One of the best things about covering the Toronto Maple Leafs is the opportunity to set the record straight about some of the more incorrect narratives that go around throughout a season.
Here are two terrible myths currently going around:
1. Morgan Rielly’s Absence Really Hurt the Leafs
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This is a truly lazy narrative. Yes, the Leafs went 2-3-1 while he was out, and of course they missed him.
The thing is, the Leafs weren’t “exposed” without him. It didn’t illustrate a “talent gap.” After one game, Rielly was basically replaced with Marincin and there was hardly a difference.
The only truly terrible game they had without him was when Marincin was also out. Once he came back, Polak and Hunwick had their minutes rolled back and everything was basically the same as before Rielly went down.
Morgan Rielly, as good as he is, loses some of the edge his talent gives him because Babcock is forcing him as the team’s #1 guy. Moving Gardiner to where he should be anyways (#1 guy) and adding in Marincin actually makes the Leafs better than they were with Rielly as #1 and Marincin injured.
For more detail on Rielly’s true value, check here. The bottom line is this: you can’t just analyze things with wins and losses. Yes, Rielly was missed, but the Leafs were in no way “exposed” without him. The main thing his injury showed is that having to play Polak and Hunwick at the same time is terrible.
2. Jake Gardiner Is not a Top-Pairing Guy
This has to be the most annoying myth in Leafland. Jake Gardiner just can’t get the respect he deserves. Let’s be clear: He is a legit-top pairing defenseman. This season specifically, he has been one of the better defenseman in the NHL. He isn’t a Norris Candidate, but it wouldn’t be ridiculous if he got a few votes either.
Jake Gardiner’s 53.96% score-adjusted CF rating ranks him 20th in the NHL among D who have played 500 minutes. He is good for an automatic 30 points every year, and he is among the best in the NHL at limiting shots.
Over 60 minutes of ice time, the Leafs average 5 extra shots than their opponent when Gardiner plays. His WOWY stats show he makes 100% of the players he plays with better.
His Hero Chart shows how much impact he has as a defensive player. It says that Gardiner is a top-pairing defensive player, and only his point totals keep him out of being truly elite. Last year’s Wins Against Replacement ranked him as the 29th best defenseman in the NHL.
Jake Gardiner may not score enough to get the credit he really deserves. He quietly makes everyone he plays with better, and when he’s on the ice, the Leafs are one of the best teams in hockey. His defensive work is such that if he scored 10-20 points/year more he’d be a top-ten defenseman.
As it is, he is easily a top 30 – which makes him a first-line, top-pairing guy. He is among the most underrated players in the NHL and is easily the Toronto Maple Leafs best dman.