It’s no secret that a patient, long-term approach by the organization meant that this year would be a bridge season of sorts for the team. Still, even while keeping that watchful eye on the future the Leafs have managed to make the most of a couple of side projects under Babcock’s tutelage in the present.
As a convenient byproduct of the respectability and structure he’s instilled since taking over, he’s also rejuvenated a handful of assets that were either on their way out of the league or were at a low point in their respective careers after having been submarined by previous regimes. Despite not exactly having been blessed with a cupboard full of main roster talent, he’s been giving a master class on how to optimize assets by putting them in positions to succeed.
Going with the Christmas theme, the following players have benefitted the most from making it onto the latter part of Mike Babcock’s ‘Naughty Or Nice’ list. In no particular order..
Fine, I may’ve lied. This list couldn’t possibly start with anyone other than ‘Uncle Leo’. He’s been the living, breathing embodiment of everything The Mike Babcock Maple Leafs are about this season. He may not be the most skilled player, but he’s a nuisance to play against. He plays fast, he plays hard, and under this regime, he’s taken advantage of an expanded, more offensively-conducive role and hasn’t looked back. After having Mike Santorelli, Peter Holland, and David Clarkson as his three most common linemates a year ago, it can’t be surprising that he’s been flourishing alongside the likes of Kadri and van Riemsdyk.
There’s no question that the cushy 23.4% shooting percentage he’s currently enjoying won’t last forever. But considering he’s currently tied for 10th in the league in goals with Taylor Hall and 24th in five-on-five goals/60 with Leon Draisaitl, there’s a certain built-in wiggle room that’ll still allow him to remain an immensely valuable asset even when he regresses in that regard. Especially considering he’s shown an ability to goad the opposition into drawing penalties, a valuable and repeatable skill.
The interesting follow-up question here though is what the Leafs do with him moving forward. As great of a story as he’s been this year, I think there’s no reason to believe the team’s brass wouldn’t pounce should someone make them an enticing offer around the trade deadline. Whether it’s right or wrong, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see a contending team covet his services as a complimentary piece that provides versatility.
For the Leafs, it’d certainly be a shrewd move to pull the trigger on, purely from the perspective of selling an asset off when it’s at its uppermost point. Regardless, it’s a good dilemma to have. Given the team-friendly contract he’s playing on these days, everything from this point forward is found money.
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) December 22, 2015
The Leafs took a handful of super low-risk, moderate-upside flyers this summer when they brought in a laundry list of castoffs in the hopes of building their value back up and flipping them for picks. As tends to be the case with that strategy, not every single one of them has totally panned out. That’s to be expected. There’s generally a reason why players of that ilk are typically made available for peanuts. If even one of those calculated risks hits, though, you’re in the black.
That’s exactly what’s happened with P.A. Parenteau, who after a couple of years of clashing with two coaches who aren’t exactly the most agreeable of the bunch, has only gotten better and more productive as the year has gone along. With each passing week, the leash has gotten longer, and he’s been rewarding Babcock for the increased opportunity he’s provided him with:
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He’s spent most of the year with Bozak, but it’s only recently that the two of them have been put next to James van Riemsdyk. Considering the three of them have controlled over 55% of five-on-five shot attempts in the 75 or so minutes they’ve been together, I imagine they’ll stick together for a while longer.
If this stop didn’t work out for Parenteau, it’s not inconceivable that it would’ve been his last chance in the league. Now he’s playing on a team’s de facto top line, and performing well at that. He may even be playing his way into getting a chance to make a meaningful contribution to a playoff team come the deadline. That’s what we call a mutually beneficial partnership for both player and team.
Speaking of Bozak, he’s similar to the guy we’ll get to in a second in the sense that his contract, role, and expectations far exceeded what he was actually capable of doing as a player. As a result, it was tough to remain rational about him. Maple Leafs boosters put him high up on a pedestal, and more analytically-inclined fans went overboard in tearing him back down.
I suspect a lot of that stemmed from a misunderstanding about what he actually was. For whatever reason, he was pegged as a two-way, all situations pivot who was a good option on the defensive end. There’s no doubt that he was miscast in that regard. If anything, he should’ve always been viewed as a solid middle-six type that was one of the league’s most efficient finishers. It’s completely indefensible that he averaged over 20 minutes a night for two straight seasons. Even the 19+ he came in at last year was fairly aggressive.
Since coming to town, Babcock has appropriately given him noticeably more offensively-slanted deployment at even strength and cut down his penalty killing responsibilities. Bozak has taken to it by posting some of his most efficient rate stats of his career all across the board and being over the 50% mark as a possession player for the first time since his rookie season. The fact that the back-and-forths have died down, and he hasn’t been nearly as polarizing of a topic, makes the general public the big winners here if anything.
Ironically enough, he’s on pace for nearly as many goals and 15 more points than his former top line running mate. I’m sure that hasn’t flown over the head of certain individuals out there.
Who says you can’t put lipstick on a pig? That’s not even necessarily meant to be taken as a dig against Phaneuf, as it is a testament to how Babcock has managed to diffuse a situation that was on the fast track to a breaking point. It’s amazing what a different context can do for the way a player is perceived.
There’s no question that there was way too much on Phaneuf’s plate in recent years, and he was being buried by it. Forget the albatross contract and the expectations it carries with it for a second, he wasn’t performing at a passable rate under any circumstances really.
The recalibration of his usage has been two-fold:
a) He’s been relieved of ‘shutdown’ duties, with that bullet having been eaten by Morgan Rielly and Matt Hunwick. This season marks the first time since arriving in Toronto that he hasn’t comfortably received either the first or second highest quality of competition amongst Leafs defencemen. It helps that he’s also playing less on the penalty kill than he ever has in his career, cutting his average per game from less season directly in half.
b) He’s actually playing more at five-on-five than he had in either of the past two seasons, but most of that time has come strapped to Jake Gardiner’s hip. It’s impossible to overstate the effect this has had on Phaneuf. In the 380 or so minutes they’ve played together this year, the Leafs have controlled 53.5% of shot attempts and 54.8% of scoring chances. Most importantly, the shots against have taken a massive dip during this minutes – from 65.3 attempts against/60 down all the way to 52.9/60 – which shouldn’t be a surprise given Gardiner’s hallmark shot suppressing abilities.
Why it took this long for them to be put together is a fair question. Since Gardiner entered the league in 2011 Phaneuf has played less than 10% of his five-on-five minutes with him prior to this season. If they’d had a coach who has paying attention during that time, maybe it would’ve happened sooner. Better late than never, I guess.