Zamboni Tracks: Spare parts (Parts I, II, and III)

Carolina HurricanesTraded D Tim Gleason to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for D John-Michael Liles and the rights to NCAA D Dennis Robertson (Jan. 1, 2014)

With the emergence of Brett Bellemore as a steady, trustworthy defensive defenseman, plus the offseason addition of veteran Ron Hainsey to shore up a blueline that features a continually improving stud in American Olympian Justin Faulk, former US representative Tim Gleason was expendable. With two more seasons after this one and a cap hit of $4 million, Gleason would only prove moveable if another anchor contract came back. Enter a third one-time US Olympic defender in John-Michael Liles. With the role of undersized offensive blueliner taken by rookie Morgan Rielly, Liles was effectively frozen out of the Toronto rotation, and the Indianapolis native played in only six games for the Leafs before the trade, spending most of his season in the AHL, his first stop in the bus league in over 10 years. With a contract that, like Gleason’s, also runs for two more years, and at only a fraction less in cap hit, the Hurricanes were able to make the switch.

In Liles, Carolina ably fills the vacuum left by Gleason, as he is easily capable of picking up on the former Hurricane’s 16-odd minutes of ice time nightly. Further, he will likely be able to provide more on-ice tutelage to 20-year-old rookie Ryan Murphy, whose game bears more in common with his new blueline partner than his former one. In spite of failing to fit in with his former coach in Toronto, Liles has been an above-average possession player, who can contribute on the power play and hold his own in sheltered even strength minutes.

Even though Liles has a marginally smaller cap hit than that of Gleason going the other way, GM Jim Rutherford managed to pry a lottery ticket (more gameday 50-50 raffle ticket than Powerball) away from Toronto in the trade with the inclusion of the rights to NCAA defender Dennis Robertson, currently finishing up his senior season at Brown University. While a good college player, the book on Robertson as a pro is naturally not yet written, although his ceiling is generally placed as a third-pairing guy. The likely reason for the extra ballast going to Carolina is the three extra years of vintage on Liles’ tires, in comparison to the relatively spry Gleason.

While a deal of this minor magnitude rarely has a clear winner or loser, Carolina drew first blood when the two teams faced off eight days after the swap. Not only did the Hurricanes beat the Maple Leafs by the unsightly score of 6-1, but Liles scored a goal against his former team to extend the lead to 4-1 in the second period. As much as the irony would have been delicious had Gleason been on the ice at the time of the goal, he was not. Looking back at the VUKOTA projections, both primary pieces to this trade graded out quite similarly in overall value with both projected to contribute slightly more than 3.5 GVT this year. With the similar cap hits also locked in, the key here is in looking at roles. For this deal to work out for Carolina, Liles has to fit better in Raleigh than did Gleason. If we also consider that Gleason’s recent plethora of injuries has added to his seemingly lower mileage, the Hurricanes are no more likely to be carrying the salary of a formerly useful player in two years whether that player is Gleason or Liles. In that case, as Liles is a better fit today than Gleason, score this a positive asset reallocation for Jim Rutherford.

Pittsburgh PenguinsClaimed LW Taylor Pyatt off of waivers from the New York Rangers (Jan. 2, 2014)

The calculus here is quite simple. RW Pascal Dupuis tore an ACL and the subsequent surgery will keep him on the shelf until next season. With promising young winger Beau Bennett also unable to play due to his own injury troubles, in addition to the normal nicks and bruises that accompany every hockey season, the Penguins have been forced to give far more minutes that they had planned to the likes of Andrew Ebbett, Harry Zolnierczyk, Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna, and Zach Sill. That fearsome fivesome have combined for 14 points in 60 games at 3.2 GVT. While that production is better than should be expected from the typical AHL callup, it is not better by much, and Pittsburgh is wise to hope to minimize their potential exposure through too much NHL ice time.

Taylor Pyatt, their new found solution, has been as surprisingly putrid as the law firm of Ebbett, Zolnierczyk, Gibbons, Megna, and Sill has been surprisingly effective. Although VUKOTA projected only adequacy from a third/fourth line role, Pyatt got off to a brutal start with only a single assist in his first 16 games on Broadway, after which he was forced to the shelf with the effects of a concussion. Since recovering, he had only dressed for six of the Rangers’ 17 games before he was placed on waivers. In the final season of a two-year pact with a cap hit of $1.55 million, the former eighth overall pick in 1999 has been trusted with extremely tough assignments over four of the last five seasons, with his shifts weighted heavily towards the defensive zone while also often playing against some of the best competition his team’s opponents have had to offer. This role is well reflected by his poor possession metrics, although there may be some evidence that there is more to his effectiveness than can be shown by Corsi rates, raw or adjusted. Until this season, Pyatt’s PDO has been above 1000 for each of the past six seasons, always due to exceptional on-ice save percentage figures. As that fell back to earth (and beyond) this year, along with a cratered on-ice shooting percentage, the 32-year-old should be in line for some positive regression with the Black and Yellow.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Traded D John-Michael Liles and the rights to NCAA D Dennis Robertson to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for D Tim Gleason (Jan. 1, 2014)

While much of the analytical side of this trade can be read above, the hope in Toronto is that Gleason can return to his form from two years ago, when he was worth 6.5 GVT with Carolina. Much of his subsequent struggles can be blamed on a series of injuries, including a concussion that kept him on the shelf for 10 games early this season. After not missing a game for two straight seasons (2010-11 and 2011-12), he has missed 28 of his teams’ last 91 over the past two seasons.

Although he has been given heavily defensive assignments for each year of the NHL’s real-time stats era (2007-08 to present), thick with defensive zone faceoffs and plenty of shifts against top competition, his possession numbers have steadily declined, while his PDOs have been buoyed by strong save percentages behind him. While the Michigan native is not far removed from his days as an easy top-four blueliner, he is now better deployed on the third pairing. Considering the inconsistent/bad play of the Maple Leafs’ incumbent third pairing (Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger), Gleason is a good bet to be an improvement on one or the other. If any part of his recent poor play is due to lingering injuries, there may even be a modicum of upside in the deal for Toronto, particularly in consideration of the cap issues highlighted in the Carolina segment of this post.

The truly compelling thing this trade brings to light is the pattern of player personnel decisions of Toronto. Much has already been written in this space about their ill-advised usage of slugs like Fraser and Frazer McLaren, and this trade is another example of that. While Fraser and Ranger (we would be hearing more about his wonderful return to the NHL after three years in the wilderness if he was actually contributing positive value) were soaking up minutes on the Toronto blueline, combining for -1.1 GVT and 10 points (nine of which are Ranger’s) in 55 games, Liles has been scoring at nearly one point per game in the AHL. While Liles has/had offensive skills, his style of play was not suited to the game demanded by Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and so he, like Mikhael Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur before him, was let go. At least, unlike the two aforementioned forwards, the Maple Leafs did not walk away from Liles empty handed. Rather, he was traded for another spare part, flea market style. The irony is that, goal against his former team notwithstanding, Maple Leafs fans have far less reason to fear regretting this move than the other two even as it provides another data point showing that Carlyle and Dave Nonis are less concerned about hockey skills than toughness quotients and other nebulous intangibles.

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.


Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.

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