If you ask most followers of the team,
they’d tell you Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner hasn’t had the best start to the
2014-15 season. Fresh off of signing a contract extension that will see him
earn $4.05 million cap hit for the next five seasons, the pressure is
definitely on Gardiner to prove his worth.
Yet despite being perceived as “young”,
it’s easy to forget that Gardiner’s already in his fourth year in the league.
At age 24, there’s still likely room to grow, but Gardiner’s ceiling and his
prime is getting closer and closer to being reached.
(Note- all stats in this post come from
5-on-5 play from puckalytics.com, unless otherwise noted.)
What’s actually “Wrong” with Gardiner?
As it stands in Toronto and elsewhere, a
very critical culture will look to find imperfections in players, without
understanding their true worth or underlying numbers. One key talking point
could be Gardiner’s minimal offensive production this year, putting up one goal
and five assists at all strengths through 21 games, which at a points-per game
pace of 0.28 would be the lowest mark of his career. Gardiner’s also currently
at a -10 plus-minus rating, which at face value doesn’t mean much, but is
certainly a starting point for further analysis. Looking at the basic stats, Gardiner
could be argued to be having his worst season so far as a Leaf. If Gardiner
stays healthy (just healthy, not of the healthy scratch variety as he started
out this year), he’s on pace for somewhere in the range of 22 points, a
noticeable drop from his 30 and 31 point seasons in the two full years he’s
However, Gardiner is a player where it’s
important to look deeper to see what makes him so valuable. With Gardiner on
the ice, he ranks first this year among Leafs defencemen in shot attempts against
per 60 minutes of ice time (Corsi Against/60, or CA60). Last year? Gardiner
ranked first as well. The year before? First once again. In each of his past
three years, Gardiner’s consistently been the best defenceman on his team at
suppressing shots at even strength.
While impressive in regards to the rest of
his Leafs teammates, it’s not exactly the best comparison as the Leafs are
prone to defensive issues. Relative teammate stats, or RelTM for short, help to
show how much of an impact the player has in relation to their teammate’s
average stats. For every 60 minutes he’s on the ice, Gardiner’s able to lower
the shot attempt average among his teammates by 9.66. Gardiner’s defensive
impact in this category is measurably very impressive- 11th among defencemen
league wide in lowering his teams’ shot attempts against in relation to his
No matter which way you slice it,
Gardiner’s more likely than not the most defensively sound player on the Leafs.
In a team that has formed an identity for getting outshot on a near-nightly
basis, Gardiner is proof that it could always be worse.
So why isn’t this year looking great for
Gardiner if he’s playing a strong defensive game? To start, Gardiner’s on-ice
save percentage has been weak, at just .895 at even strength this season. It’s
hard to fault the player for a poor plus-minus when the goaltending with him on
the ice has been far below league average. While players might have a slight
impact on their goaltenders’ save percentage, it’s hard to fathom a player who
can eliminate so many shot attempts would have such a negative impact on his
goalies. Not helping matters would be
Gardiner’s 5.1 on-ice shooting percentage, last on the team. Gardiner’s teammates
haven’t been putting the puck in the net, and his goalies have performed far
below their capabilities with him on the ice. Those two factors alone have had
a major impact on his plus-minus.
Additionally, Gardiner’s 18 giveaways this
season (second among Leafs defencemen) resonate longer for many viewers as a
visual error rather than something such as elite shot suppression, which is
nearly impossible to notice solely from optical analysis, or in other words,
watching the game.
However, while his defensive game has
looked good once analyzed further, his offensive game has trended poorly in the
opposite direction. Before two assists on Saturday night, Gardiner had managed
just 2 points in his previous 13 games. With Gardiner on the ice, the Leafs
have also generated less shot attempts than they do with any other defenceman.
Essentially, Gardiner is currently playing a brand of hockey where when he’s on
the ice the Leafs won’t get shot at a lot, but also won’t generate a whole
bunch of offense either.
However, the first 21 games for Gardiner
have been an outlier offensively, to say the least. Last year, Gardiner ranked
second in on-ice shot generation (behind Morgan Rielly), while the year before
he ranked first. While the drop in shot generation for Gardiner is definitely
noticeable, it shouldn’t be a major cause of concern unless it appears to be a
sustained trend. If Gardiner is able to revert back closer to his career
average numbers, he’ll be able to improve both his overall possession numbers
and likely see a similar correlation in his offensive output.
A quick, easy fix
Whenever a typically sound player such as
Gardiner falls into a bit of an extended lull, there’s always many different views
that rise up of what to do- such as trading the player, cutting his ice time,
or sit him out for a game. Yet with Gardiner, the issue might just have a very,
very simple solution. Play him with Morgan Rielly. It’s that easy.
At just 20, Rielly is still younger than
the age Gardiner was when he played his first NHL game, yet his maturity and
natural ability have fast-tracked his path to an NHL career. Whether Rielly
will develop into a true star is unforeseen, but he’s definitely got more of a
head start than most players his age. Rielly, oddly, is a polar opposite to his
friend in terms of his offensive and defensive game this year.
This season, Rielly has been shooting the
puck at a rate unlike nearly any defenceman in the league, and certainly unlike
any other 20-year old. Rielly’s individual shot attempts/60 minutes of ice time
trails only Brent Burns of defencemen who have played at least 200 minutes this
season. At a rate of 15.56 shot attempts per/60 minutes, Rielly averages about
an individual shot for every four minutes he’s on the ice at even strength. Not
surprisingly, more Leafs shots as a team come on the ice with Rielly compared
to any other defenceman this year, just as they did in his rookie season.
But while he’s able to drive the puck
towards the other team’s net, Rielly hasn’t been great at preventing the other
team from doing the same. With Rielly on the ice, the team allows 64.3 shot
attempts/60 minutes, just barely ahead of Dion Phaneuf’s 64.5, who ranks last
on the team.
Yet Gardiner himself provides an example
that early shot suppression woes do not necessarily mean they’ll persist as a
career-long issue. In his rookie year of 2011-12, Gardiner’s suppression was
ranked second last on the team amongst defencemen, behind only Luke Schenn. At
just 20, Rielly’s defensive game definitely still has time to develop. While
perhaps hurting the team in the short term, it’s a necessary risk to ultimately
rounding out his game if he’s aiming to be one of the top all-around rearguards
in the league.
In short, we’ve got a player who gives up
very little shots but hasn’t generated much offense in Gardiner, and a high
shot totals matched by his high volume allowed in Rielly.
With the two close friends demonstrably
drastically different players this year, the million dollar question has to be
asking about the results when the two are put out on the ice together. It’s a
feasible theory that their differing styles of play offer a perfect complement
to one another, and in actuality, the outcome has been rather strong. Last
season while on the ice together at even strength, Gardiner and Rielly were the
only two Leafs defencemen to post a positive Corsi as a pairing, topping out at
54.6, a full 6.2 points higher than the next closest pairing. (I posted the
full chart on twitter a while ago, available here.)
In limited time this year, the pair have
put up more than an even Corsi% at 50.3, which is again a rarity among a
possession-challenged Leafs lineup. Neither sample is massive, (244 minutes
last year compared to 79 minutes this year) but it’s not something to ignore
either. When Rielly’s shot generation is combined with Gardiner’s suppression,
it appears to be quite the dynamite couple.
Of course, there are other factors that
come into play to influence all of these stats. The two have often been
sheltered in offensive-favouring roles, starting more shifts on average than
most of their teammates (Gardiner ranks first and Rielly ranks third in this
category this season among Leafs defencemen.) Additionally, putting the two
together full time may lead to hampering the Leafs’ overall strength as a
defence corps, particularly the third pairing.
But in a team that’s looking to do anything
to stay afloat, perhaps it’s time to ramp up the ice time for #44 and #51 as a
pairing and let them develop some chemistry. If anything, it’s worth a try, as
the pair has been nothing short of remarkable by Leaf standards in their brief