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Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, and the impact of the NHL’s greatest puck thieves

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Mike Babcock used to coach the NHL’s best puck thief In Pavel Datsyuk. He now coaches three takeaway machines in Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander.

Washington Capitals v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Four Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

When Mike Babcock joined the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 20, 2015, he left behind one of the league’s greatest puck thieves. Pavel Datsyuk’s takeaway numbers were out of this world during Babcock’s tenure in Detroit, and he could steal the puck away from an opponent on demand. He was the NHL’s best puck thief between 2007 and 2015, and it was not even close.

When looking at takeaways, we can focus solely on road statistics to avoid scorer bias. The league leaders in takeaways per minute tend to be highly skilled players, and usually boast impressive numbers in terms of both shot attempt differential and goal differential. Evidently, parting ways with Datsyuk must have been a tough pill to swallow.

Focusing on road statistics, here are the top 10 forwards in terms of takeaways per minute between ‘14-15 and ‘16-17 (5v5):

Road Takeaway Leaders & Shot Attempt Differential (Rel CF%)

Player Road Takeaways/60 Rel CF%
Player Road Takeaways/60 Rel CF%
Mark Stone 3.77 3.94
Evgeni Malkin 3.64 3.7
Mitch Marner* 2.93 -0.13
Jamie Benn 2.88 2.26
Mark Scheifele 2.8 2.17
Ryan O'Reilly 2.67 3.79
Auston Matthews* 2.6 1.38
Filip Forsberg 2.58 5.24
Ryan Getzlaf 2.57 0.94
Rick Nash 2.52 0.56
Marian Hossa 2.48 -0.24

Clearly, this is an impressive group, and the majority of these players carry a long history of strong shot differential numbers. Both Mitchell Marner and Auston Matthews only have one season to examine, but they rank third and seventh out of 262 forwards. In addition, William Nylander is ranked one standard deviation above the average.

Impact Of A Puck Thief:

Average 5v5 Shot Differential (CF%), Goal Differential (GF%), and Expected Goal Differential (xGF%): Best Puck Thieves vs. Worst Puck Thieves

Road Takeaways/Min Rel CF% Rel GF% Rel xGF%
Road Takeaways/Min Rel CF% Rel GF% Rel xGF%
1+ SD Above Average 2.33 4.68 2.22
1+ SD Below Average -0.95 -1.73 -0.86

(Note: SD= Standard Deviation, statistics retrieved from corsica.hockey)

This is an encouraging sign for Toronto’s young trio going forward, as the NHL’s best puck thieves tend to outshoot and outscore their opponents. In contrast, of the 39 players who finished 1+ standard deviations below the mean, just 11 boasted a positive relative shot differential (CF% Rel). In addition, the majority of this 11 spent a ton of time on a line with a major puck thief:

  • Chris Krieder: Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello
  • Patrick Maroon: Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf, Leon Draisaitl
  • Vladislav Namestnikov: Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn
  • Jason Pominville: Michael Granlund, Zach Parise
  • Kyle Turris: Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan
  • Brett Connolly: Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Andre Burakovsky

All in all, it appears to be quite difficult to boast a strong shot differential if you are below average at generating takeaways. The Leafs young trio will not have this problem.

Meet The NHL’s Best Puck Thieves:

Out of 262 qualified forwards, 36 players finished 1+ standard deviation(s) above the mean in terms of road takeaways per minute. Here is a quick breakdown:

2+ Standard Deviations Above Average (9): Mark Stone, Evgeni Malkin, Jamie Benn, Mark Scheifele, Ryan O’Reilly, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, Marian Hossa. (Note: Marner and Matthews would have been included here).

Other Non-Surprises (17): Jaden Schwartz, Mike Hoffman, David Pastrnak, Jason Spezza, Ondrej Palat, Leon Draisaitl, Alex Wennberg, Vincent Trocheck, Brendan Gallagher, Nick Foligno, Aleksander Barkov, Patrice Bergeron, Taylor Hall, Mats Zuccarello, Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Drouin, John Tavares. (Note: Connor McDavid and William Nylander would have been included here).

Borderline Surprises (6): Jeff Skinner, Dylan Larkin, Andre Burakovsky, Bobby Ryan, Craig Smith, Josh Bailey.

Surprises (4): Riley Nash, Jordan Martinook, Torrey Mitchell, Kevin Hayes

Notable Players Who Just Missed (0.7- 0.99 SD Above Average): Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Nicklas Backstrom, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Nazem Kadri, Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan, Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Johansen, Mathieu Perrault, Derek Stepan, Patrick Sharp.

The Big Picture:

It is not breaking news that Auston Matthews is a phenomenal talent. He boasted a strong shot differential in his rookie season, and we all know that his scoring numbers were through the roof.

Everyone remembers when he picked the pocket of Erik Karlsson in his first NHL game:

Mitchell Marner did not fare as well in terms of shot differential this season, but his takeaway numbers are an incredibly encouraging sign going forward. Only Mark Stone and Evgeni Malkin boasted a better per minute mark over the three year sample, and Marner could get even better in this regard as he gets stronger.

If one thing is certain, Marner is a sneaky puck stealer:

Takeaways correlate with relative shot attempt generation (r=0.296 in this sample) much more than relative shot attempt prevention (r= 0.12). At first glance, you would think takeaways are more of a defensive stat, but a complete defensive skill set is needed to avoid playing high tempo hockey. We can expect Toronto’s young trio to continue to have a positive impact on shot attempt generation going forward, and it will be important to find solid linemates who help limit chances against. In particular, the Van Reimsdyk- Bozak- Marner line could use help in this area.

We are all well aware that Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander are impressive offensive contributors, but their ability to strip the puck off of opponents is just as much of an eye opener. All in all, although Mike Babcock does not have Pavel Datsyuk on his roster anymore, his young puck thieves should now remind him of his former superstar. The future looks bright in Toronto.