down by the play of the big German. Here’s Phaneuf’s Corsi %, basically percentage of time the Leafs spend with the puck in the other teams’ end, according to David Johnson’s website, with other Leafs defencemen:

  Attempts For/20 Attempts Vs./20 Attempts % (Corsi)
Korbinian Holzer 17.52 26.32 39.96%
Mike Kostka 16.94 20.13 45.70%
Cody Franson 12.3 20.29 37.74%
Carl Gunnarsson 22.94 19.78 53.70%

(Attempts For and Attempts Vs. are total shot against for and against Toronto per 20 minutes of play. A shot attempt for is also known as a “Corsi event”)

And here I was thinking that Phaneuf-Franson would be a much better top pairing… either way, I think Phaneuf-Gunnarsson is the way to go if you’re determined to send a pairing out 70% of the time against Sidney Crosby’s line.