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Auston Matthews: will he be the top line centre out of the gate?

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Is expecting a teenager, even a top draft pick with pro experience, to be the top line centre too much? Will he be the 1C right away?

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Some people seem to be assuming Auston Matthews will be 1C. Scott Cullen slots him in at 1C in his projected depth chart. And he also makes the assumption that William Nylander will become a winger. Arvind has already skewered that idea. But what of Auston? Is he a guy who can walk into the top job?

Matthews has done it before. An often overlooked aspect of his gap year in Switzerland was that he got to try out walking in to a team of men older than him (not entirely, there were at least three other 18 and 19 year old players who played the full season) and taking the most high profile position on the team.

He delivered. He finished second in points on the team, and first in goals, playing significantly fewer games than the rest of the top forwards due to injury and the break for the World Junior Championships.

Can he do it at the NHL level? The answer might depend on whether we mean right away or in the future, but first a better question: why do we care and should we care?

Hockey fans are obsessed with hierarchies and rankings. That's why we care. The urge isn't limited to draft picks, where they actually do get picked in order and ranking matters; it is extended to every part of hockey. And anyone who's even casually followed along with the lineup dramas around Steven Stamkos knows that hockey players themselves often care too.

The top players want recognition, the status of the uncontested top spot. They want to be the star, or they wouldn't be stars. But what of us, are we investing too much meaning in who's on the first line or the second?

You bet we are.

Arvind takes on the idea that first is always best and shoots it full of holes:

It's tempting to look at the Leafs depth chart and balk at keeping Nylander at centre, simply because it's weird that one of Kadri, Matthews, and Nylander are nominally the 'third line center'. But that's the thing... that's purely a naming convention. Whoever ends up being third on the depth chart isn't marginalized by that -- there's enough ice time to go around that they'll all be able to get good minutes, powerplay time, and advantageous matchups. Ask the Penguins if they regret being able to run Crosby - Malkin - Staal down the middle. Ask their opponents how frightening that must've been to face.

There's enough ice time to go around. That's the question we should ask next—is that true?

Regular readers of the game day threads at PPP might remember that early in Mike Babcock's rookie Leafs season several regular commentators tracked ice time for the forward lines in each game. What we were seeing from the very first games was a nearly even split between the first and second lines: Nazem Kadri's and Tyler Bozak's (or Bozak and Kadri, it varied). And a very slight drop down to the third line of Nick Spaling's.

At that time Babcock was working his prodigious mastery of line matching to go a little easy on Kadri in terms of competition and loading up Spaling. As the season wore on, he gradually stopped doing that, and up to the trade deadline an equilibrium was reached.

This is the full season ice time chart in all situations.

Leafs forwards icetime

You can see that just about when James van Riemsdyk was hurt (when the yellow line stops), the snarl of threads was tightening up. That trend continued until the spread of minutes, even including the fourth line, was very small. It was never large to start with, and no one was hitting 20 minutes.

A look at time on ice statistics at five-on-five shows very little separation between Kadri at the top and most of the players who played in the top nine. Spaling's was 24.48% for the whole year between Toronto and San Jose, and any player with less than that was a fourth liner at least some of the time.

Puckalitics defines the percentage:  If a player had a %ofTeam TOI of 32.0 it would mean that the player played in 32.0% of the team's ice time in games that he played in.
Player Name Pos GP %ofTeam TOI
NAZEM KADRI F(C) 76 30.39
JAMES VAN_RIEMSDYK F(LW) 40 29.32
TYLER BOZAK F(C) 57 28.41
LEO KOMAROV F(C) 67 27.60
NIKITA SOSHNIKOV F(RW) 11 27.15
PIERRE PARENTEAU F(RW) 77 26.93
ZACH HYMAN F(C) 16 26.83
WILLIAM NYLANDER F(C) 22 26.73
MILAN MICHALEK F(LW) 45 24.81
JOFFREY LUPUL F(RW) 46 24.48
COLIN GREENING F(C) 31 24.40
PETER HOLLAND F(C) 65 23.73
MICHAEL GRABNER F(RW) 80 22.80
MARK ARCOBELLO F(RW) 20 22.04
BEN SMITH F(RW) 22 21.15
BYRON FROESE F(C) 56 20.32
JOSH LEIVO F(LW) 12 19.96
BRAD BOYES F(RW) 60 19.61
BROOKS LAICH F(C) 81 18.81
RICH CLUNE F(LW) 19 17.31

Mike Babcock is not looking for a stud line to play all the minutes. He's looking for a balanced lineup that he can line match with when he needs to. So even if we are—and we will, it's inevitable—going to anoint a 1C for the Leafs, he's not going to be Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.

But is Matthews going to be the man who walks in and takes over Kadri's barely more than the other centre's minutes and assumes the mantle as top dog? Probably yes, but right away? No way.

Babcock likes predictability. He likes order. He likes winning. He likes to challenge his players, but he's not interested in watching them learn by failure from the bench every night. That doesn't mean he's not going to play Matthews at all. It means he'll ease him in like he did Nylander, who had a carefully curated experience on the ice that gradually got tougher.

This is Buffalo's time on ice for forwards last year:

Player Name Pos GP %ofTeam TOI
EVANDER KANE F(LW) 65 33.46
RYAN O'REILLY F(C) 71 30.94
JACK EICHEL F(C) 81 29.94
TYLER ENNIS F(C) 23 29.29
BRIAN GIONTA F(RW) 79 27.94
SAM REINHART F(C) 79 27.08
JOHAN LARSSON F(LW) 74 26.88
ZEMGUS GIRGENSONS F(C) 71 25.78
MARCUS FOLIGNO F(LW) 75 25.39
NICOLAS DESLAURIERS F(LW) 70 20.58
MATT MOULSON F(LW) 81 20.24
CAL O'REILLY F(C) 20 18.14
DANIEL CATENACCI F(C) 11 17.71
DAVID LEGWAND F(C) 79 14.66
TIM SCHALLER F(C) 17 14.47

This is a more traditional top heavy arrangement, and if that was all situations, it would blow you away how much Ryan O'Reilly played as the 1C. But you'll note that Jack Eichel in his rookie season played a high share of minutes even though he was the third or second line centre most of the time.

This is exactly what I expect to see from Matthews.

Consider that Nate MacKinnon didn't even play as a centre until this year, where he walked out of training camp and took the 1C in his first few games and never gave it up. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played well down in ice time in his rookie year. Alex Galchenyuk, the top centre taken in the 2012 draft, is still waiting for his full time gig at C, never mind which line.

To expect Matthews to do in Toronto in the NHL what he did in Zurich in the NLA might be dreaming too big. And he doesn't need to. He isn't there to drag a team of nobodies up on his back and carry them. He's there to be one very big bright jewel on a crown full of them.

As we said in our roundtable, when Matthews was but a dream:

Katya: God, this is a very current Tampa Bay lineup isn't it? All this interchangeable top nine talent?
Acha: Yeah, it's a whole box of chocolates!

Check out the Marlies players reacting to the draft lottery win.