Evaluating the Leafs’ Defencemen using NHL 17’s HUT Ratings

Yesterday I evaluated Toronto’s forwards using the ratings from NHL 17’s Hockey Ultimate Team mode. Today we’re going to look at the Leafs’ defencemen. Just a quick reminder that this is part of my ‘year in review’ series where I try to objectively evaluate each Leafs player’s performance using both the eye test (qualitative information) and numbers (quantitative data). This week’s focus is based on qualitative inputs that I’ve observed throughout the season, while next week we’ll dive deeper into the players’ advanced numbers. For those wondering, “inputs” simply refer to skills that drive results in hockey. Examples of this include a player’s skating ability, release on his shot, puck control, strength, defensive positioning, among other attributes.

Full disclosure: I’m much more comfortable using quantitative data (statistics) to evaluate players since that’s more my area of expertise – I’m much better at math than I am at hockey. This doesn’t mean that I don’t value qualitative information; I’m just not nearly as confident in my ability to assess it. With that being said, I feel like my “eye test” has improved dramatically by learning from some of the smartest hockey minds out there. To name a few, I’d highly recommend checking out the work of Jack Han, Sean Tierney, Gus Katsaros, Anthony Petrielli, and Bob Roberts. Learning from these great minds over the past couple years has given me a much better idea of which traits to look for in a hockey player, and how to identify them.

Here’s a quick reminder of the attributes I’m going to be evaluating:

  • Skating
    • Edges, Acceleration, Top Speed
  • Shooting
    • Release, power, accuracy
  • Hands
    • Puck handling and passing ability
  • Checking/Physicality
    • Strength, balance, aggressiveness, and (yes) checking ability
  • Defence
    • Stick checking ability, positioning, and defensive awareness

To provide some context to the rating scale, here’s a database with each player’s attributes in NHL 17. For a simplified version, here’s a broad overview of what each rating is “worth” at the NHL level:

Elite D: 90+

1st Pairing D: 87-89

2nd Pairing D: 84-86

3rd Pairing D: 80-83

AHL D: <80

Since there was some confusion over this yesterday, the ratings that you’re about to see are not the ones from NHL 17; they’re the ratings that I’ve given each Leafs player based on watching them play this season. Since these things are subjective, there’s bound to be some disagreement (you can @ me with your frustrations here). Hope that clears things up, now onto my evaluations of Toronto’s defencemen this season:

The First Pairing

Comparable: Keith Yandle

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Morgan Rielly is speed. With the way modern systems emphasize sending two forwards deep on the forecheck, you rarely see defencemen who are able to skate the puck out of their own end anymore. Rielly is one of those few special players whose acceleration is so elite that he’s able to blow by opposing forwards and skate the puck out himself. Once he gets going through the neutral zone, he’s pretty much a guaranteed controlled zone entry, and from there we’ve seen him create tonnes of chances with his passing ability. The one thing I think he needs to work on is not settling for long wrist shots off of these rushes. If nothing’s immediately available, I’ve found that he’s most effective when takes the puck behind the net and looks to create a chance from there.

The elephant in the room when we talk about Rielly is his defensive ability. Although he’s a truly special offensive player, unfortunately, he really struggles without the puck. He has a tendency to sag off of forwards in transition and back up onto his goalie, instead of aggressively stepping up on them at the red line or blue line to force a dump-in. This is one of the biggest reasons the Leafs give up so many shots when he’s on the ice, although it’s worth noting his elite ability to generate shots helps counteract this. We’ve been hoping for a while that Rielly’s defence would shore up and he’d develop into the true #1 defenceman that everyone’s been hoping he’d become, but realistically it’s probably more fair to consider him what he’s been for the past few seasons: a fantastic offensive defenceman who struggles to suppress shots. When given more sheltered minutes (ie. the Washington series), Rielly has more room to navigate and can really thrive as an offensive force. I would argue that this might be the best way to use him moving forward.

Comparable: Jeff Petry

Nikita Zaitsev’s a really tricky player to evaluate. You watch him play and you see a terrific skater with excellent gap control. When you see some of his highlights in the KHL, you see a confident puck handler with the ability to skate the puck up the ice, and a great point shot. He’s also a pretty physical defenceman for his size, especially in front of the net. Based on his eye test, I completely understand why most people are high on Zaitsev. He’s a very well-rounded player, with all of the tools to be a very effective NHL defenceman.

When you look at his results though, unfortunately, he’s less than the sum of his parts. Given that this was his first full season playing on North American ice (against top NHL competition), it’s only natural that he’d go through an adjustment phase. Considering all of the raw talent we can all see when we watch Zaitsev play, I feel like there’s another level his game can reach. I’m still not convinced that he’ll become a 1st pairing defenceman in this league, but he definitely seems like someone who can solidify your second pairing. Not bad for a guy they gave up literally nothing to acquire.

The Second Pairing

Comparable: TJ Brodie

It’s hard for me to objectively evaluate a player I love so much, but I’ll try. I understand that Jake Gardiner is a controversial player in Leafs land, but watch this and tell me what you see. When I watch him play, I see an incredibly creative player who helps advance the puck up the ice with clever breakout passes and deceptive skating ability. He also has a very underrated slapshot (when he gets a hold of one, he has an absolute bomb). On the defensive side of things, he consistently steps up on players at the blueline to force dump-ins, which is a key reason he allows so few shots against when he’s on the ice. He has all the talent to be a legitimate #1 defenceman…but then you see stuff like this.

Unfortunately, this just seems to be who Gardiner is at this point: an exceptionally talented player who occasionally makes strange mistakes. Now anytime we talk about “turnovers”, it’s worth noting that elite defencemen consistently lead the league in this category since they always have the puck (the top 3 in giveaways since 2013 are Karlsson, Burns, and Subban). Since Gardiner has the puck so often, he’s logically much more likely to turn the puck over, especially considering that he’s always trying to advance the puck up the ice with possession instead of giving it back to the other team by dumping it out off of the glass (Roman Polak’s go-to play). To wrap up the enigma that is Jake Gardiner, I think Mike Babcock said it best:

“Jake’s got elite hockey sense. He can skate and pass and think the game real well. He does some things sometimes where you don’t know what he’s doing, but it has a way of working out for Jake. He’s been a real effective player for us. He can play a tonne of minutes and he makes good plays and he’s plus all the time.”

Comparable: Matt Dumba (lite)

Another controversial player in Toronto, Connor Carrick seems to have the similar tendency to make a boneheaded play at the wrong time. Much like Gardiner though, I would argue that the pros outweigh the cons with Carrick. His propensity towards these mistakes is because he’s constantly trying to advance the puck up the ice, where the numbers show that he’s actually very effective (3rd best on the team at controlled zone exits behind Rielly & Gardiner). Now, Carrick was put in an excellent position to succeed this season, getting very sheltered minutes and playing most of the season with Corsi god, Jake Gardiner, which I think helped show off some of his talents.

These talents include his skating ability, offensive instincts, and ability to advance the puck up the ice. I compared him to Matt Dumba because they’re both right-handed, 5’11 pit bulls who can move the puck. The only blip in this comparison is that Dumba has over 10 goals in each of his last two seasons, while Carrick’s shot is probably the weakest aspect of his game. So to make things simple, just consider him ‘Dumba lite’. He’s an aggressive player who isn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas or assert himself physically. It’s difficult to say if he’s a Top 4 defenceman or simply the product of playing with Jake Gardiner, but he’s definitely looked like an NHL defenceman in his stint with the Maple Leafs.

The Third Pairing

Comparable: Kris Russell

I like this comparison for so many reasons. Hunwick and Russell are both 5’11 LHD who skate very well and seem to look like they have all the tools to be very solid NHL defencemen, but have bad habits that hold them back. The most notable is their tendency to flip the puck off of the glass instead of attempting to pass the puck out of the zone to maintain possession. This isn’t to say that they’re horrible defencemen. Both Hunwick and Russell have shown that they can be effective when used in a 3rd pairing role against weaker competition, but get shelled when they’re moved up the lineup.

I would argue that both are serviceable NHL players, and would be a fine #6 D on most teams in the league. Since fully recovering from his injury, Hunwick looked great in his bottom pairing role from about January onwards. He’s actually been above average this season at defending his blue line from controlled zone entries, as well as exiting the zone with possession (which I’d argue is a big strength in his game). He’s even chipped in offensively this season under Toronto’s 5-man ‘total hockey’ style of play. We know that Babcock loves his off ice intangibles, so it will be interesting to see if he’s brought back for another season to compete for a spot on the bottom pairing.

Comparable: Luke Schenn

Here’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The man, the myth, the legend: Roman Polak. I feel like there’s such a drastic difference between the Polak we saw in the first half of the season and the version we saw in the second half, so to keep things fair let’s talk about them as if they were two separate entities. In the first half of the year, Polak was part of the worst third pairing in hockey. They struggled to break out of their zone (and I mean really struggled), resulting in them spending most of the time in their own zone, giving up tonnes of shots and chances against. Both the numbers and the eye test indicate that Polak’s the worst on the team at making breakout passes, and frankly it’s not really close. Unfortunately, this has been a common trend throughout his career. He’s also been the worst Leafs defender at allowing controlled zone entries, which is a major reason he’s been a poor shot suppressor throughout his career.

In the second half of the season though, we saw a much different Polak. This ‘new and improved’ version was jumping up into the rush to help create numbers offensively. He was skating up the ice to give his teammates a passing option at the end of a long shift. He was dumping pucks into the corner and then chasing them (and winning the ensuing puck battle). I know the narrative around Polak is that he’s a “stay at home defenceman”, but he played the best stretch of hockey in his career when he abandoned this role and became more engaged offensively. Babcock’s system encourages activation of the defence (5-man ‘total hockey’) and Polak thrived once he bought in and became an active part of the 5-man unit.

Now, Polak can’t make a breakout pass, he’s never going to give you much offensively, and he struggles with his backwards skating and lateral movement, but he’s a mammoth of a human being who’s actually pretty fast at skating forwards. When he uses those tools to his advantage and frees himself of his shackles to jump into the play, he’s proven that he can actually drive results to some extent at 5v5. Given that he’s consistently struggled throughout his career though, as well as the fact that he’s coming off of a severe injury at his age, I would argue that the Leafs would be smart to replace him with more of a sure thing on the bottom pairing next season. I wish him the best on his road to recovery and genuinely hope he makes it back into the NHL soon, he seemed like a really nice guy and hard worker. Hang in there Roman.


The Other Guys

Comparable: Hal Gill

Martin Marincin’s a controversial name in Leafs land, and I completely understand why. He’s probably the hardest Maple Leaf to watch, even for someone like myself who thinks he’s effective. He can’t stick handle to save his life, he has a weird skating stride (although he’s faster than you think), and he just looks awkward in general with his lanky frame and lack of coordination. He’s basically a Whacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man. With all of that being said, I think he’s been an effective bottom pairing defenceman considering how well he’s been able to use his 50-foot stick. Last year he was the best on the team in suppressing controlled zone entries, stepping up on players at the blue line and forcing them to dump it in. In addition to his blueline defence, I’ve noticed that he steps up on players at the red line very well. He’s also been one of the Leafs’ best penalty killers, which we saw in the playoffs.

I cringe every time he touches the puck and pray he just gives it to another human being who can actually do something with it, but when it comes to defending the blue line and taking away passing lanes, Martin Marincin and his giant stick have actually been very effective at suppressing shots and chances over the past two seasons. He may not be pretty, and he’s never going to be an offensive force (ever), but he tilts the ice in the Leafs’ favour when he’s on the ice. At the end of the day, that’s you all you can ask from a bottom pairing defenceman, right?

Comparable: Kevin Bieksa

I can’t really say much about Marchenko considering we only got to see him play 12 games for the Leafs, but unfortunately he struggled in a lot of those games. Despite playing with Corsi-inflater extraordinaire, Jake Gardiner, the Leafs got outshot and out-chanced when Marchenko took the ice. You can tell from watching him play that he’s not the best skater and was never going to provide much offense, but unfortunately, he also struggled defensively in his stint with the Leafs. Take this evaluation with a grain of salt though, considering Marchenko had a very impressive year for Detroit before being waived. If he doesn’t return to the Leafs next year, I’m sure he could provide one of the other 30 teams in the NHL with some depth on the right side.

Comparable: Bobby Orr

Sorry, this is for Jeff.

  • MartinPolak

    I love the corrado comparison. The development and importance of Corrado might be the only thing jeffler was wrong on this season with the leaf (and his view of Polak/Martin but that is another story).

  • Kevin

    Good summary of the Leafs defense. I agree with most of the rankings, including the first pair evaluation of Gardiner (when looking at how he finished the season). I think that Gardiner can be an effective Dman if he’s paired with the right partner. Carrick did a decent job this season in a more defensive role as Gardiner’s partner. I think you need to a “conscience” out there with Gardiner so he can focus on his strengths. If the Leafs can find that player (their own Methot type Dman) he can definitely be part of an effective first pair.

    • A nice fail-safe for when those “wtf” moments happen would be great for someone like Gardiner. I know Josh Manson gets brought up as the perfect partner for Rielly, but imagine a Gardiner-Manson first pairing. That would be my ideal scenario.