Since he broke into the league in 2016-17, Auston Matthews is tied for second in goals for with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin despite playing fewer games.

Only Nikita Kucherov has scored more. In total points, Matthews is tied for 26th, and all but five of those players have played more games than him.

The Calder winner has missed some time this season due to injury but has upped his production so far, playing to a point per game pace after a 69-point rookie season. He’s not just all offense, though — he has a 56.4 CF% since entering the league and +9 CF% rel, meaning his team outshoots the opposition far more regularly with him on the ice than his teammates. Listed at 6’3 and over 215 pounds, with quick hands in tight and a quick release, he is able to hold onto the puck at will and create something out of nothing.

Coaches throughout the league have lauded Matthews’ ability to play along the wall. With the body of a fully grown man already, he is able to win battles in the defensive zone and is smart enough in coverage to stick with top players. While Nazem Kadri gets the top checking matchups, Matthews often finds himself going up against the opponent’s other top-six line, or top checking line, as well as their top defense pairing.

All in all, he has quickly established himself as the best player on the team and an elite player in the league. You won’t find many people who will dispute that.

And yet he’s not afforded the ice time other elite forwards enjoy.

On the season, Matthews is playing 18:33 per night, which is the most on the team of any forward. League-wide, he is 63rd in overall time on ice per game among forwards that have played at least 20 games this season. At even strength, it is a different story: Matthews is 13th.

That means the big difference between Matthews and every other high-end forward is power play time, where he is tied with Micheal Ferland for 142nd at 2:17 per night (Mark Stone is first at 3:13 per night). Matthews does have only six PP points this season, but it’s a chicken-versus-the-egg situation. He produced 21 points there last season and is clearly their best goal scorer. In overtime on Saturday against Vancouver, he was put out on the 4v3 PP for the first time with about 30 seconds left.

At this point, he is clearly on the second unit despite being the best goal scorer on the roster and leading the team to the second-best PP in the league last year (when he was second on the team in PP ice time per game). This has also carried over to when the Leafs pull their goalie, when they walk out their top PP unit with both Gardiner and Rielly on the point instead of just Rielly.

In general, since returning from injury seven games ago, Matthews has led the forwards just once in ice time. Electing to go defense first instead of using an elite forward head-to-head, it means the checking line is out before the Leafs‘ superstar center.

Against Vancouver, the coaching staff elected to start Marleau – Marner – Rielly in overtime and they quickly changed lines to get Matthews out there, leading to a scoring opportunity for Brock Boeser (who hit both posts).

I was curious about how the coaching staff has managed the start of overtimes, so I went back and looked at every overtime so far this season. This is who has started the 3v3 periods for the Leafs:

  • January 6 vs. Vancouver – Marleau, Marner, Rielly
  • January 4 vs. San Jose – Kadri, Komarov, Rielly
  • December vs. Colorado – Marleau, Marner, Rielly
  • December 6 vs. Calgary – Marleau, Marner, Rielly
  • November 22 vs. Florida – Matthews, Nylander, Rielly (Leafs and Panthers had overlapping penalties towards the end of regulation and Florida had a PP starting 34 seconds into overtime)
  • November 16 vs. New Jersey – Kadri, Nylander, Rielly
  • November 10 vs. Boston – Kadri, Brown, Rielly
  • November 6 vs. Las Vegas – Kadri, Marleau, Rielly
  • October 14 vs. Montreal – Matthews, Nylander, Rielly (Matthews scored first shift to win)
  • October 9 vs. Chicago – Kadri, Brown, Rielly

The Leafs have four wins in overtime so far this season. Matthews scored the winner in two of them.

The Leafs are deep and Matthews is young. He’s still their forward leader in ice time and plays a good amount. At some point, though, he has to join the company of the other elite forwards in the league in terms of how much ice time he’s receiving.

Toronto currently finds themselves third in the division. They’re a good offensive team that struggles defensively, and they’re the 18th-ranked team in overall Corsi. They have been somewhat middling overall but benefit from the shallowest division in the league. They have struggled lately and are searching for some answers.

A place to start might be playing their best player more.


Notes

– I noticed the Leafs have followed up unsuccessful power plays by putting out a makeshift fourth line of sorts, usually Hyman – Gauthier/Moore – Brown. I think Travis Green noticed the same because he followed up a penalty kill by putting his top line right out there and they dominated the Leafs’ fourth line and third defense pairing, almost scoring multiple times. You have to be careful there – smart teams will pre-scout that.

– Last season, the Leafs had a power play in overtime against Tampa Bay and ran Marner up top with Matthews and Nylander on the sides and Kadri in front. Needless to say, they scored. I’ll be curious to see who they put out next time they get a PP in overtime because they didn’t get a single good scoring opportunity against Vancouver on Satuday.

– It didn’t get too much attention, but Nazem Kadri went pointless in 11 games in December. He finally got back on the scoreboard against San Jose (off his skate no less), but he started the season shooting nearly 30% and playing to a 40-goal pace — that was never going to last. Going ice cold has put him to a 48-point pace; the guess is here that his production shoots up above that, though. The good news is that, in the 14 games where he only has one goal, he has 41 shots on net and only one game where he failed to record a shot on goal (which was in Arizona, where he got hurt early and didn’t return). The chances are coming and he’s not hesitating to fire it on net.

Jake Gardiner is on pace for seven fewer points and has struggled for stretches this season, but over his career, he has almost always had stronger second halves. He got paired up with Zaitsev to start the season in the top shutdown role and they did not do well. Now Zaitsev is injured and he rotates partners depending on the time of game, playing some with Carrick, or Polak, or even Marincin for a bit there. When Zaitsev returns, it will steady out the top four a bit and the Leafs will likely reduce their workload as a pairing (which they already were anyway before Zaitsev got hurt).

– I wouldn’t have thought it, but Connor Brown is on pace for the exact same points total and basically the exact same season goal-wise as last year. Perhaps making it more impressive is that he played with Matthews for long stretches of time last season to the tune of over 409 minutes but has not seen that this year, playing only 85 minutes with him now over halfway through the season. The forward he’s actually spent the most time with is Zach Hyman. I know the impression is he’s buried on the fourth line, but Babcock does a good job mixing him around the lineup. The next two forwards he has played the most with? Patrick Marleau and JVR.

– After Tyler Bozak scored with 7:23 left to tie the game against Vancouver, the Canucks out attempted the Leafs 11-4 in the rest of regulation. I was surprised to see the road team, who is most likely not going to the playoffs this year, completely outplay the Leafs in their own rink down the stretch of a tie game.


Quotes

“I like their team. They play fast. The Point kid has really given them more options. They’ve got a lot of centers, they’ve got centers playing wing, got centers playing center. Got too many centers. To me that’s how you build a hockey club.”

– Mike Babcock on Tampa Bay’s roster construction

Thought this was a nice little glimpse into Babcock’s thinking of roster construction. I’m particularly thinking about William Nylander, who used to play center and everyone always asks Babcock if he’ll get back there. He clearly doesn’t view it that way – at least not on a full-time playing center basis. The game is so fast that it has changed defensive responsibilities. Defense does not always belong to the center on the line; it’s actually whoever is the first man back on the backcheck. Having as many centers in the lineup as possible helps with that because they were forced to play more defense going through the ranks.

“He was a pleasure to coach for me. His hockey IQ is off the charts, but the one thing I loved about him… you can be the gold medal game and it can be 1-1 and there’s tension all over the place, but if there’s one guy who knows how to break the tension, it’s Mitch Marner. But his competitive nature, the way he sees the game, is unreal. We ended up not winning the game, but it was a meritocracy of who was going to shoot in the shootout, and he was one of the guys. He meant so much to our team and a big reason why we finished where we did… Mitch Marner… What a beauty.”

Jon Cooper on Mitch Marner, who he coached last year in the World Championships

Marner has received some criticism this year as well as demotions at times, but he’s on pace for four fewer points than last year. One thing that has really hurt his production is his regular center Tyler Bozak, who is on pace for 14 fewer points than last season and generally hasn’t played well. Even JVR is on pace for 10 fewer points, even though he is putting pucks in the net. All things considered, Marner is producing pretty well.

“You don’t dream of playing in the AHL, right? You dream of being here… You can’t be thinking about making mistakes. You try to go out there and make a positive impact every shift.”

– Travis Dermott before making his NHL debut

I thought Dermott played a good game. He didn’t even see 13 minutes of ice time and he was clearly running on adrenaline, so I’ll need to see more of him before really commenting, but he earned some more time on the roster. Let’s see how he settles in before really evaluating his game. Playing with Polak, he did a great job of handling the primary puck-handling duties on that pairing while Polak was generally the first man back to take a hit when pucks were dumped in. That could work.


Video Tidbit of the Week

 

I have shown a bunch of these clips, but I’m going to keep highlighting them as long as the Leafs keep getting burned.

This video sequence kind of sums up the things that have plagued the Leafs defensively. They have clean possession in a neutral transition and elect for a deflection dump-in. San Jose promptly gains possession and works the Leafs in the defensive zone until they finally get the puck back.

Kadri has time and space to go around the net before the Sharks clog it up, but the wingers have blown the zone. His only option is to go off the glass. The Sharks predictably sit on it, get the puck back, and go right back on offense. This happens far too regularly.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think Travis Dermott has earned another look. Babcock said that he’d have to prove he can contribute, and he was effective penetrating through the neutral zone (worth noting is that so is Borgman, who was scratched for him). I’d go game-by-game with Dermott for now, but I’d keep those defense pairings intact for the next game and see how it goes.

2.  I think Patrick Marleau has really struggled on the power play and I’d start considering other options. He has four points so far, which is the lowest of any regular averaging over 2 minutes per game on the PP. I was confused about this at first as he was fantastic on the PP in San Jose; you would think he’d fit right in, but the PP there runs through Burns and his bomb up top, whereas the Leafs use the half-wall and slap passes. It’s a different dynamic in how they attack it. I would start giving Brown more time on the PP and would even consider Zaitsev there when he returns as a righty with a big shot.

3.  I also think Patrick Marleau can help the PK with his speed and instincts. He’s played there a bit this year when one of the primary penalty killers is in the box and has acquitted himself well. One additional thing he can do is hold onto the puck in the offensive zone and even be a scoring threat shorthanded, which is nice to have. He’s been really good this year overall — just not on the PP, where I’d consider swapping some of those minutes out for more PK time instead.

4.  I think Frederik Gauthier has been okay so far at fourth-line center. I’d like to see Moore on the wing there with his speed, with Brown on the other side. Moore has struggled a bit on the defensive side of things, but he’s still crafty with the puck, brings more speed to the lineup, and was playing to a 24-point pace on the fourth line (which is good for that role). On the wing, he can focus on that more and still chip in on the faceoff circle, where he’s winning over 54% for the season. Martin really struggled in a skilled game versus Tampa Bay and took a needless offensive zone penalty against Vancouver that started the sequence leading to the 5v3 goal. Has to be held accountable.

5.  I think a six-day break is coming at a pretty good time for the Leafs. They need to reset a bit heading down the stretch and clean up their defensive zone play and their breakouts. If they want to be buyers at the deadline, I think they need to show more than what they have so far. I’d be reluctant to buy right now; I would sit on this group and evaluate how they do before adjusting in the summer. I’d probably even sell some pending free agents for the right deal. Now, there is time to change that assessment. They have the upcoming break to tweak some areas in need of improvement and prove they’re in there with a real shot at a deep playoff run.


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