When Patrick Marleau signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs this past summer, many thought it would come with an opportunity to play alongside franchise center Auston Matthews.
As a left-handed left winger, Marleau could naturally slot beside Matthews and right winger William Nylander. Coming off a 27-goal season with speed to burn and a solid two-way game, he appears to be a logical candidate to replace Zach Hyman, who posted all of 28 points last season playing with Matthews the entire year.
So far in training camp, though, Hyman has remained on the top line and Babcock is not considering any other options. Just last week, he put it to bed:
“This is what I’m going to do: I’m going to coach the team, and you guys are going to write the articles. Hyman is a guy who gets the puck back all the time. When you’re a good player — I’ve learned from good players — they like to have the puck. When you have three guys who want the puck… Datsyuk used to tell me all the time, “No, put him on somebody else’s line. I want somebody to get me the puck.” He gets the puck back better than anyone. So, whatever. That’s it for that.”
To a degree, it makes sense that he doesn’t want to split up the line. Matthews scored 40 goals last season and Nylander put up 61 points – it’s not like they under produced. As Babcock noted, Hyman’s job is not to put up points, either; it’s to forecheck, back check, and create space for Matthews and Nylander to use their skill.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story on the surface. At 5v5, Hyman and Matthews combined to score only four more goals than they gave up. After December 13, Hyman didn’t score a 5v5 goal off of his stick for the rest of the regular season. Of Nylander’s 61 points, 26 came on the PP, which is where he was really at his best. For the entire season, Hyman didn’t score a single goal directly off of an Auston Matthews pass. And he’s playing on his off-wing as a non-skilled player who finds it difficult to handle passes.
Add all those factors up, and Hyman is a player the opposing team can tell its own checking units to largely ignore (save for his forechecking abilities).
That’s not to say Hyman is a bad player – he’s fantastic on the penalty kill and is the type you want out on the ice in the final minutes of a game when you’re protecting a lead. But he played all season with two elite forwards and had 28 points to his name. At some point, you are obligated to try something else. That is the head scratcher in this whole situation.
Maybe Marleau or JVR or Brown on his off-wing (or anyone else) really doesn’t make sense with Matthews and Nylander. We don’t know that, though, because we’ve never seen anything else tried for a significant sample of games. For a single shift after penalty kills last season, Babcock would throw Kadri out with Matthews and Nylander. They were dominant and had no issues sharing the puck.
The idea that a collection of stars can’t all play on the same line because they all want the puck is a fair one, but is Marleau the right player for that critique? He played on two of the most dominant lines of the last decade, with Thornton and Heatley and later Thornton and Pavelski. He knows better than most how to work with stars and move the puck around.
Last season, on the Leafs alone, they had an entire line get at least 55 points each – again, it was no problem for three skilled guys to share the puck. I wouldn’t exactly classify any of JVR, Bozak or Marner as good forecheckers (Matthews is significantly better than all three at it), and yet they still managed to produce effectively.
Hockey is littered with examples of fantastic trios. The Heatley – Spezza – Alfreddsson line tormented the Leafs for years; Kovalchuk – Savard – Hossa all racked up over 90 points; Chicago used to run a very dangerous Sharp – Toews – Kane line. The list could go on and on when it comes to trios of skilled players dominating the league together.
One of the more surprising developments last season was that Babcock basically kept the same lines together the entire time. He noted at one point that he did not think there was much versatility within the lineup, but adding Marleau and having depth options like Nikita Soshnikov, Kasperi Kapanen, Josh Leivo, Miro Aaltonen and Carl Grundstrom gives him plenty of possibilities for shifting the roster around.
To start the season, it’s all but set that Hyman is going to be on the Matthews line. Again, that’s fine; they were a productive unit and can continue where they left off going into the year. At some point, though, they will slump; it is inevitable for any line in the league. At that point, will we see a change? Babcock owes it to Matthews to find out what he looks like playing between two legitimate top six forwards for an extended period of time.
– Before we get into the notes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it has been hard to get a read on players with the “new” rule changes. There have been a lot of penalties and the rhythm of the games has been extremely choppy because of it. It’s understandable that the league has to take advantage of the only time available to experiment and try things out, but for teams trying to evaluate players? It makes it tougher. You want to see players at even strength and for there to be some flow to the game. That hasn’t really happened yet through four games.
– On special teams, it’s readily apparent that Matthews and Nylander generally look more comfortable on their strong sides on the PP. I’ve advocated at times for them to be on their off-wings, and it will open up more options in the big picture, but they like the cross-body, cross-ice pass we saw in the Ottawa game. They also like to take a few steps towards the blue line and then skate down the wall before ripping the puck either cross-ice, to the middle man for a deflection, or on the net themselves. When they try to do that on the off-wing, the puck is on the inside and easier to knock it away; it can also be harder to hit the middle ‘bumper’ man for a deflection play. At the same time, Nylander also crushed a one-timer for an easy goal on his offside. That’s the benefit, but the rest of their setup still looks uncomfortable while in that formation.
– The Dominic Moore vs. Miro Aaltonen battle is starting to get quite a bit of attention. I wouldn’t have expected Babcock to say that there is no competition here and Aaltonen shouldn’t even bother. Moore is a strong veteran and established penalty killer and checker who is coming off a productive season offensively to boot. If the competition was for a scoring line center, it’s a different story. Moore looked much better in the second game, creating a 2v1, driving the net a few times, and winning some key battles on the penalty kill to get the puck out. That’s what you would expect from a veteran as preseason progresses.
– That’s not to put down what Miro Aaltonen has done so far. He has created offense and has flashed some creativity – the play that stood out, in particular, was an area pass to Leivo to spring him on a 2v1 against the Sens. A few times he has been caught high in the zone on breakouts for a center, which is most likely a product of playing in the bigger rinks. But he has shown a willingness to engage in battles along the wall, which Babcock will love, and he has shown well on the penalty kill as he learns how to close lanes in the smaller zones. The Leafs did not have an option like this last season. It’s a great insurance plan.
– So far this preseason, Calle Rosen leads the team with 65 shifts. Paired up with Connor Carrick, that might be a preview of the third pairing to start the season. He had a great rush against the Sabres, putting a good shot on net for a scoring opportunity before hitting Grundstrom backdoor for a tap-in (that he missed). Against the Sens, he got burned on the Hoffman breakaway goal, pushing toward the forward standing still on the wall and opening up the lane (Babcock wants his defensemen between the faceoff dots). He also has a bomb of a shot that he is not shying about teeing up. He’s not as physical as Borgman, but the rest of his game, particularly his skating, has been better so far.
– I was surprised to see Morgan Rielly dropping the puck every time on the PP breakout against Ottawa. They had a guy playing it and Rielly played right into it. He finally went for it himself vs. Buffalo and scored. This isn’t just for Rielly; the team in general needs to skate it up and not drop the puck all the time in order to keep opponents honest. Gardiner has done this sort of back-peddling play a few times in the preseason where he looks like he’s going to drop it but instead skates it in himself; he’s improved a lot on those reads over the last few years. For Rielly, it’s still readily apparent he doesn’t have a bomb of a shot for the PP and the opposition therefore sags off of him.
– He won’t make the team, but Justin Holl has put together a solid preseason so far – he threw a big hit against the Sabres, he’s been able to breakout the puck well, and he’s been active pinching down the wall. He’s 6’3, right handed, and can move around the ice well. Holl has been getting praised for his play on the Marlies the last two years and it is evident as to why. If the team has to call him up at some point in the season, he can serve a depth role.
– Tyler Bozak had a really crafty play to set up the first goal in the second game against Buffalo. For a long time he was known as the guy riding shotgun to Phil Kessel and reaping the benefits, but he has continued to produce since the trade. While he is not strong defensively, he’s good in the faceoff circle and creates offense. Now that he’s not the first line center, he’s become a really nice secondary scoring center for the team.
“If you read Lupul’s online apology, at no point in that apology does he say that he didn’t tell the truth. At no point in that apology does he say he’s not able to play now. It’s a claim that requires some examination from the league under article 27 of the CBA… I look at the surrounding circumstances and I look at the totality of the record here, and I believe that the NHL is justified in opening up an investigation against the Leafs and Lamoriello.”
– TSN legal analyst Eric Macramalla, on the Joffrey Lupul situation
When I saw the apology, I thought the same thing: Lupul never actually said it was a lie. I don’t know if he can play, but I don’t think he’s had a fair opportunity to prove it unequivocally, either. My guess is the league exonerates the Leafs and we all move on from this.
“Grundstrom looks like a real hockey player to me. Every day I go out there, every day he has the puck and every day he skates faster than everyone else. Every day he is more physical and every day he shoots the puck in the net. Pretty soon, even a smart guy like me catches on and says, “Hey, this guy might be alright.” That’s all I do. I go out there and just watch. If you do good things, we catch on over time.”
– Mike Babcock on Grundstrom
Grundstrom has put together a really good preseason so far, driving the net regularly and getting his nose dirty in front and on the forecheck to go along with four shots on net. In previous years, he would have made it out of camp and started the season in the NHL. That is pretty high praise by Babcock to be singled out like that.
“He is a man. He had a just awful [injury] and the work he’s done to get back – you know, he’s not back yet, but he wanted to come back. [There’s] respect you have to have for an individual there. It’s going to take a little time. He’s going to practice. He won’t be able to scrimmage right away. The doctors have not cleared him to play, but they’ve cleared him to work out and participate in drills and so forth. It’ll be a process. He’ll be given every opportunity. The smile on the veterans’ faces when they heard he was coming, and just the enthusiasm.”
– Lou Lamoriello on the Roman Polak PTO
That doesn’t sound like someone the Leafs are interested in signing – and this quote was before all the kids played well to start the preseason. If anything, I think there’s a chance they will have him hang around and practice with the team once the season gets started and see where it goes from there.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1) I think Josh Leivo has earned a spot in the starting 12 so far. He has been a menace on the forecheck, consistently winning battles, causing turnovers and using his body to gain positioning and create offense. Playing primarily on a line with Aaltonen and Brown this preseason — and considering the top three lines appear set — that could be the opening fourth line (with a possibility of Moore replacing Aaltonen there). To this point, I just don’t know how you can’t start this guy on opening night.
2) I think, on that note, there probably has to be a conversation with Matt Martin that goes something like, “You are going to play, and fulfill your role, and we will tap you on the shoulder and put you in when we need a boost, but it’s not going to be for 82 games again.” Not with this depth. I re-watched the Buffalo game he was in, and he had one play of consequence (driving a defenseman wide and centering the puck, which almost resulted in a goal). Compared to what Kapanen and Soshnikov bring on the PK alone — or Leivo offensively — he can’t take up a spot for the entire season at the expense of those three.
3) I think Connor Carrick has had an up and down preseason, but he’s lucky that he had a reasonably promising season last year and that he’s right-handed. He made a nice play on the PP leading to a goal against the Sabres; that’s an area where he has shown he can be productive with the Marlies, but the opportunity isn’t there to do it with the Leafs. Carrick played with Gardiner but struggled in the playoffs; with the top four set and signed for the next few years and young defencemen knocking on the door, he’s the player whose job players will be targeting first.
4) I think, whoever rounds out the Leafs defense on the third pairing, the Leafs need to be prepared to finally give Jake Gardiner some legitimate PK time. Gardiner is being trusted to play against top two lines on a nightly basis and is performing well in that role; there’s no reason he can’t play on the PK as well. With Matt Hunwick and Polak gone and only Hainsey signed as a replacement, there’s a huge hole on the PK. The veteran already playing tough minutes is a more logical approach than a rookie or young defenseman who is still finding his way. If they want to try out all three, so be it, but Gardiner’s career thus far we really haven’t seen him much on the PK. This is the time.
5) I think there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played in preseason, particularly for the defense contest figuring itself out. The hockey picked up a bit on the weekend compared to the Ottawa head-to-head and it’s only going to get better with each passing game as more vets feature. For the Leafs forwards still competing, there is an NHL body of work from last season to go on, save for Aaltonen. On defense, it will be a real test for Dermott, Rosen and Borgman.