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PPP Fixes The Leafs’ Lines

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Our gang tries to put together the best possible forward combinations.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There’s been considerable disquiet about the lines in Leafland of late, despite Toronto’s impressive record. William Nylander has sojourned on the fourth line, been put at C, and been moved back to wing. Auston Matthews has been given two energy linemates and then got hurt. Fans have continually debated Mike Babcock’s decisions.

So let’s do that.

What should the Leafs’ first line be?

Fulemin’s 1st line: Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

We started the year with this trio and it was pure dynamite, and I have not liked any use of either Auston or William as much since. The Hyman-Matthews-Nylander combination is one of the best lines in existence in expected goals—bordering on McDavid-esque—and I can’t think of a good reason not to have them together unless you’re going to use Willie as a C. Since we don’t appear to be doing that beyond spot duty, let’s not break up the line that definitively works.

Arvind’s 1st line: Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

Keep it simple. These guys are a first line to be feared, and are arguably a top-10 line in the entire league. They’re not great defensively, but you don’t need to be when you’re generating goalmouth or slot shots every five seconds. Without being highly sheltered, they were a strong CF% line and an even stronger xG% line. There’s no need to get fancy. You have a star centre and a star winger. Play them together.

Brigstew’s 1st line: Patrick Marleau - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

First, I want Willy back with Matthews long term. They're too good together for Nylander to wear the stone of shame for much longer. Second, call me a dumb fan but I want this line to be truly terrifying. What better way to do that than adding Marleau at LW? He's fast enough to keep up, he's responsible defensively, and he has more finishing ability than Hyman (sorry Fuley) for when Matthews and Nylander create chances for him. Plus, he might be able to create chances for the other two.

Kevin’s 1st line: Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

I would like to see Matthews paired up with either William Nylander or Mitch Marner. Both of these wingers are great playmakers, and their ability to gain the zone allows Matthews to spend more time in the offensive zone. Putting Hyman and Brown together limits this unit’s ability to gain the zone, and the Leafs should aim to split them up. Mike Babcock continues to show no signs of splitting up Matthews and Hyman, but I would also be okay with trying Marleau on his left side. As more of a goal scorer, Nylander is a slightly better fit to play with Hyman, while Marner is a natural complement to van Riemsdyk. The Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line works, and there’s plenty of talent remaining for the other lines.

Arvind’s bonus 1st line: Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner

On the other hand.... why not go a little crazy here. Let’s try Hyman - Matthews - Marner. Marner is a dynamic passer and puck carrier. While Babcock has expressed concern that he doesn’t shoot enough compared to Nylander to provide an effective second option on this line, I’m not as worried. Marner averages 12.36 shot attempts per hour, while Nylander averages 13.79 (per Corsica). It’s a notable difference, but not a titanic one. And while some may argue that Marner’s shot is much weaker, Nylander is currently shooting about 2% at even strength - it’s not like the harder shot is helping him score all the time right now. Marner will do just fine. As for why I’m moving Nylander in the first place... you’ll have to wait and see.

Katya’s 1st line: Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

The only problem with Josh Leivo is that if he's in the game, Connor Brown is playing too high up the lineup. This is the line that gets to the net, and while Nylander has been struggling, and it's not just shooting percentage, Brown on that line is like driving a Ferrari with one flat tire.

Hardev’s 1st line: Josh Leivo - Auston Matthews - Mitchell Marner

Mike Babcock will never do something this drastic, but my colleagues have already given more realistic options so I’ll just throw out my pie in the sky. Josh Leivo is a hardworking winger with offensive upside who’s defensive game has improved significantly since he first came in the league. The 24-year-old has good possession numbers, good shot rates, and even draws penalties. Auston is Auston and Mitch will be feeding those two with gorgeous passes all game. Lovely.

What should the Leafs’ second line be?

Fulemin’s 2nd line: Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Kasperi Kapanen

I appreciate this takes Leo Komarov off the shutdown line, and he’s generally been considered our best defensive winger. But this season, at least, Leo does not look like himself and his numbers have been downright awful. He’s getting killed by almost every even-strength measurement we can find, to the point where it’s no longer excusable based on his tough usage—he’s lagging Kadri substantially in shots and expected goals against—and his production is basically zero. I would have been more worried about dropping Leo last season, but he just doesn’t seem to be getting it done these days. We’re not risking much by dropping him.

As for Kapanen: he’s a capable defensive winger, but most of all, hoo baby is he fast. I think a line with Patrick Marleau, who is somehow still lightning quick at 38, and Kapanen on the wings is a really frightening counterattack threat, and it might give the Kadri line even more opportunities to jump on offensive-minded opposition. The Kadri line as a shutdown group has always been a bit of a misnomer—the reality is they just score well enough to survive playing top lines—and this would build on that.

Arvind’s 2nd line: Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown

As my colleague above states, Komarov’s defensive excellence has disappeared this season. This line is critical for the Leafs given the competition they usually face. Leo simply can’t keep up with that now, and his team worst -8.5% CorsiRel (teammate-adjusted) shows that he is an anchor to whatever linemates he’s with on the day (per Corsica). I think Kapanen on this line is interesting, but I tried to stay within the realm of something I think Babcock would actually do. Connor Brown isn’t a possession driver himself (by the same teammate adjusted CorsiRel stat, he’s second worst on the team), but he’s enough of a chameleon that I think he could do a job on this unit without capitulating. I don’t think this line will light the world on fire, but it’s plausible, and probably better than what we have right now.

Brigstew’s 2nd line: Zach Hyman - Nazem Kadri - Kasperi Kapanen.

If Babcock wants to use Kadri's line as the heavy competition shutdown line, I think Hyman is better suited for it. Plus, he's better than Komarov has been offensively (I buy into what the others have said about how bad Leo has been this year). Now throw in Kapanen as a guy who was used in defensive roles at times last year and I think did pretty well at it, plus his speed and offensive ability again I think help give that line more punch. I also admit this is another dumb fan idea with more philosophical justification than anything else. But I also think this line wouls drive teams nuts. Kadri, because he's Kadri; Hyman, because he's relentless on the forecheck and causing turnovers; and Kapanen because he's so darn fast.

Kevin’s 2nd line: Patrick Marleau- Nazem Kadri- Connor Brown

This line needs to spend more time in the offensive zone. Komarov continues to post incredibly awful scoring numbers at 5 on 5 this year, and while he’s due for some regression, he’s never been a much offensive force at 5 on 5. The Leafs would benefit from cutting his minutes, and all three players on this newly-formed second line are capable of contributing to an effective shutdown line. If Babcock insists on keeping Komarov with Kadri, Kapanen could be used to help them gain the zone. Replacing Brown with Kapanen on this line also works for me.

Arvind’s bonus 2nd line: Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - William Nylander

I’ve annoyed the staff of PPP a lot by railing on the pairing of Kadri and Nylander together, who have seemingly always combined to be less than the sum of their parts. However, I’m more and more convinced that Komarov is the primary reason. Nylander needs speed through the neutral zone and poise in the offensive zone from his linemates. Without the former, his zone entries turn into one-on-two rushes where he’s forced to dump it in or double back. Without the latter, his ability to create space in the offensive zone is wasted (see his entire time with the fourth line). Komarov has neither. Kadri has the latter, but not the former. Marleau has the former and the latter. With Nylander, I think they’d do really well. In a tiny sample (like, 12 minutes) this line has done really well too. Obviously, that’s way too small a sample to be confident in, but it’s a good start, and puts three of the Leafs best possession players together.

This move is aimed at unlocking Kadri offensively. His success on the power play and a hot shooting percentage has papered over the fact that one of our most dangerous offensive players has been on a line that gets their lunch money stolen from them on the regular. The Leafs need to fix that.

Katya’s 2nd line: Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Kasperi Kapanen

My lines are for goals first, kick-starting the stagnate offensive pace, and keeping the shots against from getting worse. I wrote last February that Komarov was on the cusp of not providing enough defensive value to be worth his drag on this line. We're now well past the cusp, and his results this season are much worse than last.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins play you so heavy that even Kessel is hitting, maybe you need Komarov on this line. But Komarov on this line is how you get hemmed in so that even Kessel is hitting you. It is a möbius strip of failure, and can only be solved with a pair of scissors. Cut him now.

Hardev’s 2nd line: Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown

For a line that’s expected to play against top competition, but also includes 25+ and 30+ goalscorers, swapping Connor Brown for Leo Komarov sounds like a worthy upgrade. Brown will provide more speed and skill to the group, something Kadri and Marleau both excel in. Defensively, he’s not one of the top players in the league, like Komarov had been in recent past, but he should be decent enough at it.

What should the Leafs’ third line be?

Fulemin’s 3rd line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

As much as we complain about their defensive frailties, this line ultimately works well when it’s sheltered enough to do so, and given the chance it can win us games where the top lines are just hanging on (like last Saturday against Pittsburgh.) I don’t want to re-sign Tyler Bozak in the summer, but for now we have him and he can be a component of a useful offensive line. We might as well make use of that.

Arvind’s 3rd line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

This line has been good at their job. They tend to face weak competition, and they tend to do well against it. Last year, I noted that this line wasn’t as sheltered as many people thought, at least not by competition. This year, that hasn’t been the case. They’ve been protected more, and accordingly, we’ve seen their possession stats spike. This obviously comes at a cost of another line, but I think the Kadri and Matthews lines constructed above can handle it (the Matthews line clearly already has, when played together this year).

Brigstew’s 3rd line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

I honestly spent a lot of time trying to think of ways to break up this line in the name of improving it... maybe moving Marleau or Nylander to center them? But I just couldn't think of anything without making other lines work. The biggest problem with this line is Bozak, and there's no easy way with their current roster to fix that. I still want JVR and Marner together, and hope the Leafs somehow swing a deal for a decent center to compliment them. So keep them as is for now.

Kevin’s 3rd line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

Marner and van Riemsdyk were made for each other, and this unit tends to rack up points at 5 on 5. Unless Babcock surprises us by moving Marleau or Nylander to centre, I would not expect this line to change.

Arvind’s bonus 3rd line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Kasperi Kapanen

This line gets worse without Marner, no way around that. It relies heavily on JvR’s ability to carry the line offensively, and on Kapanen to show offense that he quite frankly, hasn’t yet done at the NHL level. But I believe in both of them, and I think that each of the top two lines is an elite set of players in their spot in the line hierarchy. The plan here would be to continue to shelter this group the way they already have, and hope that JVR’s offensive brilliance keeps them well above water. This is the downside of my previous two lines - in a sense, I’m loading those up at the expense of this group. However, I think that the lines are still relatively balanced overall (we still have a 60 point and 50 point player on our third line), and Kapanen isn’t a bum either.

Katya’s 3rd line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

They need careful usage, but this line can pay off with Marner there to drive the offensive train. If van Riemsdyk is not 100% healthy, which his very low minutes suggests might be the case, then keeping this trio together, dropping the ice time a little, using them carefully, and getting some goals from them is a good way to maximize value. Marner can play the post PK shifts to up his time.

Hardev’s 3rd (but really 4th) line: James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Dominic Moore

Remember when Sam Gagner signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets and was a monster for them as a 4th line centre with powerplay time? This line will be exactly that, except Bozak and JVR will be getting powerplay time while Dominic Moore will be playing the penalty kill. At even strength, this group might not do so well, but the current 4th line only plays about 9 minutes at 5v5 anyway. When down, Babcock can shorten the bench and double shift any one of Marner/Kapanen/Nylander/Marleau in Moores spot. When the Buds are leading late in games, none of these players play anyway. It optimizes each of these players’ specialized abilities with how Babcock uses them in games.

What should the Leafs’ fourth line be?

Fulemin’s 4th line: Matt Martin - Leo Komarov - Connor Brown

You can cycle in Dominic Moore at C, move Leo left, and scratch Martin depending on your mood and your desire for better faceoffs. This line isn’t going to do Brownie’s stats any favours, but he’s on a term contract now, he’ll get his chance in later years. The goal for the fourth line in this setup is basically not to get scored on much, and I believe it will do that. It’ll only chip in a little bit of offence, but how many fourth lines are really that productive?

Arvind’s 4th lines: Matt Martin/Leo Komarov - Dominic Moore - Leo Komarov/Brown

The fourth line is just kind of there. I don’t think this is a great fourth line, but it’s not terrible either, and I’m far more concerned with the top 9 than the bottom 3. When things matter, benches get shorter and you can survive with a little less depth. That doesn’t mean you should ice the dregs of the world on your fourth line, but if you have a relatively competent one, I see no point in optimizing to improve that versus one of the lines that plays more.

Brigstew’s 4th line: Matt Martin/Leo Komarov - Dominic Moore - Leo Komarov/Connor Brown

I've seen the others talk amongst themselves about the Leafs having trouble with a) needing better team defense aside from Kadri's line, and b) needing a better response to teams that olay physically heavy. That's part in parcel why I like the idea of havinf a fourth line made up of some combination of Martin, Leo, Moore and Brown, and heck maybe even Sosh or Leivo depending on other player's health and matchups. It won't have much offensive punch, but unless you waste one of our better forwards there (coughs about Nylander and Marner) that was always going to be the case. Meanwhile, they can be a physical, heavy, secondary shutdown line to give Kadri's line a bit of a break at times.

Kevin’s 4th line: Matt Martin- Dominic Moore- Kasperi Kapanen

Predictably, the fourth line looks far better when Marner or Nylander are left to play here. I’d rather watch Toronto’s best playmakers set up Matthews and van Riemsdyk, so Kapanen will have to suffice. Adding a zone entry specialist to this unit could help them to gain the line with control, rather than solely relying on the dump and chase. Leo Komarov is scratched in this scenario, which does not seem overly likely to happen, but I do not see Babcock scratching Martin any time soon either. If you want to assume Komarov is in the lineup, insert him for any of these three players.

Katya’s 4th line: Matt Martin - Dominic Moore - Connor Brown

This is the fourth line that suppresses shots and can get some surprising offence going against weak teams. If you need some better forechecking on the Kadri line, swap Brown and Kapanen. Tinker with the strength of each line every game with the right wingers, but otherwise, leave it be.

Where's Komarov? That's the trouble, isn't it? Are you cutting losses on him? Then trade him now, this minute. Find a team that wants a hitter and penalty killer and go for it. Otherwise, put him right back where he was, sit Kapanen in the press box, and hope Komarov has a better second half of the season than first. He did last year. All you get out of playing him on the fourth line is someone no better than Martin at shot suppression and less return if he's traded at the deadline. He looks like the most surplus to requirements of the excess wingers. Pull the trigger, but until you do, don't drop him out of the top nine. So yeah, I guess my lineup is what the Leafs started out with this season that maybe never needed fixing.

Hardev’s 4th (but really 3rd) line: Zach Hyman - William Nylander - Kasperi Kapanen

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a young, fast, fun hockey team. Let’s get back to that mindset with an injection of (more) youth. Kapanen is exactly what the Leafs need to pick up the pace of the game. Willy Ny as a first-line centre right now might not be the best place for him, but a sheltered role behind Matthews and Kadri might be. Hyman rounds out the line, playing the same role he did with Matthews and Nylander; getting them the puck. Oh, would you look at that, we have the Marlies’ first line from a couple years ago. #MarliesLive

I’m sorry, Uncle Leo. But age hits us all.

What would our final lineups look like?

Fulemin

Hyman - Matthews - Nylander

Marleau - Kadri - Kapanen

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Martin - Komarov - Brown

Brigstew

Marleau - Matthews - Nylander

Hyman - Kadri - Kapanen

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Komarov - Moore - Brown

Martin

Arvind (plausible version)

Hyman - Matthews - Nylander

Marleau - Kadri - Brown

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Martin - Moore - Komarov

Arvind (fun version)

Hyman - Matthews - Marner

Marleau - Kadri - Nylander

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Kapanen

Martin/Komarov - Moore - Brown

Katya

Hyman - Matthews - Nylander

Marleau - Kadri - Komarov/Kapanen

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Martin - Moore - Brown

Kevin (plausible version)

Hyman - Matthews - Nylander

Marleau - Kadri - Brown

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Martin/Komarov - Moore- Brown

Kevin (fun version)

Hyman - Matthews- Marner

Marleau - Kadri - Kapanen

van Reimsdyk - Nylander - Brown

Martin - Bozak - Komarov

Hardev

Leivo - Matthews - Marner

Marleau - Kadri - Brown

Hyman - Nylander - Kapanen

van Reimsdyk - Bozak - Moore