Mike Babcock has a pretty high approval rating as Leafs coach, and with good reason. Nonetheless, he makes occasional lineup decisions that perplex fans. Perhaps the most notable of these is his continued pairing of Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews. We like to use the Socratic method here at PPP, so let’s take a look at why this pairing may or may not be a good idea.
Against: There’s no argument here. It’s ridiculous to continually play Matthews with a guy who clearly can’t keep up with his level of skill. In their recent history, the Leafs have been characterized by finding the occasional incredible player, and being totally unable to surround them with adequate linemates. It happened with Sundin, it happened with Kessel. And it’s currently happening with Matthews, even though the Leafs have a plethora of skilled wingers to play with him, both at the NHL and AHL level. We already have Nylander on his right, and that pairing has worked brilliantly. It’s inexcusable from Babcock to hamstring that line with a glorified grinder.
For: Lets tone down on the hyperbole here for a second. Matthews is on pace for nearly 40 goals and 65 points as a rookie. If we’re hamstringing him, it sure isn’t showing up in his scoring. He’s been everything we expected and more.
Against: He’s not scoring because of Zach Hyman, that’s for sure. If he’s doing this with an offensive non-entity on his wing, imagine what he’d do with a legitimate first line winger like JVR? Or if you don’t want to move JVR away from Marner and Bozak, what about someone like Leipsic, who plays a dirty game despite his size, but with way more scoring touch.
For: I think there’s a few things to unpack here. The first is that the Matthews - Hyman pair, by and large, has been doing quite well, especially with Nylander. Per Corsica.hockey, among lines with more than 150 5v5 minutes, that trio is 4th in the league in score-adjusted CF%, FF%, and xG%, all of which are around 57%*. Not only are they a legitimate first line, they’re one of the best first lines in the league by shot attempt metrics. The only metric by which they haven’t been great is goals, and unless you believe that a line that skilled has a true shooting percentage of around 6%, that is unlikely to persist. So if you’re saying that someone can replace Hyman to make this line better, you’re saying they can be one of the three best lines in the league.
* The lines above them are (in order of CF%)
- Marchand / Bergeron / Pastrnak (64.37% SACF%)
- Tkachuk / Frolik / Backlund (59.02%)
- Benn / Seguin / Eaves (57.85%)
Against: Well, you should also note that most of the games that combination plays are at home, since Nylander gets shifted to another line on the road. But even then, all that is telling me is how good Nylander and Matthews are as a pair. When you watch them, it’s so clear how dominant they can be. It’s leaving something on the table to have Hyman there instead of someone who will elevate their games, as opposed to being a passenger.
For: Has he been a passenger though? Per Corsica, he actually has higher primary points per 60 than Nylander. And they have almost identical shot rates at 5v5 as well - Hyman’s is actually slightly higher.
Against: If you’re seriously arguing that Zach Hyman is a better offensive player than William Nylander, you legitimately need to start watching the games.
For: No, I’m not saying that. But it’s clear that if you get past the visual of Hyman blowing chances, he’s actually doing fine for himself. He scores and shoots like a decent second liner (per stats.hockeyanalysis.com), and that’s with a pretty low shooting percentage despite some really excellent shot locations.
He also has a positive possession impact on Matthews, albeit in small TOI samples.
Against: Those WOWYs mean next to nothing - if you read seriously into 50 minute samples, you should get your fancystats card revoked. When you watch them play, it’s clear the duo of Nylander and Matthews is what’s driving the bus. The stats reflect that too! If you take Nylander off the line and replace him with Brown (as Babcock has done on the road), their shot results drop off dramatically - they just about break even, according to Corsica. Nylander also doesn’t do well away from Matthews, albeit in a small sample of road games. It’s the combination of those two that create the special results that line combination with Hyman sees. Hyman is incredibly replaceable there - if you exchange him with JVR, you’d see even crazier results, because you’d get a strong net-front presence who also has the skill and hands to take advantage of the chances the other two rookies create.
For: This isn’t NHL 17 - styles matter, and so does defense. Nylander and JVR both like to stretch the defense by leaving their zone early - it’s fine when one person does it in moderation, but it’d be disastrous to put them together. JVR is also horrific defensively, in general, while Hyman is quite good - which is Babcock’s entire reason for putting him on that line in the first place.
To your point about Hyman being replaceable... I think that’s a reason to keep him on that line. If Nylander and Matthews (who should pretty clearly remain together, in my opinion) can take a grinder like Hyman and churn out results like the best lines in the league, that means the Leafs now have a better player they can use to prop up other lines on the team. In other words, the benefit we gain from replacing Hyman with a better player might not be worth the loss we see from removing that player from their original line, and replacing them with Hyman. It means the Leafs can spend less resources on the LW on Matthews’ line, and still get great results.
Against: I’m all for spreading out the offense, but are the Leafs going to win a Cup with Zach Hyman being the sidekick to the best player we’ve had since Sundin?
For: We don’t have to keep Hyman there forever. I just don’t think it’s the most pressing thing to remove him from there now.
Against: This entire year should be about the Leafs experimenting and finding the combinations that work in order to prepare for when this team is #ActuallyGood. Now is the time to experiment, because when we want to make a real playoff push, it’d be good to have some real ideas of what we have in each player and combination. We don’t have to fire Hyman into the sun, but would it kill Babcock to separate Matthews from him just a bit, and see what else is out there?
For: If something isn’t broken, why try to fix it?
Against: It may not be broken, but it can still be better. The Leafs aren’t at the point in their development where they can look at any part of their team and rest on their laurels. If you’re not looking for ways to improve each part of your roster and lineup composition, you’re going to fall behind.
For: You only have so many resources though. The production and success of Auston Matthews is the least of our concerns so far, and we don’t need to spend resources incrementally improving that at the expense of ignoring our other (numerous) holes.
Against: I guess we agree to disagree then. If you have a star, you need to put him in the best possible situation to maximize their production. Otherwise, it’s a waste.
For: At least we’re finally at the point where we can comfortably say we have a star again.
For, Against: Thank you, Auston Matthews.