clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Too many grinders: Are they spoiling the Leafs top nine?

New, comments

Mike Babcock rarely uses the line blender, but is it the grinder settings that are wrong?

Edmonton Oilers v Toronto Maple Leafs

After the Kings game the other night, Patrick O’Sullivan said this:

O’Sullivan went on to say that he thinks Hyman is an effective player, but the Matthews’ line needs goals and maybe Soshnikov should move up there.

I said to myself when I read that: well, thank goodness the Leafs aren’t a team that make decisions based on points in 13 games. And then Mike Babcock reinforced that by answering a reporter’s question about Matthews’ personal scoring by saying they look at scoring chances to decide such things.

And then an article came out that took the he has no goals argument a step farther, positing that Hyman and Komarov exist in the top nine to fulfill Babcock’s storied love of grinders, and that maybe that’s a bad idea.

I want to drill down in those ideas and see what’s there. I had a preconceived notion of what I’d find because I wrote about the overall state of play on Wednesday. But I assembled a few numbers beyond goals and assists and looked at the performance of the whole top nine.

First though, let’s unpack that word “grinder”. What does it mean? The guy with the least goal-scoring gifts on the line? A guy who acts tough? What?

For me, it means a hard forechecker. It’s someone who dives into board battles with vigour and wins them, someone who backchecks and digs out the puck. A grinder grinds down the clock, not just the opposition, when the situation warrants in, and to be honest, I call Matt Martin a grinder, not Zach Hyman.

But it is true that Hyman has more grind in him than William Nylander and Komarov has more than Connor Brown. But using this term is almost like applying the simplistic labels from theater. The role is “hero” or “the ingenue” or “the earnest young man”. Are we casting a remake of “Noises Off” or are we assembling some forward lines?

What do these various nine skaters do anyway? Who grinds and who percolates the puck into the net?

First let’s look at shooting.

Name iCorsi iCorsi per60
AUSTON MATTHEWS 63 20.86
NAZEM KADRI 49 17.91
JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK 46 17.30
MITCH MARNER 46 15.80
ZACH HYMAN 42 14.72
WILLIAM NYLANDER 37 13.28
CONNOR BROWN 26 10.91
TYLER BOZAK 25 9.28
LEO KOMAROV 18 6.67

The Leafs top nine plays fairly consistent minutes, with Brown having the least and Matthews the most, so the individual Corsi For and the per 60 version sort in the same order.

And it is really clear here that Komarov shoots very little. Surely we knew this? He is the net-front guy, he picks up the garbage, and he passes well, but he isn’t a goal scorer.

But Hyman is nothing like Komarov by this measure. He shoots more than Nylander. He is a puck retriever and a good passer, and he also knows how to park his butt in the goalie’s face, but he is a shooter.

Nazem Kadri explained the Babcock system once as a distributor centre, a scoring winger and a more physical player. Which is broadly true only if you’re willing to call James van Riemsdyk, the guy with a very high shot rate, a grinder, and Kadri, also with a high shot rate, a distributor.

The roles aren’t so neatly aligned.

Kadri’s line is missing any kind of scoring winger judging by the shot rates. Although we should give Brown the benefit of some doubt here in that he’s played some fourth line minutes where his role was different. But he’s not making up for Komarov’s lack of shooting, Kadri is himself.

Matthews’ line is getting shots from all three players, but knowing Nylander as we do, we have to think more there would be better.

Bozak’s line more closely matches the pattern, in that he is a distributor and his wingers mix up the skills of backchecking, net-front fun and puck retrieval between them, albeit in unexpected ways. Mitch Marner is more grinder than a lot of this top nine.

How does it work in tandem?

Name CF% Pri.Pts per60
ZACH HYMAN 54.52 0.3505
AUSTON MATTHEWS 54.31 1.9866
WILLIAM NYLANDER 54.25 1.0768
JAMES VAN_RIEMSDYK 51.52 2.2559
LEO KOMAROV 50.93 0
NAZEM KADRI 50.75 0.731
TYLER BOZAK 50.3 2.9703
MITCH MARNER 49.59 2.0613
CONNOR BROWN 47.92 0.8396

It is very true that Hyman and Komarov have low and 0 primary points. That’s where the similarity ends. Hyman is atop the list in Corsi, but forget about order and look at the pattern. If you again recognize that Brown has some fourth line in there, you see that Matthews’ line has around 54% and the other two are around 50%.

Nobody is bad here. And while it might be good to see Kadri and Bozak rise a little, it’s not an unworkable setup.

As far as points go, it’s obvious the bulk of the five-on-five scoring is coming from Bozak’s line, Matthews is personally good, but Nylander is lagging well behind him, and Kardri and Brown are it on their line.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I’m cheating because I posted a shooting percentage chart yesterday, but if you’re looking at offensive production or lack thereof, and you don’t at least give it a glance, I think you seriously run the risk of falling into the old trap of thinking he’s good/bad because his shooting percentage spiked/tanked.

Here it is from yesterday:

Name Individual Shooting %
TYLER BOZAK 23.53
MITCH MARNER 17.39
MILAN MICHALEK 16.67
JAMES VAN_RIEMSDYK 14.29
ROMAN POLAK 12.50
AUSTON MATTHEWS 12.20
BEN SMITH 11.11
NAZEM KADRI 9.52
CONNOR BROWN 6.67
CONNOR CARRICK 5.56
WILLIAM NYLANDER 5.26
MATT HUNWICK 0.00
MATT MARTIN 0.00
JAKE GARDINER 0.00
PETER HOLLAND 0.00
LEO KOMAROV 0.00
MORGAN RIELLY 0.00
MARTIN MARINCIN 0.00
ZACH HYMAN 0.00
NIKITA ZAITSEV 0.00

So to sum it up: Hyman shoots more than Nylander and has yet to score, while Nylander has an absurdly low percentage we should expect to rise, and Matthews has one we can’t judge because we have no historical data on him.

Meanwhile, everyone on Bozak’s line should prepare for the day the regression beast comes for them, and Kadri is ticking along in the normal range, with Brown a little low.

The question I have is about Brown and Komarov, not Hyman. Is Brown a good enough scoring winger for Kadri? Is Komarov shooting enough so that when a normal shooting percentage kicks in and he doesn’t have zero points, he has enough points?

The secondary question is can Bozak’s line, who don’t take a lot of tough competition assignments in home games, rise up out of a borderline okay CF% and get more zone time to offset the inevitable regression? Is there perhaps not enough grind in the brew of van Riemsdyk and Marner? Or will time and Marner’s growth take care of that?

Sorry, O’Sullivan, but if I’m putting Soshnikov anywhere it’s the Kadri line. (This seems unlikely unless there is a big shakeup today.) And as for concerns about Babcock’s love for grinders?

Maybe it’s just that simple. I don’t think thirteen games of Leafs play has proven his ideas wrong either in theory or in execution, but it’s very hard to tell if the weaknesses are endemic to the strategy, or if it’s just lack of quality choices.

But at least Babcock isn’t using shooting percentage to make lineup decisions.

Note: all the data is from Pucklytics.com and is five-on-five unadjusted.