Last week I was asked a question that proved harder to answer on the spot than I thought: Name a third-line center better than Tyler Bozak.
There are a lot of different factors to consider when answering that question. First of all, Bozak benefits from playing with a legitimate budding star and a proven top-line scoring winger who are both on pace for over 65 points this season. Second, most teams don’t use their third line like the Leafs do (softer scoring minutes); instead, they use that third line to build a checking/matchup unit. Third, Bozak is making a lot of money for his role.
NHL Third Line Centers
|Team||3C||GP||G||A||Pts||TOI||PPPts||Cap Hit (M)|
|Los Angeles||Nic Dowd||48||4||13||17||13:02||7||.640|
|New Jersey||Pavel Zacha||47||6||8||14||14:09||7||1.74|
|Ottawa||Jean Gabriel Pageau||53||6||14||20||16:01||0||.900|
|San Jose||Chris Tierney||57||6||9||15||14:41||1||.894|
|St. Louis||Patrick Berglund||56||17||7||24||15:27||3||3.7|
|Tampa Bay||Braydon Point||42||7||13||20||15:36||7||.894|
A few additional things stood out when compiling this chart. Right off the bat, it’s very evident that most teams use the 3C hole to bring in a young center to play on a cheap deal behind their top two centers. With Auston Matthews on his rookie deal, the Leafs can afford the luxury of the second-highest paid 3C in the league. Not every team can have a 3C that is unable to be a checker, but Toronto can and they benefit from one of the most productive players in the league for that roster spot.
Most teams, as we can see from the PP points column above, don’t have a 3C getting PP time, let alone top unit PP time as a key piece of the unit. That also speaks to the talent level of some of the players playing higher up the lineup, particularly Matthews’ wingers.
From a team perspective, the Leafs are a really dangerous three-line club that is capable of scoring in waves. Their ability to spread out offense through three lines is one of the biggest reasons they are one of six teams averaging over three goals per game.
Nazem Kadri is signed long-term on what looks like a great cap hit ($4.5M), Matthews has two more years on his ELC, and Bozak has another year left on his contract. Recently, Mike Babcock noted that he views William Nylander as a center down the road. There’s a succession plan here that works within the salary cap constraints.
And for the first time in forever, Toronto has center depth.
– Speaking of center depth, Byron Froese is now tied for the AHL lead in goals with 23. He’s tied with Wade Megan, who has played four more games than Froese. He is a late bloomer who has worked his way up from the ECHL, and while he didn’t show particularly well in 56 games last season, Toronto has rotated through their 4C spot a little bit. Have to wonder if he’s going to get a call-up at some point.
– Regardless of where the Leafs end up in the standings, one of the major storylines will be where their overtime results. As of this writing, Toronto has the most overtime losses in the league at 11, including six shootout losses in seven tries.
– At some point, the player deployment is going to come into question. Toronto has generally started Nazem Kadri with Leo Komarov and Morgan Rielly. In the one game against Edmonton, it paid off with a goal in the opening seconds. Against Washington and then St. Louis, it did not. On the Tarasenko goal, in particular, Komarov has to know which side Kadri is playing defense on and force one of the best goal scorers to go up against the actual defenseman. The game was over the second he isolated Kadri.
– The Leafs penalty kill is ninth on the season in percentage, but since January 1, 2017, they are 16th and killing under 80%. Conversely, the powerplay is a little over 30 percent in that time — good for third in the league, which is where they rate for the whole season.
– In terms of PK personnel, it has largely remained the same, except Leo Komarov has been in the top-five most used penalty killers since January 1 instead of Ben Smith, which is largely due to injury. One tactical area where teams have adjusted is that Toronto used to do a very good job pushing the puck down the wall and in the corner of the offensive zone, whereas most teams like to control it up top for shots with traffic. Opponents have adjusted and are working it up top with more movement, and it’s leading to more goals. (This might have to be a post in and of itself in the future).
– Quietly, Nikita Zaitsev is now on pace for 38 points, as is Jake Gardiner. He’s playing on the top pairing, in all situations, and is producing. At 25, he should be expected to step right in and be productive, but that’s a neat and tidy first year so far.
Babcock: “I’d like someone to do this next game. This is what I want you to do: When the shot hits the net, I’d like you to mark it down. You tally it up yourself. Don’t go by that clock. Ours is a little bit fluffy. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s just one of those things. Obviously, you want to keep the shots down as much as you can. I also think scoring chances are important. When we do a good job like we have the last two games, and be on the inside and check real well, I think it really helps the goaltending. Some nights you give up not very many shots, but you give up backdoor opportunities and that’s hard on the goalie. The other thing is – shots from the outside, when you’re inside, aren’t as big of a deal.”
Reporter: So you’re saying, in-house, maybe the shots against aren’t as high?
Babcock: “I slipped. That slipped. That slipped.”
– Mike Babcock on the increase in shots against
Any way you slice it, the Leafs are clearly giving up a lot of shots while getting worked in the defensive zone. Believing anything else is simply wrong.
“When you’ve got the lead, the other team pressures you really hard,” said Komarov. “I think everybody was nervous. We didn’t play that good in the third. … Every guy is a little bit shaky.”
– Leo Komarov, on protecting leads after games against the Bruins, Islanders and Stars
One area where the Leafs youth is evident is when they have the lead. We’ve seen them quickly go in a shell and also blown multiple big early leads. Largely, I just think it’s part of the learning process.
“We want to be inclusive to everyone, especially in this locker room. We have a great room and we want it to be at the point where these sorts of things aren’t a big story anymore, they should be normal. Obviously, we’re not quite there yet as a society. I know if we had someone who were to come out on this team, we’d be supportive, we would only care if they are a good teammate or a good player.”
– JVR, on his role as the Leafs You Can Play ambassador
Video Tidbit of the Week
It hasn’t received much attention this year, but Frederik Andersen is a pretty reasonable puck handler. He’s no Martin Brodeur, but here we see something that happens a couple times a game when an opponent dumps it in deep: Andersen stops it behind the net and leads the breakout himself. It’s a little thing that adds up, particularly with a defense like the Leafs’.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think it’s time to give Alexey Marchenko a look. He has had a little time to adjust, the Leafs’ current unit has done nothing to suggest that a particular six-man group should be played automatically on a nightly basis, and he has some promise in general that is worth exploring. The Leafs have two back-to-backs this week; he should at least get one game, and hopefully more.
2. I think Josh Leivo is earning ice-time and a longer look right now with his play — and good for him. He has had some good energy shifts on the cycle; driving the net, creating traffic, and putting shots on goal. In other words, he’s playing like he’s tired of sitting. His timing and nose for the net aren’t in mid-season form due to not playing all season, but he should keep playing for the next little bit here to see what happens. He has been a productive pro hockey player and has seven goals in 32 NHL games so far, plus he is signed for another year.
3. In overtime, I think the Leafs should go with their best and load up. So far this season, the coaching staff has turned to units featuring players like Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Leo Komarov, and all it is doing is helping them get to shootouts, where they are one for seven. They have to start going for broke here. If they lose, at least they will lose with their best: Kadri-Nylander, Bozak-JVR, Matthews-Marner.
4. I think Andersen should get the two home games this week, which are both the first games of the back-to-backs (Islanders and Senators), and Curtis McElhinney should get the two road games (in Columbus and Carolina).
5. I think it’s worth remembering that most people thought this was going to be a lottery team (and they still might be). Being in the race this late into the season is a great learning experience regardless of what happens. It is important to stay the course here and largely let the young players play it out and decide what happens themselves. Short of a move falling in their lap or a depth addition that costs very little, there’s no point in the Leafs actively buying.