The Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line is underrated.
Everyone complains about it, but I submit that that has more to do with the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs have the deepest forwards, and one of the best goalies in the NHL.
If you didn’t complain about their blue-line, what exactly would you complain about?
The perception of the blue line as has been compounded in recent days with the news that Nikita Zaitsev had requested a trade.
OH NO! He’s Right Handed!! What will they do without them?
The underlying consensus seems to be that the Leafs should at least consider keeping a bad player because he shoots right handed.
If you spend any time reading about or following the Leafs, then you have probably heard discussions about how the team has no right-hand defenders, and what a big problem this is.
But it’s not a problem.
It’s the dumbest, most over-hyped load of crap in the hockey universe, and the amount it’s talked about is a billion times more than the weight of importance we should give the topic.
If you’ve been following advanced stats since the start of this decade, it probably seems pretty idiotic that teams still do things like give Jay Beagle four year three million dollar deals at age 32, or that they trade for Eric Gundbranson, or when a TV analyst mentions plus/minus, or makes an “interwebs” level dad-joke about Corsi.
One thing advanced analytics have taught us is that we (collectively, as a culture) were overvaluing things like stay-at-home defenseman, face-off abilities, and penalty killing.
It was proven over a decade ago that the amount of face-offs you’d have to win in order to equal a goal made it so that face-off specialists just didn’t offer enough value to be worth employing, if you wouldn’t play him otherwise.
It isn’t to say face-offs aren’t an important facet of the game, just that no one is good enough at them to justify a position in the lineup on that alone.
I think the same thing is happening with right-handed defenseman.
There is definitely a deficiency of right-handed defenseman, that is real. And all things being equal, I am sure most coaches would prefer a d-pairing that features a player of each handedness.
But because it’s been a talking point, it’s taken on this importance that just isn’t there.
Let’s Forget We Ever Heard What Hand a Defenseman Shoots
Look, anyone capable of becoming an NHL player is capable of switching the side they play on. Being right handed and playing the right side offers some advantage, but so does being left-handed.
It’s probably harder for a goalie to save a shot from a left handed player shooting from the right side because the angle is a little different. You get better one timers, and if you’re standing in front of your goalie, you don’t have to reach across your body to stick check someone or play the puck.
You’re also in better position to play the puck off the boards if you’re on your wrong side and facing the net.
These advantages don’t mean that everyone should play their wrong side, they just suggest that it’s not so bad if you have to.
So if the Toronto Maple Leafs have six left handed defenseman, who cares?
I guess my point is that if you have an even split, that is optimal, but that it’s not worth losing a good player just because they don’t play the side you want them to.
If Jake Gardiner is the Leafs best option, they shouldn’t worry that he’s left handed. It shouldn’t be a consideration in the least.
Let’s say you had a top four of Rielly, Muzzin, Gardiner and Dermott. That is unquestionably one of the best four man groups in the NHL. At the very least, it’s inside the top ten.
Messing that up because your players are all left handed would be complete idiocy.
Thinking that Ron Hainsey’s right-side experience would make him a better right-side option than any of those players is not only laughably ridiculous, it’s demonstrably wrong.
Asking a player to learn all new routes and stuff on top of his daily in-season routine could be difficult. I do not dispute that. But any human capable of becoming an NHL top-four defenseman can learn to play his off-side when he’s got six months off.
Throughout their careers, Rielly and Gardiner have been paired together for about one season’s worth of minutes. Their stats together are insanely good.
In a small sample size, Dermott and either Muzzin or Gardiner were over 55%. (Stats from naturalstattrick.com).
In both cases, the two lefty pairs outperformed their normal pairings significantly.
I should also point out that Travis Dermott is 100% a top-four NHL defenseman at this point, and insisting that he play less minutes, because the Leafs also have Muzzin and Rielly, is incredibly bad player management. Unless the Leafs have a right hander who is equal to or better than Dermott, then Dermott being a lefty shouldn’t make a difference.
The Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line is incredibly underrated – mostly because Muzzin and Gardiner are not properly regarded from a public perception standpoint – and as they look to replace Zaitsev, Hainsey and Ozhiganov, they should be concerned with adding talent, and less concerned with finding right-shot defenseman.