Hockey

Analytics back Maple Leafs’ Jake Gardiner more than perception

Toronto’s Jake Gardiner isn’t the player you think he is.

The prevailing view of the Leafs’ 24-year-old, $4 million per season defenseman is that he plays a high-risk, high-reward style that so far this season has led to little reward and lots of shots on goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer.

His elite skating ability has led to flashes of brilliance. But Gardiner’s glaring mistakes in the defensive end have cast doubt on what seemed like almost limitless potential and landed him in not only former coach Randy Carlyle’s doghouse, but also the press box as a healthy scratch on several occasions this season.

But even as real and as glaring and as grotesque as some of his defensive zone play has been, would it surprise you to hear that there’s an argument Gardiner is actually the best defensive defenseman on the Leafs … by a lot?

Corsi Against per 60 (CA/60) measures the number of shots attempted against a team per 60 minutes the player is on the ice. Gardiner’s 57.2 CA/60 leads Leafs defensemen by a huge margin, more than five fewer than Cody Franson and around eight fewer than Dion Phaneuf and Morgan Rielly.

Anyone who watches the games might point out that regardless of how many shots there are, the ones that do happen when Gardiner’s on the ice tend to be of the “how could he leave that guy wide open like that … again?” variety.

That’s where the self-explanatory statistic “Scoring Chances Against per 60” (SC Against/60) comes in. But as reflected in the table, as it turns out Gardiner is as good if not better at suppressing opponents’ scoring chances than he is at reducing their shot attempts.

Gardiner’s CA/60 and SC Against/60 stats are pretty compelling, but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story. For example, if Gardiner plays against much weaker opponents than, say, Phaneuf, then it would be only natural Phaneuf’s numbers would be worse. But as it turns out the weighted average number of shots attempted by the opponents Gardiner plays against is pretty much the same as Phaneuf, Franson and Rielly. Which strongly suggests that Gardiner’s much lower CA/60 must reflect a genuine ability to suppress opponents’ shot attempts.

One last possible explanation is that maybe the teammates Gardiner tends to play with are carrying the defensive load, and he’s piggybacking on them. The numbers tell us that’s not it, either. Gardiner’s primary defensive partners have been Korbinian Holzer, Roman Polak and Rielly. Not exactly all-stars. And the forwards he plays most with are James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, who, of the 391 forwards who have played 200-plus minutes this season, rank an almost inconceivably awful 391st, 390th, and 387th in CA/60. In fact, van Riemsdyk’s 71.65 CA/60 is almost double Justin Abdelkader’s 38.55.

So Gardiner’s numbers seem real. But how is it possible there’s such a difference between what the numbers tell us and what our eyes tell us?

One possibility is that even a stat such as SC Against/60 doesn’t sufficiently take into account the difference among scoring chances. In other words, not all scoring chances are created equal and perhaps Gardiner gives up more doozies than the other defensemen. But even that doesn’t seem to be the explanation.

If Gardiner really did give up juicier scoring chances, that should be reflected by a lower Leafs’ save percentage when he’s on the ice, but the Leafs’ .911 five-on-five save percentage with Gardiner on the ice is higher than Franson (.901) and only slightly lower than supposed defensive stalwart Phaneuf (.920).

So what we’re left with is another example of how perception doesn’t always match reality: Gardiner’s glaring mistakes are having a disproportionate impact on our assessment. His strengths – among them getting the puck out of the defensive zone with much greater efficiency than other Leafs defenders – are less flashy and less noticeable but actually have a much greater impact on suppressing shots and scoring chances than most people realize.

So next time you see Gardiner leave a couple opposition forwards wide open in front of the net while he’s floating around the blueline or checking air in the corner, feel free to yell at the TV but realize that you’d still rather have him on the ice than any other Leafs defenseman.

For more information on the methodology, go to www.depthockeyanalytics.com.

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