The Leafs made the wrong choice sending Gauthier to the minors

Updated: January 10, 2018 at 4:49 pm by Ryan Hobart

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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

To get this out of the way off the start, here’s a link to TLN’s own Dom Luszczyszyn‘s piece on why fourth lines and bottom pairs matter. Great, now that that’s out of the way… 

The Leafs sent down Frederik Gauthier to the Toronto Marlies yesterday. Ben Smith was able to come off of the Injured Reserve and join the team to re-claim his spot at the team’s fourth-line centre for last night’s game. So, between Gauthier and Smith, they chose Smith. But, based on what we know, they were 100% wrong.

Let’s knock off one-by-one the possible explanations why this could have been a good idea. To start off with some quick ones:

  • It has nothing to do with the expansion draft. Ben Smith doesn’t qualify for the 40/70 rule as a UFA, and Gauthier doesn’t need to be protected. If the Leafs plan on signing someone just to expose them, I’d rather it be one of the other plentiful UFAs that will meet this rule, in case they don’t get claimed.
  • It has nothing to do with trade value. Ben Smith has been on waivers this season and has had injury problems. No one is going to trade for him knowing they can get him on waivers, should they actually want him.
Now for the real meat.

BEING GOOD AT HOCKEY

The first possible reason is that Ben Smith is just better at hockey than Frederik Gauthier. Let’s look at some possession-based stats (prior to last night, where Smith was a team worst 35%) to see if that’s the case.

Player Relative To CF60 CA60 CF% ixG60
BEN.SMITH
Team
-17.37 4.99 -9.54 -0.25
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER -8.42 -6.78 -0.67 0.05
BEN.SMITH
League
-7.15 7.07 -6.23 -0.20
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER -2.74 -3.30 0.29 0.10

Stats are 2016-17, 5v5, Score, Zone and Venue Adjusted from Corsica.hockey

The table shows that in every aspect, Gauthier is the better player. So that’s a pretty huge loss for Smith. In case anyone is wondering, Gauthier has played 18 games and Ben Smith has played 24. This Sample Size Analysis tool from Emmanuel Perry suggests that at this point, we have a R2 of approximately 0.35. You’d like to get closer to the 35 game mark, but right now we don’t have that option.

RESULTS

Maybe it’s not numbers that predict future quality that Babcock and Co. are interested in. It could be that Ben Smith has had better goal based results, and that is working in his favour. That’s something that coaches definitely use. 

Player Relative To GF60 GA60 GF%
BEN.SMITH
Team
-1.03 -0.35 -10.82
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 0.63 -0.23 9.05
BEN.SMITH
League
-1.49 -0.42 -14.95
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 0.17 -0.22 3.95

Stats are 2016-17, 5v5, Score, Zone and Venue Adjusted from Corsica.hockey

That table should speak for itself, but if it’s necessary to add to it: Gauthier absolutely eclipses Ben Smith in terms of how well their time on ice has gone thus far, in terms of goals.

USAGE

Well, obviously Mike Babcok simply believes he can use Smith as more of a defensive specialist, right? Clearly Ben Smith is more capable of being the defensive load bearing wall of the forward corps. Right?

Smith and Gauthier have basically the exact same role. Sure, Smith faces tougher QoC rel CF% (not a reliable metric anyway), Gauthier gets tougher zone starts. So it’s a wash.

INTANGIBLES AND OTHER CRAP

Surely, then, it has to be all of the other elements of the game. Ben Smith must be good in the room! And also there’s no doubting his faceoff prowess. And toughness! You have to have toughness in the NHL.

NHL Fights Hits per game FO% Post-game interview skills
BEN.SMITH 0 0.8 54.59 Link
FREDERIK.GAUTHIER 1 0.7 54.62 Link

Stats are from NHL.com (ugh)

It seems unlikely that smiling, lovable Goat is bad in the room compared to monotonous blob Ben Smith. And given that everything else is a wash, there’s no reason for Ben Smith to win this battle etiher.

CONCLUSION

This is a complete and total win for Frederik Gauthier. There are only 2 reasons I can think of that could possibly be steering the Leafs in this direction.

  1. Waivers. Smith would have to be on waivers to be sent to the Marlies. But given how he looks in this piece, that might be a good idea anyway.
  2. Internal metrics. Some might have noticed I left out Corsica’s xGF numbers. This is because they aren’t as predictive as CF. But Smith has a stark advantage over Gauthier there. It’s possible the Leafs have a metric that is better than Corsica’s xGF, that paints Smith in a good light. That actually is plausible.
But all in all, like the introduction said, based on what we know, the Leafs made the wrong call here.