Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports

Mix C-Ds: Will the Leafs use Gardiner and Rielly in the same roles this upcoming season?

Last week we looked a little bit into how the Leafs matched lines last season on a game-to-game basis through the lens of a few case studies, which included some easy-to-understand visuals. The general conclusion there after looking through an entire season’s worth of of those game reports was that, unsurprisingly, Nazem Kadri saw the most of the opposition’s best players. Toronto’s “shutdown center”, if you will.

As mentioned in that piece, anyone who followed the club throughout last season would’ve likely come to the conclusion that Kadri was seeing the toughest assignments most of the time, Matthews’s line less so, and Bozak’s trio being the most sheltered of the three. I mean, it was something widely talked about when a high-profile star, like McDavid, was in town.

We’ve dug into how forwards were matched up last season and which players Babcock tried the hardest to shut down, but how about which blue-liners were used to support that?

I think a good way of thinking about some of these units is to identify which key defenceman was deployed with which center the most over the course of a season. In an attempt to give us some context as to how players were used, I figured using Toronto’s two most prominent defencemen – Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly – was a good way to look into this. Rielly and Gardiner are who most would consider the Leafs’ top two players on the back-end, and a debate over who is the stronger player has raged on for quite some time. They both play the left side and typically anchor separate units, so seeing which centers they accompanied the most can give us a better idea of how they performed in different roles.

So yeah, the primary combos here, by nearly 200 even-strength minutes, are Kadri/Rielly and Matthews/Gardiner.


(WOWY numbers from the now taken-down Puckalytics. RIP.)

For the scope of this article, I’m mostly just going to look at the group of Kadri, Matthews, Rielly, and Gardiner – essentially the backbone of the team right now.

And maybe we should just get this out of the way: I don’t know if Rielly is truly “better” than Gardiner or vice versa, and to be honest I believe they may be close enough in talent that it’s not even worth caring about. But I do wonder, based on these numbers, if balancing their roles to some extent is something that should happen. Their time together is limited, but we see Matthews and Rielly really excelled in the run of play at evens, as did Kadri and Gardiner. We’ll see below that the nature of those minutes aren’t entirely the same, but I’m not implying a total flip in roles (though it would be nice if we could run that experiment).

Focusing on Rielly particularly, if we want to look into this another way, this visualization from HockeyViz gives us a good view of just how much he took off when deployed with the Matthews line.

And while his deployment did change when they paired together (like Kadri’s did when with Gardiner), it wasn’t as if Rielly’s time with the Matthews line got him away from the other team’s stars and into cushy minutes.

The way I sort of view this (and the following table) is pretty simple:

  • Kadri and Rielly are seen as the true shutdown combo when together.
  • Gardiner and Matthews clearly aren’t.
  • When the blending happens, Kadri pulls Gardiner into tougher minutes, and Rielly pulls Matthews into tougher minutes.

(I screen-grabbed these tweets to make things tidy in WordPress, but the link to them is here)

Yes, this means of the 534 even-strength minutes Kadri and Rielly played together, the other teams’ strongest forwards – according to Dellow’s definition – were out there for 330 of them. It really is absurd, and even more so that Kadri scored 32 goals last year, 20 at evens.

But do the Leafs have an ideal situation going here? Or should they adjust and balance some of the offensive and defensive loads?

I’m not sure if moving away from Rielly/Kadri as a shutdown combo is something the Leafs need to do, even if they don’t appear to be excelling there. We see that they’re just below water in even-strength run of play at 48.8%, but I think declaring that as some sort of “failure” is problematic. Overall the Leafs were sixth league-wide in score-adjusted possession this past season. How much of that was due to the way they dished out the tough assignments? Obviously it had to be a big factor, but it’s impossible to quantify, just as it’s impossible to run that experiment where Gardiner and Rielly flip roles entirely.

Still, it’s worth pondering whether a shift in how these minutes are divvied up could benefit the team. Perhaps Rielly and Matthews as a combo is that should happen a little more than it has in the past, and I wonder if their limited time together was a result of the 96.6 PDO the duo had while paired up. It could be that their perceived inability to produce enough of an offensive advantage factored into this (though I highly doubt the Leafs’ front office has yet to dig into this.)

It would obviously be a bit of a surprise if Babcock enters next season with a major switch in deployment of Rielly and Gardiner in mind, but with a couple key additions like Marleau and Hainsey now in the fold, it isn’t really out of the question to see things play out differently. We’ve been under the assumption that Hainsey will slot in with Gardiner, and Marleau alongside Matthews, which may give the staff the option to shift their roles somewhat. Or on the flip side of that, with keeping in mind that Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are a year older, maybe the insistence on keeping those guys away from power-on-power matchups is something that fades – defence pairings changing along with it.

Either way, we know the Leafs will seek out ways to keep improving their deployment and line-matching strategies. It’ll just be interesting to see if that means Babcock again hammers Kadri and Rielly with the hardest minutes, or if things balance out a bit and others can take on some more of that weight.