After a scintillating opening few games in the NHL last year, you would be forgiven for thinking Nikita Soshnikov would be a mainstay on the Leafs top nine for years to come. On a team with not much to enjoy, he was a bright spot in his 11 games last year, collecting five points in the process. He seemed like a perfect blend of skating, aggression, and skill, the type of guy you hate to play against and love to play with. A Leo Komarov with more upside.
This year has been quite different. The Leafs immense depth on the wings has relegated Soshnikov to fourth line and penalty killing minutes. As a result, his offense has notably suffered. He’s scored two more points than all of last season... in 41 more games. To be fair to him, he’s not playing with offensive dynamos, by any means. His most common linemates have been Matt Martin and Ben Smith. It’s asking a lot of someone to produce in those circumstances, and it’d be obtuse to say that it wasn’t having an effect on Soshnikov’s offense. His shot rate has plummeted from last year to this year - his linemates are likely a reason why.
Some feel Soshnikov should get a place higher in the lineup, if only to test out how his game fares with some more gifted linemates. Unfortunately for Sosh, the only wingers playing above him in the lineup that can reasonably be dropped to the fourth line are Leo Komarov and Zach Hyman. Realistically, neither is getting lowered this season. Babcock loves them both, and it’s tough to justify promoting a guy with seven points over either of those guys, despite their warts, especially in the middle of a playoff race.
The idea of swapping Hyman and Soshnikov is particularly interesting to me. Hyman is probably the least popular of the Leafs rookies... a combination of how he plays, who he plays with, and his penchant for making million dollar moves and 10-cent finishes. It’s been popular to suggest that moving Hyman away from Matthews in favour of a higher skill player would actually increase the team’s odds of success, and it’s also been common to express frustration at how tethered the pair of them seem to be.
While I get that frustration, and agree that long-term, we likely need to find a different winger for our centrepiece, I think there’s very little justification for moving Soshnikov there now, or even next year.
This largely comes down to the fact that I don’t think the gap between Soshnikov’s offense and Hyman’s makes up for Hyman’s advantages elsewhere. It also should be remembered that while they’re both new NHLers, they’re not particularly young by those standards. Hyman is 24, while Soshnikov is 23. Certainly on the front nine of their career, but old enough that a year’s difference in age shouldn’t make a huge difference in how we evaluate them as players.
If we look at their offense this season, Hyman has scored way more than Soshnikov this year - it’s not even close. Hyman’s scoring is actually better than you probably think it is. He’s teetering on the edge of a low-end second liner by 5v5 primary points per 60 minutes. So that’s the baseline any replacement has to reach.
Obviously, we can’t compare Hyman’s and Soshnikov’s NHL numbers this year in a fair manner. Hyman plays with the Leafs’ best forward, Soshnikov with the Leafs’ two worst. But even looking at their histories, I don’t think there’s a massive difference in their scoring ability.
First, let’s throw their 2015/2016 Leafs cameos out of the picture. There’s less than 20 games of data for both, and while Soshnikov scored more, he also got power play time Hyman didn’t get. A more robust sample exists for each of them at the AHL level, where Soshnikov scored 28 points in 52 games, and Hyman scored 37 in 59. Slight edge to Hyman in terms of point scoring, though Soshnikov had to deal with all the adjustments to the North American game and culture. In addition, Soshnikov was mostly played on the fourth line with Frederik Gauthier and Rich Clune, while Hyman played higher up in the lineup. So I consider their AHL seasons pretty close to one another with regards to offense. Probably an advantage to Soshnikov, given the contextual factors.
The year before, Soshnikov scored at a similar pace in the KHL (32 points in 57 games), while Hyman tore up the NCAA. Certainly, Soshnikov’s pre-AHL resume is more impressive to me than Hyman’s. I value the ability to perform against pros more than the ability to beat up on amateurs. Consequently, before this season, I probably would have preferred Soshnikov on Matthews’ wing to Hyman, based on his better offensive track record.
However, point scoring is just one element of being a forward, and for Hyman, it’s probably the weakest part of his game. His real value comes in how he pushes play for his team. Even adjusting for teammates, his shot impacts dwarf Soshnikov’s, and that makes the real difference between them. And before you say that Matthews is propping him up, in the small samples we have of Hyman and Matthews separated, there’s actually very little difference in their score, zone, and venue adjusted CF%.
Side note: William Nylander is very good.
Even on the Marlies, there were rumblings that the Leafs front office tracked shot impacts, and that Hyman led the way. This is something that Soshnikov hasn’t shown he can provide at the NHL level. And even though I do like his offense (in theory) more than Hyman’s, I’m also skeptical of whether Soshnikov’s offensive talents would lend themselves well to playing with Matthews, given that his best offensive skill (his shot) overlaps with Matthews’.
Ultimately, I think Hyman is just being slept on in these discussions. He’s not the type of guy that’s fun to like. He skates choppily, he can’t finish an egg, and he’s the rookie least likely to make you go ‘WOW’ when you watch him. But behind that, he’s actually a solid player, and has certainly shown more than Soshnikov has. There may be room for Soshnikov on the top nine as we head into next season, where presumably, the Leafs will move on from one or more forwards currently taking up a spot there. But until that time, he’s stuck in fourth line purgatory. And justifiably so.
This is a good thing, by the way. Mike Babcock has talked about the fact that it’s easy to make a team that isn’t very good. The extension of this idea is that it’s easy to get an offensive role on a team with no other options. The Leafs have options, and in order for a player to break into the upper parts of the depth chart, it’s not enough to show up. They need to outperform the players in front of them. Soshnikov hasn’t - at least not yet.