Six games into the season, pretty well everything is coming up roses for the 5-1-0 Toronto Maple Leafs.
They lead the league in goals per game, rank second on the power play, and sit 13th on penalty kill. They are averaging the fifth most shots on net per game while giving up only the 16th most shots against. The Leafs are also tied for third in goal differential and are fourth in team corsi-for percentage according to Corsica.hockey.
All in all, you can’t ask for much more than that.
Let’s take a quick look at how Mike Babcock and his staff are deploying their personnel to this point.
Jake Gardiner leads the team in even strength time on ice by 20 seconds, with his partner Nikita Zaitsev coming in second. The second pairing of Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey are third and fourth, respectively. On special teams, Hainsey is averaging over six minutes per game on the penalty kill and Zaitsev is over five; they soak up the majority of shorthanded ice time, with Rielly coming in third and Andreas Borgman in fourth. Calle Rosen has yet to touch the ice while the team has been shorthanded. The shorthanded ice time has seemingly pushed Zaitsev off of the power play, where he’s been replaced by Rielly, who is second on the defense core in power play time-on-ice behind Jake Gardiner. They have effectively swapped Zaitsev’s and Rielly’s roles on special teams.
Up front, the entire top line leads the forward group in even strength ice time per game, but Zach Hyman is nearly a minute and half behind William Nylander in this category; that’s because Hyman plays on the penalty kill and Babcock puts the Auston Matthews – Nylander combo out (usually with Patrick Marleau) after the Leafs have killed off the penalty. Last season, Nazem Kadri was second in even strength time on ice per game, followed by Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak before getting to Hyman and Nylander. Nylander has already seen a big boost in responsibility, and rightfully so.
Kadri is now fourth in even strength ice time per game, followed by Marleau and then Marner. For all the talk about Marner being in the doghouse, he’s still playing in their top six, while Kadri and Marleau are Babcock’s trusted checkers and veterans, to nobody’s surprise. Connor Brown is 11th among forwards in even strength time on ice, but that is because he is the only forward on the team averaging over two minutes per game on both the PP and PK; it looks like he’s on the fourth line, but Babcock is basically getting him out there whenever he can.
The primary penalty killers are Brown, Hyman, Komarov and whoever is playing between Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr. On the power play, the top unit consists of Marner, Bozak, JVR and Kadri, while the second unit includes Matthews, Nylander, Marleau and Brown, who has replaced Leo Komarov from last season.
The time on ice figures for the forward group are not that surprising. Matthews and Nylander are the leaders and Marleau is third, followed by Hyman. Interestingly, JVR is 10th among the forward group in ice time per game, which is where he was in the playoffs last season as well. He is productive and he’s going to get paid next summer, but he just can’t earn the type of ice time in this group to justify the kind of money he is going to demand. Leo Komarov is ninth in total ice time, but he’s a key member of the penalty kill and a player Babcock trusts in shutdown situations, including when Washington pulled their goalie to try and tie the game. For the fourth-line center role, Moore is averaging nearly 30 seconds more than Fehr to this point.
It is very early in the season and a few big games impact the numbers drastically at this point, but we have a rough idea of how the Leafs are viewing their personnel to this point. The changes are subtle – Rielly and Zaitsev swapping special team units, Nylander getting bumped up in responsibility – along with a few additions and subtractions finding their roles in Marleau (who Babcock clearly loves) and Hainsey. The results so far make it tough to complain.
– Can’t help watching Mitch Marner get demoted to the fourth line and thinking about Babcock treating William Nylander the exact same way last season. Regardless of what JVR and Tyler Bozak are doing defensively (which is also not much), Marner has blown more than a few assignments covering his point man and knows he needs to be better in his own end. Babcock is pretty clearly sending him a message. The initial response from Marner is what you would hope for – he had his legs against Washington, created a few scoring chances even though he didn’t have a shot on goal and played almost 13 minutes still.
– Last season, William Nylander bounced around from playing with Matthews, to the Kadri-centered checking line, to the fourth line, where he was a semi-regular member of the doghouse. So far this season, he has five points in six games, 20 shots on net, and he’s playing 17:15 per night – third among forwards in total ice time per game. In overtime last season, Babcock started almost every single session with the Kadri – Komarov pairing; so far this season, it has been Matthews – Nylander, and the results speak for themselves. When we look at the final stats after the season, there will probably be a pretty good case to be made that Matthews – Nylander is the best forward combination in the league.
– If you did not read it when it came out, this article by James Neal at the Players Tribune about being a sniper is worth a read. Consider it when watching Auston Matthews re: Neal’s discussion about changing shooting angles. Watch, on the Chicago OT winner, how he pulls the puck out wide of his body, the goalie sets his feet, and then he pulls it in and snaps it short side. He did the same thing on his first goal against Carey Price. In overtime, he held the puck out wide from his body, which can make it difficult for a goalie to position himself relative to the puck instead of the body (Evgeny Malkin is also really good at this). Players like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos beat goalies with pure power and velocity, but Matthews is establishing himself as a deceptive sniper with a tough-to-read release.
– Noticed Babcock is generally starting the Matthews line for the first shift in games and periods. That used to be the Kadri line.
– After leading the entire team in ice time against the Devils, Morgan Rielly was fourth among defensemen in total time on ice against the Canadiens and Capitals. It will be interesting to see how the top-four rotation plays out over the course of the season. Rielly was originally being groomed by Babcock as the number-one defenseman, but the top pairing right now is clearly Gardiner – Zaitsev. This is the first season under Babcock that Rielly has received steady PP time instead of being solely tasked with shutdown duties; he already has five points in six games, three of which are on the PP. Production wise, he appears on his way to a career year, albeit in a reduced role.
– Great find in this Dave Feschuk article at the Star that the Leafs, “play just 11 [Hockey Night in Canada games at homee] all season, tied for the lowest number in franchise history in a schedule made up of at least 60 games, according to an analysis of historical schedule data by the Star’s Andrew Bailey. This is the first campaign in the Hockey Night in Canada era — which stretches back to 1952-53 — in which the Maple Leafs will play more Saturday nights on the road (12) than at home (11).” As the Leafs ice their strongest team since 2004, you have to imagine that opponents are happy not to have to play Toronto in Toronto on a Saturday night during Hockey Night in Canada.
“I represent a lot of Russian players, and here’s what I tell the GMs I deal with: If you want my player, you have to jump on a plane, you have to make your pitch in person. Because that’s what Lou Lamoriello does.”
– Dan Milstein, agent of Nikita Zaitsev
If you’re a free agent of any kind and getting recruited by an organization’s scouts, imagine two Hall of Famers coming in to close the deal, possibly flying around the world to do so. Their sales pitch will include that the AHL team is in the same city as their NHL team, the Leafs are one of the richest organizations in the league, and now they have superstars along with an elite coach. How do you say no to that?
“If you look at the last game, for sure. If it’s still bugging you two days later, something’s wrong and we didn’t work. That’s on me. I didn’t have the team prepared and ready to go. We were no good in the morning skate. I could’ve zipped them. No matter what we said, they didn’t get prepared to engage at a high enough level. We got outchanced 7-3 in the first. That is totally unacceptable. We got outskated and we had no battle level. To me, you’re four games into your season and it can’t happen.
The other look is, ‘Hey Babs, lighten up – we’re 3-1.’ No. You come to work every day. You be a good pro and you prepare to be a pro, and things go your way. The league is too hard to take nights off, and we did.”
– Mike Babcock on competing every night
After a big comeback win against Chicago, the mood around the team was great. Babcock warned that the Devils specifically was a ‘trap’ game, and then the team came out and had a weak first period.
“Rules are rules, and we’ve got to follow them. At this point, there’s no excuses. We’ve got to keep our sticks down and our feet moving and not take any penalties. I think it’s good for the game. Your stick gets up on the hands, they’re gonna call it. Bottom line. The league made a choice to take it out the game. It’s not a matter of debate.”
– Morgan Rielly on the ‘new’ slashing rules
The Leafs have taken a pretty healthy stance of, “Regardless of our opinion, this is how the league is calling it.”
Video Tidbit of the Week
This was an interesting little faceoff play on the PP. With Matthews lined up as the point man, the Leafs won the draw, ran a hinge play, and the player who won the draw (Nylander) wound up with speed to help gain the zone.
Once the PP format was established, the Leafs also tried a high-low-high play with the man in front, with Nylander passing it to Brown, who tried bumping it to Marleau in the slot. That is a little wrinkle added to the PP that we did not see very often last year.
Two set plays to look out for in the future.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1) I think if the coaching staff and management is being honest with themselves, the JVR – Bozak – Marner line is going to consistently struggle defensively. They can overload them with offensive zone starts and they will manage to roughly score as much as they give up, but they will generally struggle defensively. Either you live with that or you break up that line, which would most likely impact every line except for the Matthews unit. I think, with all the versatile and talented options on the Leafs, I’d be splitting up that line and seeing what I can come up with.
2) I think I would be interested in shifting from keeping lines completely together, to matching two players together for each line and having the rest of the forwards as potential rovers. That would mean Matthews – Nylander is one combo, and Martin – Moore/Fehr another that would be locked in. The remaining two would be up for debate. I’d be curious to see Kadri – Marner, and Bozak – Brown. My guess is Babcock would keep Kadri – Komarov and JVR – Bozak.
3) I think I don’t understand how Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr are getting rotated. Moore is faster, more skilled, more accomplished as a center and penalty killer, and based on his last two games, has found his form. Fehr has been better than I thought he would be, but Moore is an upgrade all over the ice.
4) I think I would stick with one of Calle Rosen or Andreas Borgman instead of rotating them in and out. Pick one and get some consistency going. It will be difficult to get any sort of consistency going with that third pairing if it is consistently churning out different looks. It would be okay to pick one, send the other down, and have a player like Martin Marincin sit in the press box as the seventh.
5) I think the rotation where Babcock sneaks Marleau or Kadri with Matthews and Nylander after a penalty kill is really effective. I’d look to continue doing that. I’d also consider sneaking Marner in with those two a little more often. Coming out of a penalty kill, the Leafs might be the most dangerous team in the league. It’s a huge swing in momentum.