With a minute left in the second period against the Los Angeles Kings, a familiar sight for Toronto Maple Leaf fans was taking place as their top line was on the ice and hemmed in their own zone. The Kings would score that shift—albeit a weak goal—against the Leafs three worst possession players at that time in the game (James van Riemsdyk was the highest at 22CF%).
On their first shift of the third period, they got scored on again. For the night, they were the three worst possession forwards on the team. They also combined for two goals for.
The trio of JVR-Bozak-Kessel can clearly score, with all of them on pace for at least 30 goals as of this writing and Bozak having the lowest point pace of the three at 68. All three are on pace for career best seasons goals and points wise.
But they get dominated during the run of play. None of the three top scoring Leafs are in the top 14 for corsi or fenwick. This adds to the fact that none of these high scoring players have a positive 5v5 goals for percentage so far this season, as they allow more than they produce. This has been a trend for years now and I wrote about how they routinely get outscored at the end of last season.
Through 30 games, JVR, Bozak and Kessel are 1-2-3 respectively in average ice time per game. Lately, other forwards have seen their ice time creep up as Kadri has led the team in TOI the last two games, Winnik plays a lot in part due to his role on the PK, and Santorelli leads the team in even strength ice time per game in December. Ultimately, teams live and die by their top players. Right now, the Leafs are starting to shelter theirs because they are getting outplayed nightly and spending a lot of time in their own zone. The solution is not to keep them together and selectively play them, it is to separate them and bring out the best in each player.
This is not a knee-jerk reaction to a few poor games, which is compounded by an obvious Phil Kessel injury that is hurting his play. This is based on, now, the third year of data. The line scores a lot, but they generally give up what it produces—if not more. Nightly, they get hemmed in their own zone for long stretches of play, cheat on offense by flying the zone and play three deep offensively—and with regularity.
Last week, Kyle Dubas went on Sportsnet and discussed how banking on hot shooting and goaltending isn’t a recipe for success. He is right, and the last three Leafs seasons are readily available proof, but if step one is acknowledging a problem, step two is actually doing something and it starts with the team’s best players.
When it comes to the power play, they are a great trio. All three are in the top 30 for power play points, and the Leafs PP is clicking at a little over 20% (which has them at 11th, but only three teams had a PP over 20% last year, so if it continues, they will be elite). You don’t need to play together 5v5 to excel on the power play together; Crosby and Malkin don’t, Ovechkin and Johansson, etc. You can go down the list, it is not a prerequisite.
The Leafs have an unbelievable 9-1-1 run going and have given themselves a nice seven point cushion on the wildcard spot—although Florida has two games in hand. They are sixth in the league in goal differential. Their 5v5 save percentage is tied for 9th. There are a lot of positives here and they might be enough to make the playoffs, but there are also negatives; namely being 25th in team fenwick percentage, and 27th in corsi percentage. If that push that towards the middle of the pack, they will almost certainly make the playoffs and possibly do some damage. The reality being, no matter what the team does to the other three lines, when you have a collection of your top scorers playing together for significant chunks of game time and getting controlled nightly, it is going to sewer the overall numbers and ultimately hurt you.
Fans have seen the team start well for now a fourth season in a row, so nobody should be content with what has transpired so far. As the team keeps pushing forward in their pursuit to improve, hoping the top line suddenly has an epiphany in their third season together would appear to be wishful thinking at best. To take the next step they have to start splitting up the top line and finding some combinations that work.
- It doesn’t get much attention, but Daniel Winnik was essentially a top 6 forward on a 116 point Anaheim Ducks team last season. He was 5th in overall time on ice per game among forwards, and sixth in even strength ice time per game. Winnik was 8th in their forwards in total points, 7th in even strength points. Playing primarily with Andrew Cogliano and Saku Koivu, Winnik was part of a shutdown second line that freed up the Getzlaf line to not take tough match-ups and instead flip the script to run over teams; when the Ducks were a struggling team pre-Winnik one discussed problem was Getzlaf’s role because they lacked the depth. Now, the same situation in Toronto is beginning to take place—Winnik is sixth in average time on ice for Leafs forwards, and while he is 9th in even strength ice time, that is beginning to creep up. In the very first game of the season the Leafs matched top line vs. top line against the Habs, and that was the difference in the game as the Bozak unit could not stop them from scoring. Now using players like Winnik, Kadri and Santorelli in that role is forcing opposing team’s depth lines to score to keep up with the Leafs because they are neutralizing top lines.
- Clarkson’s 30 point pace gets a lot of attention, but rarely does his 22 goal pace within that. Last season, 78 forwards scored 22+ goals, so it’s reasonable production, although his contract is seemingly guaranteeing him PP ice time to help him get there. Last season when Clarkson was struggling to contribute at all, Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet on an intermission panel spoke on how he should model his game after Joel Ward and at the time I wrote that comparison doesn’t hold water because Ward is a massive man (by listed weight he has 26 pounds on Clarkson, but I’d bet it’s more than that). What has helped him is getting players that player similarly and help him along the wall, which he lacked last year with Lupul and Kadri as linemates. Although Kulemin was good along the wall with him, with McClement as their center and Kulemin shot of all confidence, as well as being the shutdown line, it was never going to be successful. This season his most common linemate is Peter Holland; their possession numbers aren’t great together (46.5%), but they are coming out ahead (53GF%).
- This is a great chart by Mirtle illustrating how the Leafs biggest boost has come from goal scoring in their bottom six:
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 10, 2014
It was very strange to me in the summer when the losses of Mason Raymond and Nik Kulemin were lamented as if the Leafs depth scoring got somehow worse when they were already so poor. Sometimes media members and fans will suggest that fourth lines don’t matter, that they only play ~8 minutes a night, but now people are starting to see the benefits of an even reasonable fourth line as Panik scored a game winner on the weekend and David Booth has been drawing penalties and creating a lot of opportunities.
- Speaking of that increased depth, one thing I have begun looking for is when the fourth line gets their first shift of the night. Against the Red Wings their first shift came with 10:03 left in the first period. Between the Zamboni cleaning the ice, the anthems, maybe a commercial plus game time, ten minutes into the game is really 20-30 minutes of real life time without being on the ice. The first shift of that game, Panik missed an easy pass on his tape, but it is tough to blame a player when they are coming in cold having not touched the ice for nearly half an hour. Against the Kings their first shift was a little over 5 minutes into the game. Some coaches try to get all four lines out as soon as possible in order to get everyone into the game, but the Leafs stick to their match-ups and play to the situation.
- Nazem Kadri has 10 points in 11 games during this win streak, mirroring last season when he was productive during the Leafs two big win streaks—he had 13 points in their first 14 games last year, and 13 in 13 heading into the Olympics, when the Leafs were one of the hottest teams in the league and firmly in a playoff spot. With Kessel nearly automatically producing with JVR, it seems any time Kadri gets rolling on a separate line the Leafs just take off.
- Connor Brown is now third in rookie scoring in the AHL, a noted accomplishment to be sure. But scoring well in your rookie season in the AHL is not always a guaranteed path to NHL success- of the 15 top 5 rookie scorers in the AHL the last three seasons, only 7 have become NHL regulars to this point. Brown is a legitimate prospect with a real shot at being an NHLer (and who would have guessed that when he was drafted?), but that’s just a dose of reality when it comes to prospects in the AHL and whether their scoring will translate into an NHL job.
That’s how you create offense in the league. You create it from your puck management and your checking… That’s how you create zone time, that’s how you create opposition out, that’s how you get them on a three-quarter ice game where they’re changing and you’re going back at them. That’s how you score, that’s how you create in this league. It’s a hard way to play, but the teams that buy in … look at the difference. A team like Chicago, they’ve really bought into that formula, they’ve bought into it again and they’ve had good success. The more teams that do it, you can really see it in their game.”
- Ken Hitchcock, on the importance of checking
Needless to say, this is what the Leafs have to keep striving for. Against LA you could clearly see the Leafs were more skilled and could create offense much easier, and Mike Babcock acknowledged it the night before too, so that isn’t it the problem. It’s the buy in to do things the right way on the other side of the ice.
“Goaltending coaches target which teams that the goalies would do well against & we’ve stuck to that.”
- Dave Nonis, on the goalie selections.
This quote struck me as odd because I am not sure what this is based on. For example, Bernier started multiple times against Pittsburgh this year, a team Reimer has never lost to in regulation. Reimer started against Arizona, a team Bernier has been successful against, so on and so forth. I don’t know what their criteria is for selecting starts, but if it’s based on prior success (save percentage, maybe wins), then they haven’t really been following this formula.
“You’ve just got to go out there and play. We’ve done it in the past. You play in the minors [and] you play three games in three nights. For me it’s not an excuse.”
- Stephane Robidas, on playing back-to-back.
Some might recall that early in the season there was talk the Leafs would sit out Robidas at times to rest him. They only have six D right now so I wouldn’t expect it at the moment, but I wonder if we will start to see it in the dog days of January and once and awhile down the stretch provided the Leafs get and stay healthy on D.
This isn’t a quote, but I would have been upset if I did not include it somewhere
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- If you missed the preamble, I’d blow up the top line. Putting Kadri with Kessel is the easy part, the question is who else flanks them? They could try Lupul or Winnik again? Go off the board with a Booth or Komarov (when he returns). There are a lot of options here.
- I think I get why the Leafs played Winnik at C for a bit on the fourth line (basically, to get Panik in and take Smith out) but he is not a center. Same with Komarov. The best work these two do is all along the wall and exiting the zone cleanly, versus playing up the middle. Any sort of depth up the middle the Leafs can add is going to benefit the team as they really only have one match-up C right now and it’s Kadri.
- With that in mind, I would start looking at calling up Sam Carrick. He probably maxes out as a 4C so you won’t be stunting his long-term development, and Smith is getting crushed and no longer seeing much PK time. Carrick is right handed, can play the PK, and showed nice flashes in his brief stint with the Leafs and not playing with any player that is good as David Booth at the moment. If the Leafs don’t figure out their center position, eventually Santorelli will have to go back there to give them a two way option (either that or they get burned).
- I think, in case anyone is wondering, when Roman Polak does return, Korbinian Holzer is easily the guy he goes in for. Holzer has been a good soldier—and I have a soft spot for the underdogs—but he spends a lot of time in his own and that has led to some crazy goal mouth scrambles. He is good on the penalty kill and plays with some snarl, but ultimately he is the guy to sit. I would keep him up as the 7th D, though.
- I think the Nazem Kadri contract talks needed to start yesterday. If there is one positive to Kadri not playing with Kessel very often so far this season, it’s that it is probably helping to keep him cheaper than he should be. This extension should shoot to buy UFA years, provided Kadri wants that too.