© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Who is Roman Polak, the hockey player?
To some, he’s one-half of, arguably, the worst regular defensive pairing in hockey. To others, he’s actually a half-decent defenceman, and one with oodles of ‘character’, ‘grit’, ‘veteran presence’, and the like.
The divide was never as apparent as it was last February, when the Toronto Maple Leafs shipped Polak, along with Nick Spaling, to the playoff-bound San Jose Sharks. In return, Toronto received Raffi Torres (well, Raffi Torres’ albatross contract), along with two second-round picks.
Leafs fans, for the most part, were ecstatic. Many were hoping the team would flip the hulking d-man for, well, anything — never mind two second-rounders.
Sure, Spaling was part of the deal, but he had only scored seven points in 35 games as a Leaf, and played just 12:45 per-game as a Shark. Polak was the central piece of this transaction.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson, often talked about as one of the game’s top front-office minds, ponied up. One can infer that, because of the size of the offer, as well as how we know the hockey world thinks, he wasn’t the only one bidding for Polak’s services.
Fast forward to today, over a year later. Toronto is in the thick of an intense playoff battle, with Polak back in the mix, quite literally anchoring their third defensive pairing. With the market for defensemen what it is, assuming Toronto’s open to shipping off an extremely replaceable asset in Roman Polak, can they expect a similar return?
WHAT DO THE NUMBERS SAY?
Believe it or not, last season with Toronto, Polak was working towards the second best offensive season of his career. Sure, a 19-point pace and a P60 of 0.92 don’t jump off the page, but it certainly didn’t hurt his case, either.
This season, though, whatever was working for Polak before isn’t working for him now. He’s scoring at nearly half the rate he did last season (P60 of 0.47) and, outside of Matt Hunwick, is the worst regular Leafs d-man at generating offence, with a Rel.CF60 of -6.43.
Granted, any team looking to acquire Roman Polak isn’t doing so because they need a scoring boost from the back-end. Still, the numbers warrant a look. Here’s how his last two seasons compare:
Although Polak’s offensive numbers from last season weren’t great (except his Rel.SCF% of 6.2… What the hell?), they were clearly better than what he’s produced so far this year.
Again, any team interested in trading for Polak isn’t doing so because they need secondary scoring. Regardless, the difference between this year and last year’s numbers bears mentioning.
On the defensive side of the puck is (supposedly) Polak’s bread and butter, and where he’s made a name for himself throughout his career.
Before getting in to the numbers, here’s a look at how Polak has influenced shot locations this year compared to last.
Despite all the criticism Polak receives about his defensive abilities, he actually does a fairly good job of limiting shots from the home-plate area in front of the net.
Last season, while he allowed a higher-than-average amount of shots from the point and middle of the ice, he did a spectacular job of thwarting the opposition’s attempts to get high-quality, in-tight chances.
The numbers back this up.
In 2015/16, Polak posted a Rel.SCA60 of -2.12, which was the best of seven regular Leafs defensemen. He also posted a Rel.SCF% of 6.2, which was by far the best mark of any Leafs player to suit up last season.
This year, however, Polak’s Rel.SCA60 and Rel.SCF% have worsened to 0.54 and 0.13, respectively. This puts him at the middle of the pack on a defensively-poor Leafs team, which is not the best of looks.
Let’s look at the defensive numbers, side-by-side, from this year compared to last:
Huh, so maybe San Jose was on to something.
To be fair, something that jumps out right off the bat is Polak’s usage. He’s starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than he did last season, and of course, that’s going to skew the results against him.
Still, though, Polak’s defensive numbers have deteriorated significantly. He’s allowing more shot attempts against, more scoring chances against, and his expected numbers all suggest that he’s trending downwards.
CAN THE LEAFS EXPECT A SIMILAR RETURN THIS TIME AROUND?
Roman Polak’s game has not changed at all from last season. His usage, along with the type of hockey Toronto now plays, has. But Roman Polak the hockey player has not.
Do the numbers back up a trade similar to the one Toronto pulled off last season? No, they don’t. However, Roman Polak appeals to the hockey traditionalist, and god knows there are at least a few of those kicking around among NHL front offices.
I can almost hear the conversations brewing in a few front offices.
”He brings a lot of compete to the table,” they’re saying. “He’s a guy who brings it night in and night out.”
The truth is, Roman Polak is a player who will never be judged by his numbers. He will always be talked about for how good of a teammate he is, how hard he plays, how fearless he is, and all the intangibles he brings to the table.
For that reason, yes, it’s certainly reasonable, and almost probable, to believe that Toronto could flip him for a high pick. With a weak draft, along with the current market for defensemen and the amount of teams still in the playoff hunt, there’s no better time to gauge the market on a player like this.
Will Roman Polak become Daniel Winnik 2.0? Leafs fans should certainly hope so.