Over the past few years, fans of this team have been clamouring for the Toronto Maple Leafs to load up their top-line players with heavy minutes. Under Sheldon Keefe, that wish has come true.
Since January 1, 2020, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews rank second and third, respectively, among all forwards in the league in average time on ice per game. Only Leon Draisaitl is ahead of them, while Jack Eichel trails Matthews by one second per game.
Both have been productive, but neither is in the top 15 among forwards scoring in points per game. The team is 13-11-4 and their goal differential is minus-one.
Matthews and Marner are playing over 22 minutes per night, so I was curious to see if two teammates have ever done this in the playoffs over the past three seasons.
Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron both played over 22 minutes per game in the 2016-17 season and lost out in round one.
The Kings’ top forwards (Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter), as well as Columbus’ (Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois), played more than 22 minutes the following season. Both teams lost in the first round (the Kings were swept).
Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog played that much for Colorado last season. They lost out in the second round.
When we look at the Cup winners over the past three seasons, not a single championship team played a forward over 22 minutes per night. Ryan O’Reilly led the Blues last year playing 21 minutes per night in the playoffs, but no other forward on the team averaged even 19 per game.
The year before, Washington didn’t have anybody average over 21 minutes per night, but all of Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov played over 20 minutes per night. TJ Oshie was two seconds shy of it. Their forwards that averaged under 13 minutes per night in that run also combined to score 25 goals.
In 2017, Pittsburgh didn’t have a single forward average 20 minutes night. Sidney Crosby led the team at 19:24 per night. Crosby averaged over 20 minutes per night when they won the Cup the year before, but no other forward averaged over 18.
All of this is to say that the playoffs are a grind. You are pretty well playing every other night, and it takes its toll on you. No path is easy, but the Leafs are in a particularly difficult bracket to emerge from (and if they, do who is the likely opponent? Washington?).
At a minimum, the Leafs need to find a fourth line as they all currently average under 10 minutes per night. Frederik Gauthier and Kyle Clifford are playing under 10 minutes per night in 2020, and whoever flanks them usually does as well — Dmytro Timashov led in that category over 10 games, but players like Pierre Engvall and Jason Spezza have taken their turns below the 10-minute mark on that line, too.
Often, the Leafs are not even trying to get anything out of their bottom lines despite coach Sheldon Keefe lamenting their lack of bottom-six forward production. In a back-to-back on the west coast, the Leafs had five forwards play over 21 minutes in game one (three played under 10 minutes). The next night, the same five played over 20 minutes each, while three forwards were again under 10 minutes. In some cases, they aren’t even playing well and still receiving the minutes — Marner has criticized his own play shortly after playing 20+ minutes on the night.
On some level, the Leafs are missing two top-nine forwards, but neither are among their top-five forwards on the team, so you can only adjust for that so much. Of course, Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev would help balance out the minutes, but their absence shouldn’t cause a huge rift for the team and how they operate.
The Leafs had such a big hole to dig out of just to make the playoffs (which is still not done), but along the way, they are really overloading their top players. In the long run, that doesn’t appear to be a sustainable approach.
- I was extremely surprised that the Leafs opted not to use Jack Campbell in his return to LA or Frederik Andersen in his return to Anaheim (it wasn’t his first time back, but those games still matter to players). That’s in addition to putting in Campbell over Andersen against San Jose in the first place. Earlier in Keefe’s regime, he was starting players in games to make memorable moments during the long grind of the season. Campbell returning to LA to play his old teammates would surely fall in that category. Playing him in that situation isn’t exactly a hindrance to the team, either. It was just a surprising call and it seemed to be a case of overthinking it a little bit.
- I noted it last week, but I wonder how much the team is looking to reduce Frederik Andersen’s workload down the stretch here. Andersen only playing one out of the three games last week was certainly a bit of a surprise, particularly as he was starting to look like he was getting on a roll. He has now played 51 games with 13 left in the season. I believe the team would like to keep him around the 60-game mark. He previously played back-to-back 66 game seasons and wore down during the stretch drive and playoffs.
- On a major positive note, William Nylander was great on the California trip. It kind of gets forgotten, but he was excellent down the stretch when the Leafs first made the playoffs under Babcock in 2016-17. Over the final few months of that season (post-February 1), he was tied with Auston Matthew for the team lead in scoring with 30 points in 34 games. He has had his struggles since — most notably last season after the contract negotiation — but he isn’t a player that wilts under the pressure. Now up to 30 goals on the season, it looks like he’s going to have a career-low for assists over a full season. Next year, let’s see next year if he can bump that up while keeping the goals coming.
- I’m still unsure as to what the optimal matchup line is to use at forward for the Leafs, but now in over 500 minutes together as the shutdown pairing, Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl are above water in all major categories at even strength (shot share, chances, etc.) and have been on for more goals for than against at the end of the day. For all the talk of improving the defense — which they need to do — that is a very good starting point. With a healthy Morgan Rielly, the group isn’t as far away as some might think.
- It’s likely due to necessity because of injury, but Alex Kerfoot’s most common linemate at even strength is John Tavares (281 minutes). He has now essentially played more on the wing than at center. He’s playing to a 36-point pace over 82 games (he recorded 43 and 42 points the two seasons prior) despite playing alongside elite talent for a good chunk of time along with a second-unit power-play role. At $3.5M, it’s a lot of money for the production and a relatively easy role to replace on the cheap.
“But I think within our structure too, I think we’re kind of, you know, one foot in the door, one foot out as far as the way we want to play, and I think we just all need to be 100% in.”
– Auston Matthews after the loss to Anaheim to complete an 0-2-1 road trip
How is this a real quote at game 69 of the season? The team’s best player is openly acknowledging the whole team isn’t all-in and heading in one direction together. There are 13 games left and the team is in the heat of a playoff race.
“But when you add a guy like Kyle Clifford and what that intangible has brought to the rest of the club, I think he has had a positive impact on Kasperi Kapanen’s game.
Having more Stanley Cup champions and more leaders, and getting Muzzin re-upped, and then just sometimes with time as players grow from experience and get that scar tissue.”
– Brendan Shanahan discussing the state of the team
I thought this was a really interesting quote from Shanahan this past week. He talked a lot about things you would expect him to in terms of fighting through adversity and believing in the group, but this one stood out to me. The team really hasn’t targeted players like Kyle Clifford before. Their depth additions have generally been small, skilled guys with a history of production at lower levels (Denis Malgin, Nic Petan, etc.). Perhaps they are seeing some of the benefits of this type of player now as well as a little more of an emphasis on veterans in general, which — from the outside — looks like it should be something they be prioritizing.
“Teams are playing us now knowing that Mats is really the only shooter up high and me and Tyson just have to start getting on net more and deciding to shoot more.”
– Mitch Marner on the power play
Over the last month (February 9), the Leafs power play has been clicking at the third-lowest rate in the league (11.1%). Mitch Marner is right that teams are daring him and Tyson Barrie to shoot, and they need to make them pay more. The two other things that have stood out are their breakouts — where they really miss the skating ability of Morgan Rielly — and the lack of movement on the power play. When Babcock was fired, this was a priority, and the PP started moving around and becoming much dynamic. Right now, it is back to looking static and predictable. That makes it easy to penalty kill against.
Tweets of the Week
Over time, controlling the share of quality shots is the best way to control goals at 5v5.
TBL, MTL, and VGK are best.
BUF, CBJ, BOS, and MIN have been stingiest.
NYR, CHI, WSH, TOR, and CAR have been the most fun.
DET and WPG have been worst. pic.twitter.com/eLrjljx46d
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) March 8, 2020
There is no question the Leafs play a more offensive, free-flowing style and it can work in certain matchups — they’d be a playoff team in either conference and in any postseason format right now. The toughest part is the two teams at the top of this table are who they’d likely play in the first two rounds. That is a very difficult path.
Marner’s a great player who’ll put up a shit ton of points every year. Full stop. I’m gonna still admit, right or wrong, that my view of him changed last year. Feel like the hometown thing and our dream of keeping this core together was a gun to our heads for a letter and $11M.
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) March 7, 2020
In the summer, Marner’s camp went on the offensive in negotiations through the media and they demanded to be paid a number that was, quite frankly, an overpay. We said at the time he was a $9-9.5 million player, and that still seems about right for him. But he got his money, he burned his goodwill among the fanbase, and we can see the frustration in his body language and play at the moment. It looks like it is weighing on him.
Marner definitely doesn’t have the same enthusiasm and excitement that he has demonstrated in previous seasons. Maybe it doesn’t matter because he’s still extremely productive, but he’s still overpaid, all things considered. Him referencing social media criticism last week was somewhat telling.
#Flames allow a goal on their 1st shot on goal for the 10th time this season , tied with Toronto for most in the NHL.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 7, 2020
If you really think about this – allowing the first goal on the first shot ten times! – it is just stunning. It’s hard to chase games in this league.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If the forwards are once again struggling to score, I think I’d at least try to flip Mitch Marner and William Nylander to see how it goes. They are almost being stubborn about it the other way now. The team was not particularly inspiring offensively and you can shuffle the deck chairs all you want, but at some point, you have to move around the top players and see how it goes.
2. I think it’s just fairly obvious that Rasmus Sandin is better than Calle Rosen and should be in over him. I haven’t minded Rosen, all things considered, but if the decision is between the two, I don’t think it’s much of a decision at all.
3. I think if they don’t want to shake up the power-play units – and it’s tough to single out one of their big four at forward and remove him from the top unit – then they can’t just trot these players out for nearly full two-minute power plays when they look this bad. Play the other unit, who has looked good at times and scored some very big goals — if for nothing else than to just to grab the attention of the top unit and shake it up. They’ll likely eventually figure it out, but it doesn’t seem right to allow them free reign regardless of how they look.
4. I think I would strongly consider mixing in Jake Muzzin on the power play more when he is healthy, though. He actually can shoot and teams know it. You have to respect it. If they don’t, he has a good enough shot to make you pay. It’s a different wrinkle and it should open up some space along the half-walls for their talent to operate. Right now, they’re just hoping that Matthews can get a shot off.
5. As the Leafs continue to look at their depth up front given a few injuries, I think I’m surprised they haven’t given Marlies leading scorer Kenny Agostino a look, or even Egor Korshkov, who I thought flashed promise earlier this season. Agostino has played in the league before and has been a reasonable depth contributor. At a minimum, it’s actually more likely than not that he provides a shot in the arm. He has proven he can play in this league.