Earlier this season, the Maple Leafs rearranged their top four forwards by pairing up Auston Matthews with William Nylander and John Tavares with Mitch Marner.
The experiment produced mixed results, and when head coach Sheldon Keefe switched the pairings back to their regular combinations, he offered this rationale for the decision:
“As I looked at it, it is 10 games now that we have been through where those guys have played together. Especially when I focus on Auston and Will, I don’t think, at five on five, the connection has been there, and the production has been there. Those guys individually have played well, but as I look at it, while they have played together through 10 games, they have connected for one goal, which was where Auston got a second assist on William’s goal in Philadelphia off a skate. Aside from that, they have produced, but the lines have been different, or they have been playing with different players when they have scored.”
It’s a fair point that probably isn’t discussed enough in hockey in general: Are these two players who combine to bring out the best in each other on a line that produces greater results than the sum of the parts? Or are these simply two great players that just happen to be on the ice together and will inevitably produce, knowing you can only keep good players down for so long?
Keefe made that determination after 10 games when Matthews had only just returned to the lineup after missing the beginning of the season due to wrist surgery. For the season, Matthews and Nylander have played just over 200 minutes together at 5v5, controlling over 57 percent of the shot share with an expected goals share over 62 percent while only scoring seven goals and giving up 11.
Both players like to carry the puck themselves and are both considered shoot-first players, so there is some decent logic to keeping them apart. After all, they are one and two on the team in shots on goal, and there’s only one puck to go around during a game.
The next question becomes how much time is enough time to really make a determination on the Tavares and Nylander combination.
Here are their stats together this season:
Here are their stats together over the past three seasons combined:
*stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
It should be noted, too, that the Tavares – Nylander combination is generally not called on to take on tough matchups. They mostly play against second lines and second defensive pairings; the Leafs put them out in favourable situations as much as possible (offensive zone draws, icings, sneaking them out against lesser competition, etc.).
As a line, they simply haven’t provided the Leafs with the type of return on investment we would expect. You can slice it any way you want; the bottom line is that the Leafs are paying two forwards nearly $18 million to play on their second line against other second lines, and you would expect better than a plus-two goal differential over three seasons, let alone a minus-five goal differential in 2021-22 so far.
A lot of the conversation has now shifted to finding them a better left winger (JT Miller!), and there’s some merit to it – Alex Kerfoot isn’t a true top-six forward if we’re honest, but he’s serviceable, and certainly not so bad that he’s completely sinking two premier point producers. There are deeper problems at play here.
Part of the question concerns whether there is a player out there that can really tie this line together and give the Leafs the type of advantage they envisioned when they signed four forwards to big contracts and split them between two lines.
If the statistics don’t tell the story, the styles that Tavares and Nylander play should.
Nylander is an elite player off the rush, where his speed, edges, and shot make him a threat cutting through the neutral zone. He has seven goals in 2022 that break down as follows: one on the power play, one where he walked in and ripped a slapshot to make it 6-0 against Ottawa with a few minutes left in the game, and the rest of the goals came off of the rush. It should come as no surprise that he looked so good in the playoffs while paired up with Alex Kerfoot – a player who is all speed off of the rush and he can counterattack with.
That’s not how Tavares generally creates offense. He’s a grinder below the top of the circles and always has been. Skating has always been the knock on his game, and while he has improved on it leaps and bounds since his junior days, almost every player he has paired up well with has not particularly been a faster skater.
Think back to his Islanders days and the linemates he played with – Matt Moulson, PA Parenteau, Kyle Okposo, to name a few. None of these players were burners. When he pairs up with Mitch Marner — who he has produced well with — what does Marner do? He slows the game down with the puck on his stick and brings the flow of the game to his pace, which meshes well with Tavares.
Nylander likes to create off the rush with the speed. Tavares likes to create off the cycle below the circle. For three seasons, they have been playing together now and haven’t really come to any particular middle ground where they are making teams pay at a level that’s equivalent to their talent.
Are they a left winger away from putting it all together, or do they need to consider a different configuration completely? To this point, Sheldon Keefe seems determined to keep Tavares and Nylander attached at the hip despite years of evidence that suggests it’s not producing the advantage it should be.
– In 2022, Auston Matthews is second in the league in scoring and Mitch Marner is first in the league in points per game (minimum, two games played!). There’s no question that both are on absolute heaters right now and are simply taking over games.
Because of the general madness of the game as a whole, the fact that Marner just put up a six-point game is really getting overlooked. The most impressive part is that they’ve been doing this while averaging around 20 and a half minutes each per game in this time, compared to last season when they were averaging over 21 and a half (Matthews) and 22 and a half (Marner) each. In fact, in February, they are averaging under 20 minutes each.
– Against Minnesota, Ilya Mikheyev left the game early, and that caused lines to be shuffled the rest of the way. There was one shift in the third period where Wayne Simmonds got in on the forecheck, laid a nice hit to cause a turnover, and then went to the net to cause havoc. It wasn’t anything special, but it was a nice hustle play and the kind of thing that has really been missing from his game for a few months now.
What made it interesting is that he did it alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. Last playoffs, he had some effective shifts as a forechecker with Matthews and Marner to start games. He can’t do it every shift, but he has shown some utility up the lineup in spot-duty situations.
– Somewhat quietly, David Kampf has eight points in 11 games in February. His point totals in his first four seasons: 11, 19, 16, 12. The Leafs believed internally that he had more skill than people thought and more to give offensively, and he’s coming off his most productive month as an NHLer. It remains to be seen if it’s just an outlier or a sign of things to come, but the offense from the third line has not been a problem (Ilya Mikheyev has nine goals in 23 games as well).
– As the season continues along, it’s worth noting the Leafs are still the best faceoff team in the league. They are first at 56.3 percent, and the next highest is Dallas at 54.7 percent.
The Leafs have really tried to leverage this as best as they can by implementing a number of creative faceoff plays. In the offensive zone, they love to run a play where the forward on the inside hashmark pulls up high as a shooting threat and the defenseman along the wall skates down the offensive zone, which creates confusion unless the pre-scout has tactically planned for it.
“He’s got to be better. That goal to start the period, it’s a nothing play, really it’s a routine save that he can make there and he doesn’t and then it kind of snowballs from there. That’s a tough one that he’s got to have and he will have.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Jack Campbell against Detroit
I didn’t really take this as Sheldon Keefe calling out Jack Campbell (although there was obvious truth to it), but more so protecting his team from some criticism. They certainly weren’t “give up seven goals bad” defensively on the night, and the quote here was a good indication of him making that pretty clear.
“Last year, with the taxi squad, it was up and down. It tends to stunt momentum. We want to see him continue to build momentum and take on a huge role with the PK and defensively while producing offensively. It will just be a matter of time until he forces our hand.”
– Kyle Dubas on Nick Robertson
It was amazing to see this quote and then watch the Leafs call up Nick Roberson four days later. It’ll be particularly interesting to see if he remains with the team for the rest of the season now or goes back down. He was fine against a Red Wings team that was leaking oil all night, but his minutes were limited and it’s fairly common for a player to come up and be running on adrenaline to start.
If the plan is to keep him up and play him under 10 minutes per game, that does not sound like the best plan for Robertson (compared to the plan Dubas outlined above). If it is just to get him a few games, now it’s back to the yoyo-ing that he just described as not ideal.
“A big part of our family here with the Maple Leafs … He’s deeply with us, our thoughts, & wish him the best. We know he’s fighting hard”
– John Tavares on Rodion Amirov
It was difficult to read about Rodion Amirov’s diagnosis. It was touching to see the Leafs players, management, and fans show Amirov their support in response. We’re all thinking of you, Rodion.
Tweets of the Week
I mean, as far as 5v5 scoring over the last 3 years he's basically lapped the field. pic.twitter.com/NBskZbTKvS
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) February 25, 2022
It is simply amazing to witness what Auston Matthews is doing. He is making it look so effortless that it is sometimes easy to take it for granted, but make no mistake, he is on track to be one of the greatest goal scorers of this era and the sky really is the limit provided he can stay healthy.
I knew that the Leafs had been giving up a lot of rush chances this season, but I didn’t know it was quite this many. Definitely something that needs to be addressed. (Credit: 32 Thoughts) pic.twitter.com/TNiXkd6lLW
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) February 25, 2022
Game-to-game, the Leafs’ issues have juggled between goaltending and a defense making glaring mistakes. Against the Red Wings, the goaltending was particularly poor. Against the Habs, the first shot on net was a breakaway, and it just set the tone for what was to come the rest of the way from the defense.
Follow up on this. Teams to lose the most guys off waivers, since October 2018:
1. TOR – 11
T2. MON, WPG – 6
T4. CAR, EDM, FLA, VAN – 4
The Leafs are a massive outlier.
— Craig Needles (@NeedlesOnNews) February 22, 2022
It really is amazing to see this Leafs effect. The amount of coverage they receive hurts them in so many ways – suspensions, too, in my opinion – and you constantly see it play out. It’s much more difficult for them to sneak players through waivers as well.
At times, the over-exposure hurts the value of some players who are better than given credit for in this market. It’s important to recognize the realities the Leafs face by playing in the center of the hockey universe.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think it was nice to see Justin Holl return and promptly pick up two primary assists. I know I have been banging on this drum for weeks on end here, but I think he’s still one of the easier paths to improving the defense.
What I would stress is that he just needs to keep things simple. He obviously has little confidence with the puck on his stick, but he can still skate and he has a good reach due to his height. He has been great on the penalty kill throughout the season.
This is the second time he has come back from being a healthy scratch and played a really simple game — not using the middle of the ice as much in the defensive zone, keeping things up the wall, and not stickhandling as much.
2. When it comes to the defense, I think the logical thing to do at this time is split up Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie. That doesn’t mean they can’t play together at all, but they should try to spread the wealth a little bit here. They are quite literally the only two legitimate top-four defensemen on the team right now. Splitting them up does make sense.
3. As controversial as it might be to say, and as good as the first line has been lately, I would not be opposed to breaking them up to get the other lines going. The goal can’t be one elite line and the rest of the success is basically down to special teams. They need to run three really good lines. As always, this should be experimentation time — not “set it and forget it” time.
4. I think I’d really like to see John Tavares play with a few grinders — even if it meant moving William Nylander to the top line and stacking that unit, and then dropping Michael Bunting to play with John Tavares and Ondrej Kase. I wonder if they would actually net out ahead compared to the current top six.
5. I think I’m going to continue to repeat this until something changes: this is a goalie competition now. Petr Mrazek had his best game of the season against the Minnesota Wild and deserved to start the next game. They appear determined to make things as easy for Jack Campbell as possible. If Campbell played that well against the Wild, he’d surely have started again in the next game (Campbell played well against Pittsburgh and got the St. Louis game a few days later). They have to treat it equally way across the board and ride the hot hand until someone steals the net.