With so many young, talented players entering the Toronto Maple Leafs roster this season, we knew this team would be exciting.
We also knew it would take some time for the lines to form and the players to find their spots in the lineup. Nearly two months into the season, with American Thanksgiving upon us, where have we started? What has changed? Where are we now?
Here were the Leafs‘ opening night lines:
Milan Michalek – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
JVR – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Matt Martin – Peter Holland – Connor Brown
Morgan Rielly – Martin Marincin
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick – Nikita Zaitsev
In October, the Leafs‘ top-four defence group, according to even strength time on ice, were Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Martin Marincin, and Connor Carrick.
Auston Matthews led all forwards in even strength time on ice per game, while Mitch Marner was second, Nazem Kadri was third, Zach Hyman fourth, William Nylander fifth, and Leo Komarov sixth.
The penalty kill (PK) was handled on defense by Roman Polak, Marincin, Rielly, and Matt Hunwick. At forward, it was Hyman, Komarov, Brown and Matt Martin, with Milan Michalek mixed in (playing over a minute per game there) before the acquisition of Ben Smith later in the month.
The top ten powerplay (PP) players per game were (in order): Marner, Bozak, Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner, JVR, Matthews, Nylander, Carrick, Komarov, and Kadri.
What has happened since that first month? Let’s look at the lines from Saturday:
Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Connor Brown
Matt Martin – Ben Smith – Nikita Soshnikov
Morgan Rielly – Nikita Zaitsev
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick – Roman Polak
Kadri and Komarov have remained together, as expected. Generally speaking, Connor Brown has been their linemate. Therefore, the first player to really move up and benefit is Brown, who went from the fourth line to the first line rather quickly.
The middle two lines have remained largely intact, with Babcock recently adding in the tweak of switching Brown and Nylander around on road games.
The fourth line has been completely reshuffled with Smith acquired, Soshnikov called up, and now it looks like a healthy Josh Leivo might get a look there, too. The player who has dropped the most is Peter Holland, who went from opening day starter to someone who is a regular healthy scratch.
On defense, Zaitsev asserted himself quickly and now the coaching staff appears to be playing him and Rielly together in the hopes of creating a true top pairing. Gardiner and Carrick have generally played together, but the team has scratched Carrick sporadically and played those two with others.
Similar to last season, Roman Polak went from game one scratch to everyday player pretty quickly. Meanwhile, Hunwick and Marincin seem interchangeable to the staff.
The even strength ice-time leaders on defense so far in November are Rielly, Zaitsev, Gardiner, and Polak. There has been a bump down for Marincin and Carrick, while Gardiner and Polak have seen an increased role.
At forward, Matthews and Marner are still 1-2, while Bozak is now third. Nylander, Hyman and Kadri round out the top six in even strength ice time per game. That’s a bump down for Kadri and a bump up for Bozak, while Komarov is out of the top six.
The PK ice time now goes Hunwick, Marincin, Polak and Rielly on defense; Hyman, Brown, Smith and Komarov at forward. All of the same players, just with some mixing of ice time.
The top ten on the PP: Matthews, Nylander, Gardiner, Zaitsev, Kadri, JVR, Marner, Bozak, Komarov, and Rielly. That means far less time for Marner (who was first in October), in part because Matthews and Nylander are proving to be very good on the top unit together. Gardiner is now ahead of Zaitsev by the smallest of margins, while Rielly bumped out Carrick.
It’s a long season and adjustments will continue to be made. With a young, unproven roster that is full of unknowns, we’ll have to continue to monitor how Babcock and his coaching staff are shuffling the players and their roles around throughout the year.
– I remember interviewing Dave Morrison — the former Director of Scouting for the Leafs who is now Director of Pro Scouting for the organization — a few years ago, and after it ended we chatted a bit. At one point the conversation shifted to Connor Brown, and he said (I’m paraphrasing here) they were quietly interested to see his development and potential. While he wouldn’t publicly bet on an undersized seventh-round pick making it to the NHL, he said he also wouldn’t bet against his skill and determination, and that Brown would let nothing hold him back.
– I thought about that conversation as Brown put up a four-point night versus Florida and in general as he has moved up and provided the top line with a real shot in the arm. He’s averaging over two minutes more per game of ice time this month compared to last (12:44 vs. 15:05), and Babcock is moving him around to work home/road match-ups. He leads the team in goals for percentage at 55%.
– I wrote in the summer about the importance of Nazem Kadri in his checking role. So far, you can see how much Babcock is playing up that match-up and building his deployment around it. On Saturday, he switched around Nylander and Brown to balance the lines after matching up against the top lines of Florida and Nashville at home, which frees up players like Marner and Matthews to do their thing against second, third, or even fourth lines. One of the big positives of 2015-16 was that Kadri got to play in that role all season and go through the initial growing pains. This season, with increased talent all around him on the roster, he’s more adjusted to the role now. We’ve already seen huge games from him against opponents like McDavid and Barkov. His goals for percentage is just under 48% and his corsi for percentage is just under 50%, so he’s essentially drawing even in his top line matchup. That stands to improve as Brown (or anyone not named Milan Michalek) continues to play on his line, and as the defense comes together.
– Can’t help but keep an eye on Andrew Nielsen on the Marlies at this point. He has four goals, 11 points and 30 shots on goal in 14 games as a defenseman after an impressive preseason showing. He has size at 6’3 and a bit of a mean streak to boot. The nice thing for Toronto is they can let him develop all season before taking another look at him next season.
He’s an unbelievable umbrella … no rain gets on anybody else on the team because nobody talks about anybody but him.
- Mike Babcock on Auston Matthews
Just a reminder here that Matthews is really good, and that he’s 19 and playing in the craziest market in the league. I won’t name names, but he has out produced some really impressive players so far this season. Matthews is going to be more than fine.
They definitely funnel pucks to the net and get traffic there; that seems to be the philosophy of Coach Babcock.
- Carey Price, commenting on playing Toronto.
Part of that matches up with Babcock’s line deployment — he always has a grinder/net presence player on each line. The majority of goals in the league are scored right in the slot. You have to get pucks and bodies there.
You have to give Toronto some credit; they have a young team and they’re playing real hard. They cashed in on all their chances. We were on the wrong side of the puck all night. It wasn’t much fun.
- Panthers Head Coach Gerard Gallant, a day after losing 6-1 in Toronto.
I think this enthusiastic, young Leafs team terrifies opponents. You don’t always know what you’re going to get out of this group on a nightly basis, but when they are on, it is scary.
Video Tidbit of the Week
Before the game versus Montreal, Babcock mentioned that the game needs to slow down a bit for the Leafs. This shift is a good example.
After Montreal wins the faceoff and gets it deep, Zaitsev sends a hard rim around the boards, which is always tough to make a play on as a forward. Kadri actually does a pretty good job of creating some space for himself, but he loses the handle and the puck goes to Hunwick, who misses Komarov with a pass when he could have curled back and reset the play.
When Montreal gets it in deep again, this time Zaitsev throws it up the wall for a giveaway when Hunwick is wide open in the opposite corner. Montreal dumps it in again on the second giveaway, and the Leafs again give it away. This time, Montreal sets up and creates offense out of it.
That’s a lost faceoff, multiple giveaways, and a chance for Montreal’s fourth line — against the Leafs top line.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think switching Nylander and Brown depending on the home/road matchup is a good idea. When Babcock can dictate the matchups of the game at home, he can load up defensively and offensively and not worry too much. It’s a little different on the road — and not just on the defensive side of things. Nylander adds more offense to the Kadri line and it balances out all three units. Good idea; let’s see if it continues.
2. I think Soshnikov has been a good player so far, and I wouldn’t send him down just because Leivo is healthy. Babcock alluded to it last week, noting that Soshnikov is not playing enough, but I’d argue that’s on the coaches to find him ice time because it’s there for the taking. The Leafs are at the point where they probably need to figure out what they are doing with Holland and Corrado as they seem to be on the outs. Holland, in particular, seems to be in the permanent dog house – trade him for a conditional pick if that’s the case. The Leafs are potentially sending down one of their top 12 forwards to accommodate a now-healthy Josh Leivo just so Peter Holland can be a healthy scratch.
3. I still think I would have tried Soshnikov on that Matthews line over Hyman. In general, I think that line needs a lefty on the left wing. Matthews and Nylander are really skilled, and rip hard passes across the ice; Hyman, who is not that skilled, has to try and receive those passes on his backhand to go along with his weak shot.
4. I think, on a related note, if the Leafs are at least a little bit serious about winning this year, I’d find a legitimate 4 C. Ben Smith isn’t a full-time NHLer and the team is all but done with Peter Holland. Young players like Brown, Soshnikov and now (probably) Leivo, are being asked to play on a line with an AHL level center and hybrid enforcer. A 4C isn’t going to cost much and can potentially be had via waivers in the future. It is early and I wouldn’t make that move anytime soon, but I’d keep an eye on centers around the league.
5. I think, if he is playing this week, I hope Josh Leivo gets to see some time on a scoring line once in a while. You’re not setting him up for success if he is playing with just Ben Smith and Matt Martin. Maybe it’s a shift or two on the second powerplay unit, or a few shifts with Matthews (or any other line), but give the guy a chance to do what he does best – create offense.