This week, I did something a little bit different with the mailbag. I opened up an anonymous Google Form, and allowed for longer, more serious questions, and didn’t cap myself on how many I’d answer. Here’s what came out of it:

Anonymous Asked: I understand that Dermott has really great games sometimes… and his possession stats are through the roof when sheltered. Why am I not confident he can take over [Jake] Gardiner’s minutes and keep the team as good? Do you agree or not?

I’m pretty confident in Dermott’s ability to succeed in a bigger role and have been for quite some time. The reality with him is that he’s exceeded his development curve in every year since the Leafs have drafted him; proving he’s more than a McDavid byproduct in his final junior year, excelling with the Marlies, and now playing very well to both the eye test and the results with the Leafs. He’s made a weak defensive partner in Igor Ozhiganov look good in spurts by carrying him and has had a few occasions where he’s stepped up to play well when handed bigger minutes.

Taking over Gardiner’s minutes and keeping the group as good, of course, is a different question altogether. The issue here doesn’t become whether or not Dermott is approaching Gardiner’s abilities, but whether the player that slides up approaches Gardiner’s abilities. It’s the Hainsey-Zaitsev-Ozhiganov right side that gives doubt that Rielly, Dermott, and Holl/Marincin/Rosen can hold things together, more than it is that Dermott isn’t ready for prime time.

Daniel Asked: Nylander and Marner are much more comparable players than the general public gives them credit for, even before this season. What is it about Marner that makes his positives stand out so much to the fan at home’s eye test? And what is it that Nylander is so good at that makes him closer to being Marner’s equal than people think?

There are a few factors at play for why Mitch Marner has taken a far-and-away perceptive lead over William Nylander in Toronto.

The first is recency bias: Marner started the season on an unbelievable scoring tear, while Nylander started his in Sweden, negotiating his contract. The body of work that we have for Marner is much more recent and more significant, so it’s not a shock that people who form their opinions on casual observation would lean in Marner’s favour.

The second is how they make their impacts: both are elite playmakers, but Marner’s set-ups tend to be quick, direct linkups that exploit hard to reach openings; saucer passes immediately after rush carry-ins, cross-ice passes through traffic, etc. Nylander’s brilliance comes through chaining and cycle sequences that create open space, which takes more time to unravel and doesn’t quite look as impressive on the highlight reel.

The third is sociopolitical: This isn’t to say that people who don’t like Nylander as much as Marner are inherently xenophobic or whatever, but Marner’s “hometown boy” backstory, combined with the fact that Mitch his parents have strong ties to the Toronto hockey community at large through his development, their involvement in the local minor hockey world, and the fact that he’s had a reputation of potential stardom his entire life, gives people a more personal connection to him, even via degrees of separation. Despite not being an old-school player, Marner means something to the old school; they connect to his childhood fandom, to his come up, to his upbringing. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s still a bias worth checking.

The fourth is media coverage: Combining all three of these factors will skew the way the players are talked about, and the casual fan usually won’t go further than the top of the mainstream media to get their opinion, so “Marner’s hot, Nylander’s not” is going to have been most of what they’ve heard over the past few months.

I love both players and I think they’re both stars. Despite my playing of mythbusters on social media, Marner is probably the one I like slightly more; he’s had slightly better results at a slightly younger age, the local boy stuff is a little endearing, and he wears the same number as me, so I can get a bit heartstrung too.

All the same, the gap isn’t as big as it’s made out to be, they’re very similar talents, they’re both good kids, and the Leafs are lucky to have both.

Ted Asked: How has Liljegren done this year? Is he still projecting as a top d? There seems to be more hype for Sandin. Has Sandin passed Lilgenren on the depth chart?

Leading up to his injury, I thought that Liljegren was having a very good season; not dominant and ready for prime time, but he was driving possession in a positive way while playing on the Marlies’ top pair, he was getting lots of special teams time, and he was showing flashes of his high-end skill pretty frequently. I wrote more about Liljegren’s start here.

The Sandin hype comes from him picking up a bunch of points out of the gate, and being the shinier, newer toy. Twitter’s non-stop churn of zone exit GIFs probably helps as well. I think he’s been great for an 18-year-old, but I don’t think that should be mis-construed for great in general; Sandin’s minutes have still largely been sheltered and the team is controlling games better with him off the ice than they are with him on it.

That’s me saying he’s a bust; I think what he’s doing now is a good sign that he’s going to be a heck of an NHL player some day. But I don’t think he’s close to the development finish line yet, and I do still think Liljegren has higher upside in his game. At least, that’s the pre-injury take; high ankle sprains are tough injuries and it’ll be interesting to see how Liljegren looks when he returns.

Anonymous Asked: Why do you ignore genuine emails that reach out to you but publicly address and reveal trolls that contact you? I’m assuming this won’t happen anymore because of the fresh start, but it has frustrated me as someone who’s followed you for years and tried reaching out earlier this year. It has been upsetting to see your tweets about going through your emails and then the pictures of people emailing you silly rants only to realize that this meant you were actively ignoring me. 

This question was longer but condensed for the asker’s request to keep it less revealing on who they were, which I’ve respected.

It’s not an unfair question if we’re being honest, and something I’ve had to come to terms with overall. I think the biggest reason a hostile message is easier to get a reaction from me than an earnest one, in a backwards way, is because I take the earnest questions more seriously. A troll email can be turned from reading it for the first time to “can you believe this goof?” in about 30 questions without any consequence, whereas a legitimate outreach requires serious thought and consideration put into what’s been said and crafting a response. I’m also not someone who just wants to leave one person hanging, so I can tend to lose people in the queue because I want to tackle every response at once, which just makes things slower.

These, of course, are personal faults on my part that I need to get better at. One, while there is sometimes a tangible benefit to exposing hostile people, I did so far too frequently this year. Secondly, I absolutely need to get much better with, at the very least, acknowledging received messages, and not being so all or nothing with them, as that format just increases the odds of all becoming nothing. I’ll continue to work on this and hopefully become someone who forms a better line of communication with those who reach out to them as things progress.

Pia Asked: I’ve got a few, so you can choose one if you want to.
1) Which “underdog” team do you think will make the playoffs and why?
2) Is there any particular team not currently in the top 10 that has you excited for the rest of the season?
3) Do you think Quenneville will get back to coaching this season? If so, any particular team you think is a good fit for him?
4) Any upcoming match that you don’t wanna miss? (NHL/AHL level)
5) Do you think the Marlies are actual cup contenders this season?
6) (and a non-hockey related question) If you had to introduce Canada to a foreigner, which dish would you recommend and why? 

We’ll do this in quick hit format.

  1. I had the Canadiens and Sabres just out of the playoff race in the Atlantic in my pre-season accountability post. One of them seems likely to make it, though I’m not sure which it’ll end up being. The Sabres have the better game-breakers, but Montreal’s overall play style seems more sustainable. This, of course, assumes that Florida won’t push all the way back into fourth, which shouldn’t entirely be ruled out but seems unlikely at this point.
  2. I wouldn’t rule out Columbus making a push in the coming months. They’re a very deep team and if Sergei Bobrovsky’s early-season struggles end up behind him, they’re poised to go on a tear.
  3. I’m pretty confident that this Philadelphia rumour is true. I haven’t put much thought yet into whether he’d be a good fit there, but it seems like the likely destination.
  4. Nothing in particular. At the AHL level, I’d like to catch a game or two between San Jose and Tuscon, just because both teams are so young, but I’m not quite circling calendars in either league right now. There’s a lot of hockey out there and it’s hard to keep up while still feeling a need for must-watches.
  5. It’s still possible. They’re controlling games up front and scoring tons of goals. They need a goaltender, but if they can solve that in time to make the playoffs, a lot remains possible.
  6. Canada has such a variety of dishes, in large part due to the varying climates and cultures across its vast size. I don’t think a specific food introduces someone to what Canada is all about, so much as getting whatever the local food is in the area you visit. It’s absorbing the area and why that dish connects to it more than it is the dish itself. Then again, I’m not a foodie, someone else could probably come up with a much better answer here.

Jarod Asked: In your opinion, do you believe that Alex Ovechkin will break Gretzky’s goal record? I believe he will, interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Ovechkin needs 258 more goals, and he’s currently scoring at around 0.6 goals per game.

Given that he’s in his Age 33 season, he’s likely going to decline as things progress, but healthy goal scorers tend to keep chugging for quite a while; Jarome Iginla was pushing 30 a season until he was 37, and Patrick Marleau was scoring 27 at 38. Jaromir Jagr put up 24 at 41 and 27 at 43. Ovechkin hasn’t ever missed more than six games in a season due to injury (he missed 10 games in 2009/10, but 4 were suspensions), so one can assume that he’s still in good shape.

Given that Ovechkin has averaged 50 a year in his post-prime (28-present), you have to think he can keep a pace of around 35 per 82, if not more, the rest of the way to tying 894. At that pace (which again, he’s very likely to exceed by virtue of a few more monster years like the one he’s having now, it would take him seven more seasons after this one to get there; or his Age 40 year.

Is he a lock to get there? No, one bad injury can throw it off, as can a lockout season. Is it well within reach? I think so.

Josh Asked: Definitely a general hockey question, but if you were in charge of the Oilers and responsible for winning a Cup with that roster, what’s step one?

I’d be heavy into the search for my next coach now. This, of course, assumes that “in charge of the Oilers” means that I’m replacing Peter Chiarelli, not Darryl Katz (in which case, “fire the front office” would be step one). But while Ken Hitchcock is getting great results right now, a lot of that seems to be coming from save percentage, and his tenure is expected to be short-term regardless of outcome; exploring successor options now so you’re not left hung out to dry later seems like a good idea.

I’d also be trying to get just about any half decent U24 player without a place to play onto Bakersfield. Start developing a much-needed pipeline.

Rob Asked: Given how perplexing and resistant to analysis the position is, will we ever see another goalie selected #1 overall at the draft?

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, honestly. While goaltender development is a bit voodoo right now, I think we’ll get to a level of analysis eventually where a semblance of control becomes possible. As well, there seems to be a general decline in superstar goaltending over the past few years, so if a 17-year-old catches fire in a high-level junior league in a year that’s weak for top-end skaters, you might see a team reach in hopes of having that game breaker.

Anonymous Asked: What is your biggest frustration with your progression in your career?

My biggest frustrations, honestly, are with my own mis-steps once I’ve learned from them, which I’d assume is pretty normal for most people. You always have those moments of “I didn’t trust this enough”, “I trusted this too much”, “I invested too much time here”, “I should’ve invested my time here”, “I over-spoke here”, “I should’ve spoken up here”, so on and so forth.

I’m pretty happy with how things have gone given that it’s a career that’s developed out of thin air. I think there is still room for me to improve and make the necessary steps to get to where I want to be, and ultimately, I’m grateful for the learning experiences along the way. Maybe my one true regret is that so much of my development has happened in plain sight, which for better or worse has etched first impressions in just about everyone before I feel comfortable with making them, but that’s something I’ll learn from as well.

Anonymous Asked: Looking at Olli Juolevi’s points per game and stats in Finland and AHL, why are people so down on him? Simply because he hasn’t played yet? Or strictly because of how good Tkachuk is? Seems like a solid top 4 d prospect…

I think it’s the context of knowing what the alternatives were. Juolevi looks like he’ll be a fine NHL defenceman, but a lot of the hype within the prospect-inclined side of Vancouver was in favour of Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, and Mikhail Sergachev. The fact that all three of these players are already better than what we can reasonably expect Juolevi to be at his peak is what the bigger issue is.

If a player picked at the bottom of the first round or lower was having Juolevi’s progression, most would be pretty satisfied. It’s the fact that he was taken 5th with multiple safer bets that have confirmed their talents that irks people.

Anonymous Asked: Favourite thing about your job?

Just being around the game that has consumed my life. Someone asked me recently what sport I’d be covering if hockey wasn’t around, but it’s more the other way around; I’d be looking for a different route into hockey if there wasn’t a media pathway. Even at its worst, it feels like a hobby still, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Anonymous Asked: What’s a reasonable win now package for Burakovsky from VAN? Edler and a pick?

I don’t think the Canucks should be looking very hard at “win now” solutions; they’ve got some strong pieces at the top of their prospect pool (Pettersson is a legitimate superstar, Boeser seems to be a great compliment, etc), but the team is still sorely lacking in depth, both to contend this year and in their prospect cupboards (they have other prospects, but still need a high “hit” rate for it to match up to an ideal pool).

Burakovsky would be an interesting add in theory, but at 23 years old, I’m not sure how much room he has left to grow, and he’ll probably won’t be a cost-effective option once the Canucks are seriously ready to go deep. Unless the acquisition cost is low (I haven’t kept in the loop on what Washington might want in return), I don’t know if I’d bother.

Anonymous Asked: Your “extremist trade deadline approach” article is one of my favourites you’ve written. Do you have any plans on having GM Jeffler return for this season, whether for the Leafs or another NHL team?

There will definitely be a spike in NHL-focused deep dives in the near future. I’ve had some other stuff on my mind, both personally and in terms of getting this site going, over the past few weeks and months, but a lot of that has cleared up and I’d like to put some more focus into the work I most enjoy writing.

Nathan Caranci Asked: I’m conflicted on the subject of Josh Leivo. On one hand, by following through on their promise and trading him as soon as there was no longer a spot available, the Leafs built credibility as a trustworthy place to develop and rehabilitate with middle-tier veteran players league-wide, many of whom the Leafs will be relying on to sign cheap, short-term contracts in the future (i.e. the next Ennis). On the other hand, it is now clear the Leafs traded away an under-valued asset for essentially (with all due respect) nothing. Was trading Josh an error? Or is this trade simply a lost battle that will help win the war? By earning the trust of future UFAs, is this move a net gain? Or by misjudging Josh’s talent and getting rid of him, is it a net loss?

I wrote about the Leivo move in a pretty in-depth fashion when it happened, and my general idea here is that Dubas likely conceded a roster spot battle, rather than thinking that the move was smart asset management. It’s an error in the vaccuum of return for the player, but being able to say that he gave the coaches their last victory when he has a more substantial move to make, plus the trust & reputation factor that you mentioned, has value in itself.

Of course, I’d love to think that I’d be the GM who says “too bad” and finds room for him and still makes the next big move without consultation, but that’s generally not how a team environment works.

Anonymous Asked: Do you have any tips on getting into live-tracking, by hand or on the computer? I’d love to be able to do it for my school’s team.

Jonah F Asked: How did you first get started with: a) analytics b) tracking games? What would you suggest for people trying to learn more about analytics?

I’ll answer these two questions together.

How did I get started in analytics? I was brought over to The Leafs Nation back in early 2013 by then-Managing Editor Cam Charron, in an effort to bolster their Marlies repertoire and maybe fill in with Leafs thoughts during quiet stretches. Cam, as most know, was well involved in the analytics scene at the time. I wasn’t super math-savvy but always felt statistics carried more value than given credit for in the NHL, and that the game was moving more towards speed and skill, so I picked Cam’s brain a bunch, started following a bevvy of analytics-driven writers and bloggers, and just absorbed whatever I could.

How did I get started with tracking? I’ve counted individual players for a few games in the past, but decided to try tracking a few games during the Calder Cup Playoffs just to see how tricky it would be. The AHL has very little data available, and while I see enough of the players and can play with what we do have enough to give me a decent idea of who is worth watching, more information is always better. So since last spring, it’s just been a continuous effort to try to get better with each try.

Analytics Tips: Follow as many people in the community as you can, take everything as interesting and nothing as gospel. HockeyGraphs and MetaHockey are good places to look for a wide variety of different content. Look up writers who have been hired by teams and read some of their prior content, which might be dated in its concepts but could teach you about their thought processes that made them stand out. Play with NaturalStatTrick, Corsica, HockeyViz, etc to get a feel for what the numbers mean to each other and what you find interesting. Ask a lot of questions. Never assume you have an answer.

Tracking Tips: Just get going. It sounds dumb, but it’s true. A pen, and a paper with a table with a couple of things you want to keep track of goes a long way. Even if you do a poor job of it for your first few games, each lap will get you more familiar, more reflexive, help you concentrate, etc. Practice with a game centre / AHL live feed if you need to. Don’t worry too much about what apps you have to contain the data; my entire Marlies project runs off of four Excel Sheets and a Google Sheet, and I learned a lot of the formulas that made things easier over time.

Nick Asked: You probably don’t remember me but I was one of the ppl you reached out to when you posted your number a few years back. It was very helpful and since then, I’ve gotten help, married, bought a house and now have a baby boy on the way (who we are naming William). You didn’t have to be there for me but you were. I just wanted to ask if there was any way I could be there for you or help in any way? You’ve gone through enough shit from awful ppl and you don’t deserve that bullshit. I’m sorry you had to. If there’s anything I can do let me know? Thanks and have a happy holiday.

I appreciate you asking if there’s any way you can help on my end; I think I’m in a better spot mentally than I was at the start of the year now that I’ve started focusing on actually addressing my issues, and have a decent support system around me in my friends and family. So, in that respect, I’m good.

I’m more responding to this to say that I’m proud of you for what you’ve accomplished since our talk. When cleaning out my tweets this week, a lot of the ones I kept were stories from people who have taken strides since one of our Let’s Talk Day conversations. I’m glad that was a stepping stone for people, to have someone to speak to on the other line, but the real power was in your hands and you deserve the credit for taking that energy and using it to invest in addressing your self. Happy Holidays!

Anonymous Asked: Do you believe that a player having a bit of grit/heaviness in his game has no value?

I think it has lots of value. I really enjoy tough, physical hockey; it’s what I grew up on. I think that a good player that thas grit and heaviness to their game is likely to outwork similarly skilled opponents and beat them. I think that a player that provides nothing but grit and heaviness is likely to get outskated and outplayed by their opponents and fall short. There are tangible and optical assets in players that are more valuable right now.

When the AHL put in a cap on how many fights a player could get involved in every year, Toronto Marlies forward had a response that stuck with me: the rule wasn’t getting rid of fighting, it was getting rid of players who suck at hockey. I think one needs to look at toughness traits that way; they’re great when attached to a good player, but if they can’t keep up, it’s very rarely going to help the team.

Anonymous Asked: Maybe its just me, but it seems whenever the Leafs get connected to a decent D, via trade, its always going to take a ransom. But Erik Karlsson yielded such an underwhelming return. Is Ottawa GM that bad… or are other GMs that good? Kap + Timoth + 1st rounder is A LOT, no?

There are a couple of ways to look at this one. Yes, Ottawa got fleeced on that deal; everyone knew that Karlsson was on the go, the team made it clear that they were limiting how much money they were willing to take in and which teams they’d trade him to, and had essentially forced themselves into taking a sub-par package.

At the same time, teams negotiate through the media, and Toronto’s costs will always be unrealistic in those cases. In a lot of those situations, the Leafs are more of an advertising vehicle than the second party; look at how Tanner Pearson went from “would reluctantly give up for William Nylander” to “on the market” to trade in the span of two weeks. Putting a price like the Kapanen, Liljegren and a 1st for Colton Parayko out like what we heard this weekend is likely St. Louis trying to establish a high price tag for Parayko, more than it is them trying to specifically get a return out of the Leafs. Toronto just happens to be the biggest media market, and the easiest to use as a megaphone to the rest of the league.

Anonymous Asked: Do you think that the Leafs defenseman group will change this year, and if so, how?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Given how much belief Dubas has shown in Justin Holl and, to an extent, Martin Marincin in the past, I doubt that he’d leave both of them in purgatory very long if he didn’t have a potential strategy in his pocket. The same goes for Calle Rosen getting his two-year extension last week. I see at least one of the three on the right side departing at some point, even if an external upgrade isn’t made. At the very least, I have to imagine that management knows that they aren’t dressing their six best defencemen right now, and will try to at least get that to come to fruition.

Anonymous Asked: Rank these former Leafs based on your personal favourites: Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly, Jay McClement, Carl Gunnarsson, Jonas Gustavsson, and Frazer McLaren. If you had to choose one of them to play nightly on the Leafs this season, who would it be?

  1. Grabovski
  2. Kulemin
  3. Gustavsson
  4. Gunnarsson
  5. McLaren
  6. McClement
  7. Connolly

If I had to pick one for this current team, I feel like it would be Kulemin, even if Grabovski was the one I enjoyed more. Peak Kulemin was a force along the boards, drove play, and wasn’t scared to go to the net. He’d be a wicked jolt to Toronto’s winger depth, and could slot in on the left side on basically any line.

Anonymous Asked: Fill in the blank: Mike Babcock is in the Top __ of coaches in the NHL

Half?

I don’t know. Coaches are hard to truly compare to each other, and as much as I can get frustrated by some of Babcock’s decisions, they’re not particularly exclusive to him. Coaches like to be in control of games, so they’ll pick the players who listen to them over the players who can take control without instruction. People, in general, don’t want to feel uninvolved in their processes, so there will always be a degree of over-tinkering from an NHL head coach. Babcock has his flaws, but they’re similar to other coaches.

Now, the lineup differences in opinion he appears to have seem to be pretty fundamentally stark compared to management’s view, which I find troublesome. But is it enough to say that he’s bad? No, he’s still got a pretty insane body of work, even if some of it admittedly comes from top teams. He also seems to be a great motivator and leader-of-sorts, which was fundamental to this team’s growth in his first few years.

So yeah. He’s a coach. You’re never going to like the coach fully. Its really hard to tell where coaches stand against each other in this league, short of being obviously, hilariously bad, and I don’t think he’s that.

Phillip Asked: Given Freddy Andersen’s not so terrific play in what we call the “big games” would you be slightly worried or is this a non-issue?

Non-issue. There haven’t been too many “big games” yet in his tenure here, so we’re working with a small sample, and he’s stepped up a few times too. I’m not expecting him to be the best of the best, just to be good enough in the aggregate, and nothing he’s done yet has made me lose confidence in that.

Anonymous Asked: I say this in all honesty that you are literally the only hockey writer/personality I follower on Twitter that openly engages with trolls/abusers/haters on a regular basis, whether it’s replying to them or taking screenshots. Why do you do this? I can understand that perhaps you’re trying to show people what it’s like to receive hate and animosity all the time and maybe it will get them to empathize. While that is commendable, in my opinion, it seems that for *you specifically*, Jeff, it’s not doing a whole lot to make your mental health better and in some ways could be making the problem worse.

While I’d object to the idea that I’m the only person who engages in this kind of action (maybe on your own follow list, which, more power to you if you’ve rid yourself of others who do it and thank you for somehow still tolerating me despite this), you’re not wrong about it getting to be too much.

Those arguments, confrontations, frustrations etc are a big part of what I sought to remove this week when I cleaned up my Twitter account. There are a lot of compounding factors that probably get me to that stage; the feeling that I need to engage, the venting of frustration, and in some cases, shutting someone down publicly actually does better to get them to go away than ignoring them). Trolls and harassers are weird, and in a lot of cases, they deserve to be brought to light.

But I did get very carried away with it, to the point where it was likely taking a toll on me and giving people who wanted a spotlight by any means necessary a chance to get it. It’s annoying for a lot of my followers to read, and something I plan on doing less of in the future.

I don’t think it’s as simple of an issue as some think it is; “ignore it and it will go away” doesn’t really work. But it definitely became a sum-negative way of engaging on my end. I’ll keep working on getting better with it and focusing more on the good side of the platforms I participate in.

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