Appearances can be deceiving, and in the case of the Leafs’ top two centres in recent years this saying holds true more than most observers realize. Toronto has been one of the worst possession teams in the NHL under Randy Carlyle, and early returns this season suggest that the more things change the more they stay the same.
The Leafs under Ron Wilson drove possession largely through an elite second unit consisting of Mikhail Grabovski centring Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin. The trio ranked as the 20th best line in the NHL to play 300+ mins together at 5v5 in terms of Corsi For Percentage (CF%) between 2010 and 2012. Their closest comparables over the 2010–2012 seasons were the Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin, Kovalchuk-Henrique-Parise and Dupuis-Crosby-Kunitz lines—despite seeing usage as a “second” unit the MGK line was easily the Leafs’ most reliably productive.
Carlyle’s arrival signalled a change in usage as Grabovski and Kulemin were predominantly shifted to defensive assignments that limited both their offensive opportunities and subsequent results. Grabovski’s output dropped from consecutive 50+-point seasons under Wilson as a 0.70-point-per-game player from October of 2010 through April of 2012, to a measly 16 points in the strike-shortened 48-game season (0.33 ppg). A drop by over 50 percent in scoring presaged the controversial Grabovski buyout in the 2013 off-season, and for a Leafs team that was ignoring possession data removed their best option in the middle.
A “young” 27-year-old Tyler Bozak was re-signed to play the top-line role alongside Phil Kessel, while 23-year-old Nazem Kadri was granted responsibility on the second line. Kadri’s production was expected to continue following a breakout season that saw him post 44 points in 48 games.
Over the past two years (and three games this season), Bozak has produced 81 points in 2,205 minutes of ice time (2.20 pts/60), while Kadri has produced 96 points in 2,179 minutes of ice time (2.64 pts/60). Looking at players that played comparable minutes (2,000–2,400) and produced between 80 and 100 points in the same time frame we get this group.
Bozak's closest comps are David Desharnais (2.20) and Gabriel Landeskog (2.19), while Kadri's best comps are Marian Hossa (2.66) and Patrik Elias (2.61). Kadri has produced more than Logan Couture (2.56) and Rick Nash (2.54). Yet we still hear with regularity that Kadri has to "prove" he deserves the role as the second-line centre behind Bozak due to his need to produce offensively. It seems that it might be time to move past that point in the conversation.
Bozak has been handed the nominal top-line centre spot alongside elite scoring wingers such as Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk for going on five NHL seasons. Through the past four years, Bozak's lines have garnered 47 percent of the team's 5v5 goals, which ranks 70th amongst the top 89 centres in the NHL over that span. This despite playing 3,214:04 of his 3,793:25 of 5v5 ice time (84 percent) alongside Kessel, the 15th ranked NHL goal scorer at 5v5 in terms of G/60 over the same time frame.
The unfortunate reality here is that the common perception of Bozak as a defensively capable centre isn't borne out by any statistical analysis whatsoever. The only centres to be on the ice for a higher rate of Goals Against at 5v5 during the prior four years are Jason Spezza and Sam Gagner (neither has ever received a Selke vote—Bozak has).
Spezza and Gagner have had on-ice SV%s of .908 and .902 respectively—and we know forwards have virtually no discernible effect on 5v5 SV% in the long term. Bozak in contrast has been skating in front of goalies who stop the puck with a SV% of .913, significantly higher than the two players he trails. The elevated goals-against may stem from the fact that he ranks dead last in Fenwick-events-against amongst this group of players with a rate of 16.650 unblocked shot attempts per 20 minutes—no other NHL centre is on the ice for over 16.
A typical argument to explain Bozak's poor defensive results usually fixates on his "difficult" quality of competition. While his opposition is typically top-six material, it isn't significantly tougher than what the majority of NHL top-six pivots face. In fact—for the four-year span being used for analysis, Bozak's Opposition FF% is only 50.1%, which ranks basically smack in the middle of difficulty all forwards see. Kadri has actually faced the exact same Opposition FF% during the same time frame.
Generally we should not focus on quality of competition in longer time frames because it evens out for most players across a full season—and even more so across multiple years. But in shorter stretches the quality of competition a skater faces can be quite impactful. So far in this brief NHL season, the Leafs have actually been seeing decent possession results from Kadri, despite the team's poor overall results at 5v5 through three games.
Below is a comparison of Bozak and Kadri's possession performance over the past four seasons (plus the three games from this year) against the 28 regular centres that they have both played at least 20 minutes of 5v5 hockey against. The 28 centres were placed into three bins: those with a Corsi For percentage (CF%) above 52 percent; between 50 and 52 percent; and below 50 percent. The top group predominantly plays for elite Eastern Conference possession teams, with names such as Bergeron, Zajac and Malkin. The middle group includes the more offensively inclined likes of Desharnais, Stamkos and Tavares. The bottom group includes second- and third-line centres such as Plekanec, Briere and Lecavalier.
While Kadri and Bozak play comparably against the middle tier, it seems Kadri has outperformed Bozak handily against both the elite opposition and the lesser lights of the Eastern Conference.
So far this season—in an admittedly very small sampling—it seems Kadri has continued to prove himself the superior of the two in terms of controlling play. Kadri is currently ranked third on the Leafs, and is the top centre, posting a 5v5 CF% of 54.67%. Bozak ranks 18th on the team and is the lowest-ranked centre, with a CF% of 38.38%.
Despite Bozak's poor possession results at even strength and his On-Ice SH% at 5v5 of 5.88%, however, he leads the team in scoring with three goals and four points through three games. Power-play production is lifting his output significantly at this point in the season and buys him some breathing room where critics are concerned.
Unfortunately for the Leafs the vast majority of ice time in the NHL is spent at 5v5 and not with the man advantage. While many top scorers produce half their points on the power play, it seems unlikely that Bozak will continue to register those at the rate of one per game.
Bozak's possession numbers will improve and his 5v5 scoring should pick up, but there is still an ongoing debate around who the top centre on the Leafs is. The Leafs second and third lines have been relatively respectable thus far in the young 2014–15 season, and of the four pivots, Kadri and Santorelli (combined CF% of 51.54%) have driven play for the Leafs at 5v5 far more than Bozak or Holland (combined CF% of 37.24%).
Moving forward it should be interesting to see if Kadri gets more opportunity at 5v5 to play against top centres as he grows into a larger role for the Leafs.