One of the constants throughout the 2016-17 season was Mike Babcock’s line combinations.
At one point in the middle of the campaign, he noted that, “The combinations have stayed together longer probably this year than I’ve ever had before. Just because I think guys are suited for certain spots better. And we don’t have enough other pieces to interchange with them.”
Here were the top six most commonly-used lines at even strength in 2016-17 according to Frozen Pool:
|19.24%||JVR - Bozak - Marner|
|12.43%||Hyman - Matthews - Nylander|
|9.48%||Brown - Kadri - Komarov|
|8.99%||Hyman - Matthews - Brown|
|7.30%||Komarov - Kadri - Nylander|
|3.78%||Martin - Smith - Soshnikov|
The Tyler Bozak line was generally together throughout the whole year, while the Auston Matthews line basically rotated William Nylander or Connor Brown on the right side, which in turn impacted whoever was on Nazem Kadri’s line.
Generally speaking, the top nine was the same nine players – and they all played at least 77 games, so injuries did not factor in. The fourth line was a constant shuffle, but once Brian Boyle was acquired before the deadline, the lines were basically set the rest of the way.
This season the splits have been a little different:
|15.55%||Hyman - Matthews - Nylander|
|12.77%||Marleau - Kadri - Komarov|
|11.17%||JVR - Bozak - Marner|
|4.14%||Komarov - Kadri - Nylander|
|3.77%||Hyman - Matthews - Brown|
|3.16%||Hyman - Marleau - Brown|
Babcock has been more committed to the top line until Nylander was recently shifted to the fourth line in order to get him going. The Bozak line has struggled, so Babcock has broken them up more than he did last season. That has caused more of a mix between who plays with Kadri, which position Marleau plays, and where Brown plays.
The top-nine forwards have largely remained the same, although we have seen Matt Martin move up a few times and Kasperi Kapanen and Josh Leivo get inserted here and there (Dominic Moore a few times, too). While the personnel in the top nine has largely stayed together, there have also been times where Marner and Nylander have been moved down to play with Moore and Martin, and the Bozak line has been used as a fourth line.
Last season, the team had five players score at least 60 points along with Bozak at 55. This season, three are projected to hit 60 (Matthews, Kadri and JVR), with another three projected to hit at least 50 (Nylander, Rielly and Marleau). Marner has struggled at times and is on pace for six goals right now, while Komarov looks like age is starting to catch up to him and that he’s pacing himself for the long season (he has a 40.8CF% right now compared to 49.1CF% last year).
A combination of those things has led Babcock to move pieces around and try things out more than last season. He has looked to spark certain players, figure out what works, and adjust his matchups. So far, the biggest thing is he has not been able to get consistent minutes out of the JVR – Bozak – Marner line and that has led to Marleau playing center perhaps more than they ever anticipated.
The matchups to this point have pretty well stayed the same, though. Kadri gets the primary shutdown job followed by Matthews, and Bozak gets the soft minutes followed by the fourth line. But the Bozak line hasn’t been able to handle the soft minutes – their 55CF% together is buoyed by Babcock giving them easy minutes and offensive zone starts, yet they have given up two more goals than they have scored so far. Last season, they were still full of defensive lapses, but they outscored their problems — they scored nine more goals than they allowed last season.
Toronto needs that third line to be outscoring opponents or they will have to rely heavily on their power play to win. Kadri does a good job in the shutdown role, but the goal with that line is to come out even while neutralizing the opponent’s top line (Kadri and Komarov gave up two more goals than they scored last season, and are at that number again this season). The Matthews line is obviously good and the fourth line is like it is for most teams when Nylander and Marner aren’t down there: Any contribution is a bonus.
With the fifth ranked PP and 10th ranked PK, Toronto will win a lot of games despite that third line not being too great – and they have so far. They sit tied for second in the East with the second-best goal differential in the conference. But special teams can dry up and are fickle in general; Columbus had the best PP in the league by a mile for the first half of last season and have been dreadful ever since (so far this season, they are last at 9.3%).
Babcock knows that. He is trying to find that mix of keeping his top line intact and making sure the shutdown unit hums along while getting more out of his third line. It’s a fine balance, but the good news is that the team has been winning while they figure it out.
– As the Leafs continue to mostly cruise through the season, we have to give recognition to the Marlies, who are tied for first in the AHL with a game in hand. Andreas Johnsson is building off a strong rookie season and is almost halfway toward his goal total from last season with nine (he scored 20 last season) in 54 less games and leads the team in scoring. Dmytro Timashov got off to a slow start to his rookie season last year before picking it up late (he finished with 24 points in 63 games), but already has 15 in 23 this season including an impressive game-winning goal on the weekend. Kerby Rychel led the team in scoring last season with 52 points but has only 10 in 23 games so far this season. On the non-production side of things, they have also been using Travis Dermott as an all-situations player and grooming for the kind of role Zaitsev currently plays on the team – top four minutes, penalty kill, some PP.
– Babcock is fond of saying that Matt Martin keeps the flies off. A few weeks back against Arizona, the Coyotes scored, and he put the fourth line out for a response. They had some offensive zone time and then Zac Rinaldo rocked Connor Brown. There was no response from Martin. The next game, Martin was a healthy scratch against Carolina. I don’t know if the two were related, but if there was ever a time to step up in a game, that was probably it. The team goes down a goal, one of your better young players is run with a big (clean hit), and your team isn’t playing well in general.
– I thought Josh Leivo played a strong game against Vancouver even though he only saw 9:10 in ice time. He had two shots on net, created a few turnovers that led to scoring opportunities, just missed on a few other chances to score, and drew a penalty. I was surprised to see that, so far this season, he actually leads the team with the lowest zone start ratio. Playing on the fourth line sporadically is already starting behind the eight ball, but those zone starts make it all the more difficult. In general, that line (Martin – Moore – Leivo) got buried twice in the first period on defensive zone faceoffs where Travis Green got one of his scoring lines out, but once Babcock got away from that matchup, the line found a grove.
– While watching Roman Polak get back into action and go through growing pains, I’ve been thinking back to last season. The Hunwick – Polak pair received a lot of criticism in the first half but actually settled into a reasonably good second half, with Polak playing the fourth most on the team per game from January onward with a 48.9CF% and a primary penalty killer. In the playoffs, he played just under 24 minutes in his one full game and was clearly in their top four. Conversely, Connor Carrick was regularly scratched and the team did not trust him at all in the playoffs. Plus, the Leafs use Polak on the penalty kill. So, I think Babcock sees a rookie left-handed defenseman on his third pair and thinks: Do I pair him with another young kid I don’t really trust, or a veteran that I do? I also think he’s hoping that Polak finds his end-of-season form again.
– So far, it looks like the Leafs are sticking with the strategy of using their starter no matter what in the first half of a back-to-back. I had wondered, with the Carolina – Washington set that had Washington come to Toronto on a Saturday night, if he’d want Andersen for that game. He went with Andersen vs. Carolina and McElhinney vs. Washington. They want the points in the bank every time in the first game. Whatever happens while tired, a point or more is just gravy.
– I thought last season was as good as it gets for Nazem Kadri production wise, but so far he is on pace to score more goals and put up more points than last season. He is shooting 20% so far — that isn’t going to last — but even with some regression, this is his second year in a row playing top competition as a roughly 30 goal – 30 assist player. For $4.5 million, that’s one of the best contracts in the league.
“This is good for them. Things are not easy in this world and you have to fight through different things. The mental toughness end of it – no matter how things are going; good, bad, or indifferent – you have to stay the course and continue to do things right day in and day out. I think that’s what we’re learning. But these players that you are talking about are talented and they want to be good. That’s probably the common denominator that I have the most respect for with our young players: They want to do the things that are necessary to be good. But sometimes we all have to realize that there are other people who want to be good, too. We have to better, and if things are not going right, we’ll just stay the course.”
– Lou Lamoriello on the struggles and development of some of the team’s young players
I agree that the best way to learn is to fight through adversity. The team will be better in the long run for some of the struggles they are facing now.
“That’s great everyone wants that, (but) what we like to do is win every night. It’s responsible for both guys to drive a line, that’s their job here. We’re about winning games. If we thought that would help us win more that’s what we do. I don’t foresee (plying them on the same line) happening anytime soon. When we aren’t playing good, we move people around, that’s a different thing. but for us, to be the best we can be. they’re both split to drive a line.”
– Babcock on potentially pairing Matthews and Marner together
There is a debate to be had as to whether it’s more beneficial to pair up Matthews and Marner or not. That aside, I thought it was just weird in general that Babcock defended not putting them together so firmly… then played them together from the start of the game, the very next game.
“I won’t compare him to me. I will say it’s fantastic watching him play, seeing a young man maturing, developing even from last year, and he’s hardly even started his career yet. I have him right up there with Connor McDavid. The Leafs have waited so long to have a young franchise player to build around. He’s that player… Just think of the average 20-year-old, where they are in the lives. I look at myself. At the beginning, there’s all kinds of barriers that you’re not used to, facing the media and being the face of an organization. Toronto is probably the toughest market to face that kind of challenge. You need to be fair here… In my book, he’s obviously the right person to be captain, no doubt about that. He leads on the ice and you can tell he’s a good man off the ice.”
– Mats Sundin on Auston Matthews
Nothing more needs to be said here.
Video Tidbit of the Week
Here we see a few areas where the Leafs can get into some trouble on the power play.
The first is that Marner wants to make the slap-pass play to the middle man (Kadri), but Vancouver knows it’s coming and is planning for it – they completely collapse to the middle. Having a lefty up top in Rielly gets rid of the one-timer option, and Rielly doesn’t have a big shot for when Marner sends the puck back up top. You’d like a big shot there to make Vancouver pay for collapsing.
When the puck goes around to Marleau, he once again wants to make that play and scrambles when it’s not there, eventually throwing it to Kadri anyway, which leads to the clear.
In Edmonton, the Leafs scored twice – one was a cross-ice pass and shot, the other was Nylander ripping it while Edmonton collapsed to the middle. You need those shots to make teams pay for taking away the slap-pass option the Leafs are so fond of.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think the Leafs have to bump Leo Komarov out of the top nine at times when they are trailing in games. He is a pure grinder at this point, with seven points in 28 games playing alongside a 60-point center and getting PP time (he’s also notched some points on empty nets). For reference, both Martin and Moore have more points than him so far this season, and you have a player like Leivo on the fourth line while you’re losing and need offense. It’s one thing when you’re starting a game and the matchups are playing out, but when you’re losing in the final ten minutes? You have to pull the plug here.
2. I think the point was made with putting William Nylander on the fourth line. Time to get him back with Matthews.
3. I think I’d seriously consider more Tyler Bozak on the fourth line by making Dominic Moore play the wing and using Patrick Marleau at center (bumping up either Leivo or Brown, or whoever is slated to be on the fourth line alongside Moore and Martin). Bozak has never been strong defensively, but he was always productive and crafty. So far, he’s on pace for 33 points while getting power-play time and playing regularly with a winger who is on pace for 60. He just has not been good enough. It is particularly surprising considering he is in a contract year.
4. I think it was interesting to see Mitch Marner get some shifts next to Kadri. It might help to put Brown with Bozak and JVR instead to try to round that line out a bit. The team is looking for balance, and that’s one way to get it, depending on the matchup. Against teams with high-end top lines, it would obviously be a different story.
5. I think, as much as the talk about a guy like Ian Cole is interesting, if the Leafs are going to add a top-four defenseman at this point, it has to be an all-around guy and a sure thing. That’s not Cole. The team has some depth on defense and some exciting young guys on the way. If they are going to cash in some chips, it better be for a really good player and not a stop-gap type that is about to get paid big in free agency.