I’m not entirely sure what the future holds for Dave Nonis and the Toronto Maple Leafs. If I were to wager a guess, Nonis lasts for a few years at the helm of one of the NHL’s flagship organizations, gets another couple of playoff appearances, perhaps a coaching change or two, and ultimately doesn’t win the Stanley Cup.
That’s not to say that I think Nonis is inherently flawed or that the Maple Leafs are cursed, but it’s just unlikely for any team to win the Stanley Cup. You need a great team and great luck, or everything else falls apart.
So far, the Nonis era has unfolded in Toronto rather unspectacularly. If you can say anything about the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s that they’re a hockey team, built as one might expect any standard hockey team to be built. The first line has skilled players. The second line has slightly less skilled players. The third line is players the coach doesn’t like. There are fighters on the fourth line.
It’s been just six months into Nonis’ tenure, but he has yet to make a decision with the roster that beats against the current. Not to say that there is a move that surely he ought to have made that would make the Leafs better with the snap of his fingers, but generally, the moves he has made could have been made by anybody.
In baseball, commentators love it when managers bunt runners into scoring position in close games. They love pinch hitting right handed batters against left handed pitchers and they love steals and they love substitutions. They love micro-managing. Generally, commentators like in baseball what they would do and what convention would have them do.
The fundamental flaw with Colton Orr has nothing to do with the way Orr plays or the effort he brings. To his credit, Orr has a talent that he has turned into a multi-million dollar hockey career. There aren’t many rational arguments in favour of fighting, let alone staged fighting, let alone having a roster player who does nothing but get into staged fights.
So the Leafs re-signed Orr for two seasons. The fact that they re-signed a player with poor underlying statistics is nothing new. Lots of teams sign players whose teams get out-shot when they’re on the ice. No matter how good players in the league are, there are always going to be nine or ten that you could generally consider the worst players in hockey.
What is quite telling about what the Leafs think of Colton Orr is that in their seven overtime games this season, plus two in the playoffs, that Colton Orr did not register a single second of ice-time in any of them. He is counted on to play in the lowest leverage of situations.
Orr was third last in the NHL among forwards with 40 games or more in ice-time per game (6.35 minutes). He was second last in Corsi Rel QoC, and second last in overall Corsi (ahead of only Jay McClement, a penalty killing specialist that played either alongside Orr, or in a real tough checking role for the Leafs). The zero minutes in overtime, especially considering the Leafs finished their season in overtime, is particularly telling. Toronto was a three-line team for much of the year, with goons Orr and Frazer McLaren or whomever generally taking a seat about midway through the second period.
In Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, Orr played 10 shifts. Six of them came in the first period, and Orr played just 1:30 after the midway point in the second period.
What’s the point in dressing him?
If you use multi-season stats like the ones found at Hockey Analysis, you’d find that of players with at least 1000 minutes over the last four years (Orr’s last contract) only nine out of 414 forwards have a lower points/60 than Orr. He was 410th in “Individual Point Percentage”, the percentage of on-ice goals wherein he contributed. I get that Orr’s job isn’t to score points, but why not? There has to be an opportunity cost involved by dressing Orr rather than some skilled forward that’s tearing up the Swiss league or something because he couldn’t find an NHL gig. Did he help out his linemates? Only Todd Marchant and Brad Staubitz had a worse Corsi over the period, and it’s not like Orr’s fists were inspiring a lot of Leafs victories with him in the lineup.
Apparently, coach Randy Carlyle likes him, and that’s fine. Carlyle takes a lot of heat in the Leafs blogosphere for his continued reluctance to play anybody but Orr or McLaren on the fourth line, but in the grand scheme of things, playing two poor players for six minutes a game isn’t going to change anything. You’re giving up just two extra shots a game, so the decision should only cost the team about once every ten games.
The issue isn’t Orr. The issue is Nonis bowing to convention so that he doesn’t have to take a chance on a player he doesn’t know much about, one who perhaps can contribute a little more in a depth spot.
Convention allows teams to make basic moves in depth positions and generally satisfy the status quo of the game. It’s harmless, because nobody of any substance is going to rise up and complain that the Leafs put fighter Colton Orr in a jersey instead of a player like Rob Schremp, Linus Omark or Wojtek Wolski. Those are the moves that if they fail, get criticized.
Patrick Bordeleau, perhaps the only player in the National Hockey League more useless than Colton Orr last season, managed to get a three year contract for himself. The Vancouver Canucks signed Tom Sestito for two years, just months after getting him off waivers, a place where the Tom Sestitos of the world congregate.
The Leafs, Avalanche and Canucks aren’t the only teams that carry these players. There’s Brian McGrattan, Zac Rinaldo and John Scott. Behind The Net found 13 players with 20 or more games played this past season, 8 or fewer minutes, a Corsi Rel QoC of below -1.000 and at least one minor penalty per 60 minutes of ice-time. Welcome, Kevin Westgarth, Brandon Bollig, Tim Jackman and Ryan Reaves. Salutations to Chris Thorburn, George Parros and Mike Brown. The computer has deemed you all pretty expendable, with your coach wanting to pay lip service to the idea of having a conventional goon, but not wanting to actually play you in a high leverage situation.
In this case, stupid generally neutralizes stupid. If you had asked me a year ago, I’d have suggested that the trend of players with specialized goon roles was on the way down. It appears that there are more of them than ever, in every division, even dressing on teams that are generally smart.
So perhaps there’s an issue that teams are concentrating on player roles when selecting players. Good hockey players get shuttled out of the league while bad players don’t. Frankly, it’s easier on everybody if Orr gets a bit of ice-time per game.