Loading scores...
Hockey Analytics

Jake Gardiner Evolution

by Gus Katsaros
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman, one of the more polarizing players among the fan base is enjoying a stellar season alongside a new defensive partner and improved play – even if it hasn’t shown up in the individual production meter yet.


Jake Gardiner is a rarity in the way he can execute high risk moves in high risk areas. One mental error turns into a cringe-worthy giveaway or turnover and he transforms into a defensive liability. A simple little play like this one below can be disastrous if he turned it over. It takes magnitudes of confidence and bravado to attempt such plays in high dangerous areas. That’s the positive. I’m also more lenient for mental errors made as a result of creativity. Don’t squelch skill, be selective about risk.


Pretty slick #Gardiner pic.twitter.com/vskkZWOJUQ

— Gus Katsaros (@KatsHockey) September 23, 2015



I think I’ve had a handle on the Leafs defenseman and I don’t mind the defensive issues because that’s more of a coaching element rather than just individual talent.


Play as a Forward


Assessing defensive impact of a defenseman is still very much in the infancy stages with the current metrics available but there are attempts.


Gardiner’s specific defensive issues are in three specific cases, and they all stem from playing as a forward in formative years until converted to a blueliner as he is today in his profession career.


Defensive issues are from three basic items that coaches can exploit.


1 – hitting/physicality

2 – pivots and turns

3 – awkward positioning, forcing races and battles dependent on physical contact


Most of the issues are experienced when Gardiner is the ‘engage,’ not the ‘support’ player in what I describe as the three stages of a defensive system:


Transition out of the zone. Small series of in-zone passes leading to an organized breakout, a stretch pass, skating it up the weak side and out, or relieving pressure by throwing into the neutral zone, forcing the puck battle there


I'm redefining 'defensive defenseman' to a dman who kicks off initial transition to offense. May not get recognized much but ultra important

— Gus Katsaros (@KatsHockey) September 4, 2015



Not only did Gardiner  have to adapt to the professional game, he had to also learn to play a recently adopted position – with the added pressure of higher pace in a ravenous fanbase.


Young blueliners learn the nuances of the position in developmental years, testing limits pushing their pace quicker as they break new plateaus along the developmental curve.


Gardiner is an average hitter and that might even be stretching it. Physicality as a forward was mostly geared to forward momentum, perhaps pinning defensemen already against the boards. Forward momentum is key.


Hitting as a defenseman originates from backward skating momentum. Standing up a player at the blueline takes strength, balance and agility in backwards momentum. So does angling them off into the outside to rub out along the boards. Positional errors are costly. An opposing coach could target Gardiner, stimulating players to take runs right at him with the puck off the rush, exploiting awkwardness.


Now, he can switching it up and initiate physical contact by turning to skate forwards, assuming forward momentum. That requires a pivot. For defensemen, less than perfect pivots are detrimental and that’s the second issue.


Forward skating was likely limited to straight movements, perhaps stops/starts and cuts. Forwards don’t pivot as much as a defenseman and even if they did, it’s likely in a preparation scenario for a formation not to engage opposition in a paced situation. Gardiner had to learn to pivot more effectively after the conversion to defense all while adapting to the professional pace.


Myriad examples exist where forwards use the outside track forcing Gardiner to commit to pivot and cutting to the net. Pivoting will force a loss of momentum in the turn; a good forward knows how to force defensemen to commit to the pivot and take advantage of the slowdown to angle to the goal.


Jake’s pivots aren’t clean and his backward skating isn’t as crisp and balanced as when he’s on the attack. Coaches could instruct players to take him wide, force the pivot, and cut hard inside. They win the positioning battle, force Gardiner into a penalty, or create a scoring opportunity. That’s a win-win scenario, and the optics are bad.


Good coaches should exploit Gardiner by forcing him into being the engage, rather than support.


The last option is to create races that end in physical confrontation for control of the puck, forcing Gardiner into unbalanced physical matchups. I think he pulls up in physical confrontations along the boards because he’s still thinking of the battle in terms of a forward, trying to cheat in changing his body angle to try to gain positioning. He’s clearly not the best engage.


He’s a solid support.


Matt Cane wrote about attempting new ways to judge defenseman impact, stemming from the initial idea of Tyler Dellow, now with the Edmonton Oilers. The idea revolves around multiple shot shifts. The theory being, defensively responsible players (although I believe this is more on the team level than individual skill over a smaller sample size), would allow less multiple shot shifts than a less reliable rearguard.


Matt provided a chart with the Leafs standard deviation. The takeaway here is Gardiner is on for less multi-shot shifts than other regular Leafs defensemen at slightly over one standard deviation away from league average. Partner Dion Phaneuf was on the edge of the two standard deviations box. We’ll explore that partnership shortly.


Passing Project Data


Ryan Stimson and his crew tracking passes around the NHL release their data last week. There is a wide gap in samples among teams but Toronto has 16 games tracked. Three tables in the image below originated from that data release. Values are 5v5.


Each table represents the next sequence of passing involving Gardiner and ended up in a shot event. Tertiary (third) passes are represented in the table on the left, the middle table he’s secondary pass (second pass) and the table on the right when he’s the primary pass.


Instead of writing out what zone abbreviations I just lifted definitions straight from the passing master data file.


View post on imgur.com



The first column represents the zone the pass originated. Across the top are the next sequence’s zones where the pass is made. The A2 and A1 tables move one level to the next zone sequence. The tertiary table contains the tertiary zone (e.g. dl, then the secondary zone (listed underneath the dl category as dl dsc and nc). Across the top is the zone where the primary pass was made.


To read the table as the third passer, Gardiner made two passes from the left side of the defensive zone that ended up as passes on the left side of the defensive zone and the primary pass in the neutral zone before the eventual shot event.


As secondary passing (middle table), when passes occurred in the defensive zone, it led to a primary pass mostly in the neutral zone. Only few passes originating from the defensive zone end up as offensive zone passes. That would suggest a break into the offensive zone and likely a shot attempt.


Primary passing (table on the right) Gardiner is making the pass from the zone in the row across the top, with the first column signifying which zone from which the secondary pass originated. The three in the dsl column is indicative that he gets passes from his defensive partner where he sends long stretch passes up the left side. The highlighted number four in the table shows his primary passes are to the left point showing off the tendency to free wheel in the offensive zone. The interesting point here is there are no cross-zone passes in the offensive zone, mitigating risk – that often goes unnoticed for a blueliner off the point in the offensive zone.


Gardiner is less a passer and more of a rusher though; he moves the puck across all three zones and creates effectively when getting into the offensive zone.


Regardless how the puck is moved, Gardiner is clearly the support option. Someone else has to be the engage.


Mike Babcock may have seen the same thing and partnered him with Dion Phaneuf.




Gardiner and the Leafs captain had successful stints in the past, however random the occurrence or circumstances involved, both players complement each other.






























An observational takeaway from the table is the improved GA60, down from 2.56 to 2.07 in 2015-16, with CA60 following suit.


Dion is the first contact, ‘engage’ partner, creating the chance at a turnover, while Gardiner as the support is able to swoop in and begin the transition to offense.


Phaneuf has benefited just as much, in calculated minutes as the engage, eschewing the need to be the entire play, creating the turnover and moving the puck up ice. Jettisoning the likes of Kostka’s, Gunnarrson’s and Holzer’s in favor of Gardiner allows the captain to step into more defined boundaries, simplifying his game while mobile Gardiner does most of the heavy freewheeling.


View post on imgur.com



Gardiner and Phaneuf have had exceptional success this season, very similar to past. I’ve included 2015-16 in the graph for Gardiner below to show how the past Phaneuf compares to the current partnership.


View post on imgur.com



Gardiner ranks in the top 25 in CF% among defensemen playing over 400 minutes continuing past trends. More encouraging is the top 20 among defensemen in CF% relative to their team (ranked 18th), while ranking seventh in the NHL as per the Christmas break

Gus Katsaros
Gus Katsaros is the Pro Scouting Coordinator with McKeen’s Hockey, publishers of industry leading scouting and fantasy guide, the McKeen’s Annual Hockey Pool Yearbook. He also contributes to popular blog MapleLeafsHotStove.com ... he can be followed on Twitter @KatsHockey