Of the three old guy, new acquisitions the Maple Leafs have made so far since free agency began on July 1, the least discussed has been Dominic Moore, and for good reason. Moore is a soon-to-be 37-year-old who signed a one-year deal for one million presumably to assume the role of fourth line centre for the club.
The general consensus regarding this move seems to be “meh, upgrade on Ben Smith or Eric Fehr, downgrade on Brian Boyle.” I agree with this sentiment at first glance, but I’m curious as to where Moore lands on the scale between Smith, Fehr and Boyle. How much better is Moore than Smith and Fehr? How much worse is he than Boyle?
One thing that stands out here: Boyle is probably a fairly significant upgrade on all three of the options still with the team. It seemed weird at the time that the Leafs didn’t try to keep him on board when he signed a two-year deal with at $2.5 million per in New Jersey, but the Patrick Marleau signing explains that now. Nonetheless, I thought the fourth line was noticeably better after Boyle was brought in at the trade deadline and Kasperi Kapanen was called up, so I think it’s necessary to compare the new options in order to decipher how much worse we should be expecting the fourth line to be sans Boyle.
Boyle had the benefit of starting the lowest percentage of defensive zone faceoffs last year, but definitely not by enough that it explains the stark contrast in shot and goal metrics. What’s concerning to me here is that Moore doesn’t look like he was much better than Smith or Fehr last year. His relative shot differential was slightly better than the other two, but he wasn’t subjected to quite as many defensive zone faceoffs. He still shouldered the heaviest load on the Bruins and 34th most in the NHL among forwards who played 500+ minutes, but he got absolutely pummelled, nearly as bad as Smith and Fehr did. Now, that’s only one season of data and Smith and Fehr played significantly fewer minutes, so let’s increase the sample size to the past three seasons in order to get a better idea of who these guys really are at this point in their careers.
Moore has played the most minutes over the last three years among these players despite being the oldest and he’s only missed two games in that time. I would think that fact would have played a significant role in the Leafs betting on him. Again, Boyle’s shot metrics are significantly better than the other three, but the three-year sample is a lot closer than last year’s alone. He has also been given tough zone starts, just like last year, but not buried in defensive zone draws like the other three. The problem here, though, is that Moore doesn’t stand out from the other two while being given similar zone starts. The shot differential pretty much coincides with the zone starts between those three. Fehr had slightly less defensive zone starts, but the best relative shot differential by a slim margin. Smith had the toughest zone starts and the worst relative shot differential, also by a slim margin. Moore comes in between the two in both areas but has a significantly worse relative goal differential. My initial thought was that maybe he really gets leant on by getting the tough zone starts while also playing against top competition more than the average fourth liner. Upon looking at his quality of competition/quality of teammate charts via hockeyviz.com, Moore seems to play against depth players while playing with his own linemates who are also bottom of the lineup players. There doesn’t seem to be anything of real significance here.
Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that Moore is a significant upgrade on Smith or Fehr in terms of making that fourth line better at 5v5. Fehr carries a cap hit of double Moore’s, at $2 million next season. I assume that hit is going to be buried next season, but since only $1 million would be buried, they cost the same. I still think Moore is better than Smith, even if the upgrade is more marginal than I had hoped. Over the last three seasons, Moore has produced points at a rate of 1.14 points per hour, while Smith has produced at a rate of .79 points per hour. So if they both get caved in while on the ice, it’s better to have the player who can occasionally score himself.
I think it’s fair to say that the Leafs fourth line downgraded at 5v5 pretty significantly from the end of the ’16/17 with Boyle to whoever they begin the ’17/18 season with, whether it be Moore, Smith or Fehr. There is also a trend with the latter three centremen: they all get thrown to the wolves in terms of zone starts and all are good at faceoffs, but can’t seem to get the puck out of their end anyway.
A go-to argument for the value of depth players is usually “good on the penalty kill,” so let’s briefly cover that too.
2014-17 4v5 SH stats
So, in terms of shot suppression on the penalty kill, Boyle and Smith are really bad where Moore and Fehr are significantly better. All four players give up more shots on the PK than their teammates do when they are off the ice, but I have a feeling that has something to do with heavy faceoff usage. Fellow writer at The Leafs Nation Ian Tulloch wrote in depth about how defensive zone faceoffs impact shots to a much higher degree at 5v4 than 5v5, which makes sense intuitively. The short version of it is, the players who are leant on to take faceoffs on the penalty kill are going to give up a lot more shots than the players on the second PK unit who join the play on the fly. All four of these players are routinely leant on to both kill penalties and take defensive zone faceoffs, so they are all most likely victims of this, but Moore and Fehr seem to be far superior penalty killers than Boyle and Smith. This also makes sense simply because the former two are much faster skaters than the latter two.
I don’t particularly like the three options the Leafs have under contract for their fourth line centre, but I think Smith is the worst one and Moore and Fehr seem like a virtual wash to me.
*statistics via stats.hockeyanalysis.com and puckalytics.com