Hockey is not a static sport, for all it can seem shackled to convention. The rigid hierarchy of forward lines with a clear division between top six and bottom six is gone.
There is no agreement, however, as to what has replaced it.
Use top-line, middle-six, bottom-line, if you **really** wanted to tier players in impact, since the middle lines are usually very similar.— Garret Hohl (@GarretHohl) March 1, 2017
You might envision rolling four lines that you think of as equal in some way. And I might say that you’re a dreamer, but you’re not the only one. I’ll save that fight for another day because it’s obvious without any investigation that the Leafs are not doing that in the way most people define equality.
Are the Leafs following Hohl’s pattern? A lot of teams are, and for older teams with cap issues, they almost have to conform to that pattern. Think of the Boston Bruins for a moment, and you’ll see how that is almost inevitable for aging teams that one line will be very good while the middle six will be good enough.
There has been a general trend in increasing ice time for fourth lines, even if they are still the landing spot for role players—both power play and penalty kill specialists make their home on fourth lines around the league. The purpose of that increasing ice time is to offset decreasing forward minutes at the top end, and the demise of the enforcer has made that more practical to achieve.
It has been only the last few years that the hockey world marvelled at the demise of the over 20 minute forward. No one even notices anymore how few are left, they are in fact so few, and that is a very rapid change for the NHL.
At even strength (per Hockey-Reference), there are only two forwards in the NHL averaging over 17 minutes per game this year, and they are Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid. When you limit it to just five-on-five, many teams are playing their top forwards less than 15 minutes per game.
To look at how the Leafs have balanced their forwards outside the fourth line, I chose to just look at the centres—Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Auston Matthews. The three top centres have all played most of the games, have never shifted to wing for more than brief moments, and are the unchanging backbone of the offence.
The wingers have shifted around some, so by looking just at the centres, I’m looking at an average of how the three lines are used, not at individual player contributions. We’ll start with time on ice (all data is from Puckalytics, is five-on-five only, unless noted otherwise, and is current as of 62 games played):
Instead of looking at average minutes, I chose percentage of the available minutes at five-on-five and on the power play. Bozak plays the least proportion of the total time, but that is offset with a lot of power play time. Matthews plays the most of both—19 year olds don’t need low minutes.
In terms of average minutes per game played the numbers are: 13.04, 13.56 and 14.26. That equates to Matthews and Kadri taking one or maybe two shifts per game more than Bozak, no more. Bozak is playing the lowest five-on-five minutes of his career and having a career-high year in results of all kinds.
We could stop right there and call these three lines largely balanced with a very slight favouring of Matthews over the other two. This looks a bit like what Hohl is talking about. And while that’s true, there are other ways to look at balance than just ice time.
Impact can be measured in a lot of ways. I chose two. Corsi, or all shots attempted, and Goals. These are “on ice” measures, so this is not individual production, it is a measure of what these three players produce in concert with their wingers and the defence pairs while they are on the ice.
Again I went with percentage of team totals. Note that these are not “rated stats”. There is no per 60 here. The first blue segment is the percentage of the total number of Goals For at five-on-five that each player is on the ice for. We see that all three are very close.
The Corsi For is also nearly identical. The Goals against are largely similar, with Kadri having the highest share. The Corsi Against is very close, with Bozak having the lowest share of the shots against. You saw that coming, didn’t you?
And yes, he, and therefore his line, has played the least minutes by a small margin. By removing the equalization of the rated stat, this shows the player’s total impact. Time on ice is largely a coaching decision. So is line construction and opposition matchups. That is a chart showing you Mike Babcock’s performance more than these three forwards.
That chart shows the three lines’ impact after it’s mitigated by who they play with and against, and how much they play. The result, expressed in a Corsi For percentage, is 52 percent for all three centres. I can separate those numbers with a few extra decimal places, but I’m not going to. Effectively, they are all equal in proportion of shots for and against.
If you look at just raw numbers for the season and take the difference—Corsi plus/minus—you can see how close they all are. Let’s at least account for variation in the number of games played, though. Let’s look at how that raw differential looks per single game.
Yes, I rounded that off. There are no half shots or thousandths of shots. There either is or is not a shot. So what 52 percent Corsi For gives you is one more shot per game for than against. I can’t see that as anything other than half and half! Fifty percent is the current team Corsi rating, but how often is the shot data accurate enough to take a difference between 50 or 52 percent seriously?
Sometimes, we get too close to the numbers and pay too much attention to minuscule differences and miss the overall truth. The effect of the Leafs top nine on game outcomes is largely a balanced one.
The individuals are wildly different. Matthews has a much higher primary point rate, Bozak has half the individual Corsi For of the other two. They play different styles, have different zone deployments, they have wingers of different skills and abilities, see different levels of competition, and they play with different defenders.
And the top three scorers on the Leafs each play on a different one of those three lines.
It’s a top nine. For now.
How that balance changes as the team changes and the rookies improve will be very interesting to watch. Will the goal be to raise the level of all three and maintain this balance or not?
It is very possible to imagine a progression of Matthews’ line into more of a dominating force on the team. I think you might see a top line and a middle six, and an argument can be made that when William Nylander moves to Matthews’ line, that is closer to what is on the ice right now.
We should hope for an increase on that last chart from the number one. I think we should want to see a bigger difference in the Goals For and the Goals Against than the essentially equal state it is in now.
Meanwhile, Babcock is using what he has in a balanced way. He rolls them out and, eventually, a line hits a set of opponents who can’t cope with the skill and ability on the ice. Nearly every game, one or another of the top nine looks invisible while someone else just seems to fly.
Some nights Bozak’s line is hemmed in, some nights it is one of the other two. Some nights it seems like they just run a relay race over the other team until they capitulate. Some nights they slam into a team that can check all three lines effectively.
For now, that is who the Leafs are.