The Toronto Maple Leafs have uncharacteristically made a series of clever wagers over the past week. First they signed play-driving, bottom-six forwards David Booth and Daniel Winnik to nearly risk-free, one-year contracts. On Tuesday they extended puck-moving defender Jake Gardiner, signing him to a five-year contract.
The term of this Gardiner extension is a bit surprising. It wasn't long ago that the Maple Leafs and Gardiner were reportedly discussing just a two-year extension. There was also talk of the club maybe moving him to forward.
It begs the question: Is it a coincidence that on the heels of hiring analytics maven Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager, the Maple Leafs have made a series of bets that would seem to be informed by the underlying numbers? Maybe, but either way, the Dubas hire suggests a willingness to look at things differently. The Leafs' recent series of moves suggest the same.
Toronto's front office seems a lot more open to data-driven talent evaluations than it was a week ago, and that openness appears to be informing the club's practical decision making. Unless it was Gardiner's "respectable" plus-minus that convinced the Maple Leafs to invest in the 24-year-old:
For a club that dressed players like Corsi For percentage sinkholes Colton Orr, Jarred Smithson, Frazer McLaren, Mark Fraser, and Tim Gleason in a combined 157 games last season, and leaned heavily on Jay McClement at even strength, these latest moves represent a massive departure.
Rookie Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has seemingly ended Randy Carlyle's and Dave Nonis' grand shot quality experiment, even as he retained them.
Gardiner is the type of player that shot-based metrics suggest is chronically undervalued. To the eyes, Gardiner doesn't do some of the things that traditionalists swear is essential for defensemen, be it "clearing the crease" or "getting the puck deep." Gardiner occasionally frustrates fans with his defensive zone decision making, and his habit of freelancing in the neutral zone.
Our knowledge of what sorts of tactics allow teams to "control play" (i.e., consistently outshoot and outscore their opponents at even strength) has improved in recent years. As it has, its become clear that having defenders like Gardiner, who can control the puck and make plays in the neutral zone, is key. If Gardiner's defensive positioning isn't as good as a "stay-at-home defender" it almost doesn't matter, since the Leafs spend less time at home with Gardiner on the ice.
Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett elaborated on this point a few years ago:
We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shutdown defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can't move the puck. Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn't defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he's making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he's only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.
Getting the puck deep may make coaches comfortable, it may even be the right play on occasion, but it's counterintuitively self-defeating. Possessing the puck is too important; you can't just give it away, you have to make the opposition take it from you. This isn't a new line of thinking, smart hockey people have known this for years, but in recent years it has become quantifiable.
Gardiner, playing for a club that, even when they were winning games, found itself pinned in its own end last season, was one of the best "zone-exit" defenders in the NHL during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Last season, the Maple Leafs dumped the puck in less often with Gardiner on the ice, and generated more shots per carry-in when he was on the ice.
Gardiner's skating ability and overall hockey sense make him an excellent spatial problem solver, which allows the Maple Leafs to be outshot and outscored less dramatically when he's on the ice.
The problem, of course, is that the Leafs are still outshot and outscored dramatically, but it doesn't have to be that way, not with a handful of talented forwards, excellent goaltending, and quality puck-possession defenders like Gardiner and - the Leafs hope - eventually Morgan Rielly. Gardiner and Rielly could be - and probably should be - the engine for a club with lots of speed up front.
The Maple Leafs committed to Gardiner on Tuesday. The question remains: will they unleash him?
It seems like data is informing Toronto's decision making when it comes to their recent personnel decisions, and that may have an effect on the way the club approaches the game tactically going forward. It may even change the way Carlyle uses his players.
It also may not, of course, which would be unfortunate. As good as Gardiner is, as likely as he is to provide the Maple Leafs with significant value over the life of his extension, his effectiveness will be neutered if the Maple Leafs don't change the way they play next season.