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Title - HH
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Jake Gardiner and the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline
By Rob McPhee
HometownHockey.ca

Jake Gardiner and the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline
Suggesting the Toronto Maple Leafs defence struggled during the 2013-14 season would be putting it mildly. They put up some of the worst Corsi statistics in the league, and allowed more shots on goal in an 82 game season than ever before. The result is that there are more questions being asked about this defence then there are questions being answered.
PHOTO CREDIT - GettyImages.ca

Toronto - June 14, 2014 - Suggesting the Toronto Maple Leafs defence struggled during the 2013-14 season would be putting it mildly.

They put up some of the worst Corsi statistics in the league, and allowed more shots on goal in an 82 game season than ever before. The result is that there are more questions being asked about this defence then there are questions being answered.

There is no single statistic one can turn to in order to get a comprehensive understanding of a seasons worth of hockey and this makes it very difficult to statistically break down an entire NHL team’s defence core. Each statistic does, however, tell part of a much larger story. Logic would dictate that the more stats you look at in conjunction with one another, the more detailed the story becomes.

In order to try and get the best understanding of the Maple Leaf’s blueline, I broke down the teams defenders over 17 statistical data points. The stats used range from points, goal differentials, percentage of team scoring, Corsi both total and relative to the team, as well as penalty differential. Each of the five players considered was then awarded between 1 and 5 points depending on how they ranked amongst each other. The theory being here that the player with the most points performed at the highest level in the most aspects of the game.

With all of that in mind we will now go in order from the fewest points earned to the most. Player by player we will try to determine who the best defencemen in Toronto are:

Carl Gunnarsson: 43 Points
Now Gunnarsson finishing last must mean that he is the worst defencemen correct? Not necessarily. Despite being at the bottom of the barrel, he actually finished first in a four seperate categories, which was second among the players looked at. It is no coincidence that the numbers that favoured him were all defensive based stats such as Plus/Minus and Goals Allowed while on the ice. That said, the twenty-seven year old’s Corsi numbers took a hit across the board, but can be expected when your job is to shutdown the other team’s top line. In the end, he does what is asked of him and not much else...solid in his own end of the rink and a complete non-entity down at the other end.

Cody Franson: 48 Points
Franson arguably makes the best case for worst defencemen on the team. Despite tallying the most points this season, he struggled significantly in his own end. The former third round pick of the Nashville Predators sported the worst plus/minus on the team, the worst goal differential and was on the ice for the most goals. A defenceman's first priority should always be defence should it not? If this is true then Cody Franson is by far and away the worst of the bunch. It also means Toronto will have a tough decision to make when it comes to the pending RFA this summer.

Dion Phaneuf: 49 Points
Despite being the local’s favourite whipping boy, the Leaf captain finished third overall putting together what was a fairly solid statistical campaign. Dion finished second in most offensive categories putting up 31 points with a plus/minus of 2 and a goal differential of 4 but most fans would hope to see better possession numbers from their supposed #1 defenceman. His Corsi numbers are less than stellar, and his penalty differential is a -16. In the end, the numbers suggest the former first round pick is being asked to take on more than he can handle. The number one takeaway from Phaneuf’s numbers is that he needs help. He frankly isn’t good enough to be both the offensive and defensive catalyst along the blueline but the twist is that the help they need may already be on the team.

Morgan Rielly: 49 Points
The Leaf’s young rookie impressed many this season, earning him the ‘untouchable’ label this offseason and the numbers suggest that was the correct move. While Rielly’s numbers are all rather average, it is worth remembering he is still only 20 years of age. The one area in which the kid stood out above the rest, is in ‘Corsi For Relative’, a category in which he was second. What this tells us is that when Rielly is on the ice, his teammate’s Corsi numbers go up significantly, nearly 3%. Essentially he makes the players around him better...an attribute most great players posse.

Jake Gardiner: 66 Points
This was a shock. The shock is not the fact that Jake Gardiner is one of the better defencemen on the team, but that he was the best. The seventeenth overall pick of the 2008 draft finished first in seven different categories both offensively and defensively. He had the most goals, best penalty differential and the highest ‘Corsi For Relative’ stat by more than double that of the next best defencemen. On top of having the third best goal differential he also didn’t finish last in a single category. Jake Gardiner statistically put forth an amazing season not just offensively, but on the whole. Toronto would be wise to try and lock up the 23 year old restricted free agent to a rather lengthy extension in the coming months.

The statistics show a surprising and yet promising story when it comes to the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs backend. They have two of the best young defenders in the league, anchored by a solid all around defenseman in Dion Phaneuf. However the bigger question marks remains the lack of depth along the blueline. Is Carl Gunnarsson good enough to play a shutdown role? Does Cody Franson’s offensive prowess outweigh his defensive deficiencies? These are all issues that management will have to address over the coming months and one can only hope they do not mortgage their future to trying to fix these problems, as Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are showing signs of being able to develop into truly proficient if not great NHL defencemen.

Data chart used

Note: Tim Gleason was left out as a result of him only playing 39 games with the Leafs this season. Only players who played in 62 games or 75% of the season were used.

All Stats provided by www.nhl.com and extraskater.com

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