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Toronto Maple Leafs Forward Evaluations

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Guess who led the way?

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

Introduction

Welcome to the first of PPP’s year in review articles. Here, we’ll take a look at how the Leafs players performed this season, assess their play in a quantitative manner, and discuss things about their year. This is an idea that we shamelessly stole from Raw Charge, and from Alan (@loserpoints) specifically. Alan is responsible for the pretty graphics on this page, so please give him a round of applause, and follow him on Twitter. You can catch his Lightning-centric work at Raw Charge.

At any rate, onto the evaluations. Today, we’ll tackle the forwards. I’ll first give a brief breakdown of the metrics we’ll be using to assess these players. Or rather, I’ll copy and paste Alan’s excellent explanation. I’ve added some additional clarification in bold.

Metrics Used

Most metrics are relative to team performance. They show how the team performs in that metric when the player is on the ice compared to when they are not. For example, relative shots per 60 minutes is shots per 60 when the player is on the ice minus shots per 60 when the player is off the ice. All data is 5v5 only and adjusted for score, venue, and zone starts via Corsica. Numbers are presented as percentiles comparing each player to others at the same positions. For forwards, this includes the top 390 players in ice time in 2016-2017. Percentiles indicate the percentage of observations within a sample that fall below a given value. For example, let’s say I have a friend named Joey, who owns a Rattata. Joey claims that his Rattata is in the ‘top percentile’ of Rattata’s. Essentially, he is saying that his Rattata is in the 99th percentile of Rattata’s, or that 99% of Rattata’s in the world measure below his. So similarly, if I say Auston Matthews is in the 98th percentile for Game Score, that means that 98% of players rank below him in that metric. Throughout this piece, being at the high end of the percentile is good, and being at the low end is bad.

Game Score (GS): Dom Luszczyszyn’s stat that assesses player performance on an individual game basis.

(P1/60): goals and primary assists per 60 minutes of ice time

Rel.ShF/60: Relative shots for per 60 minutes of ice time

Rel.xSh%: Relative expected shooting percentage. This is a measure of shot danger.

Rel.xGF/60: Relative expected goals for per 60 minutes of ice time

Rel.ShA/60: Relative shots against per 60 minutes of ice time

Rel.xSv%: Relative expected save percentage. This is a measure of shot danger.

Rel.xGA/60: Relative expected goals against per 60 minutes of ice time

Rel.Sh.Share: Relative shot share. Similar idea to Corsi Rel.

Rel.xG.Share: Relative expected goal share. Same as above, but expected goals

If you’re confused about expected goals, I’d recommend reading this primer I wrote a while back. I’ll also re-emphasize that these graphics are almost entirely 5v5 only (Game Score is an all-encompassing metric).

As an example, this is what a graphic looks like if someone is one of the very best players in the league:

Nikita Kucherov is average at relative expected goals against, poor at preventing shot danger, and absolutely the cream of the crop everywhere else. For an example of a really poor player... well, if you want the surprise spoiled for you, feel free to scroll down and find Matt Martin on this page.

Anyways, onto the evaluations. We’ll go line by line. Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen, and Frederik Gauthier are not included due to insufficient sample size.

Quick note: You can right-click and open the images in a new tab if you prefer to have them at a larger size.

Hyman - Matthews - Nylander

Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews, at age NINETEEN was in the top 5% in Game Score and Primary Points. That is obscene. Basically, he’s already one of the very best scorers in the league. Unexpectedly, he grades out as an all-around offensive dynamo, with his shot danger (Rel.xSh%) and relative expected goals for (Rel.xGF/60) standing out in a positive way. He’s comfortably a first liner in both.

The less rosy part of his season occurred on the defensive side of the puck. The Leafs were a glass cannon in general, but even relative to his team, Matthews struggled on the defensive side of things, posting below average results in shot suppression and expected goal suppression (32nd and 22nd percentile, respectively). That’s not a huge deal to me. He’s 19. The list of rookies who happen to be great, or even good defensive players is not a large one.

And if we look at the last two metrics, we can see that he still grades out as around league average in terms of overall shot share and expected goal share. I think it’s important to note that his expected goal share is a fair bit higher - Matthews gets shots from incredible locations, both for himself and his linemates. We have no reason to think that won’t continue, which likely indicates that his individual offense is about as real as it gets.

For some, it might seem a little surprising that Matthews is ‘only’ average in terms of shot and expected goal share. His possession numbers seemed to drop off notably as the season progressed, evidenced by the rolling average of his CF Rel% (courtesy of Corsica).

That drop likely had a lot of factors to it. Fatigue, increased defensive attention, Babcock taking the training wheels off, variance... there are a lot of potential explanations. That said, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. His rookie year was ridiculously impressive, pretty much any way you cut it.

William Nylander

This is not quite as sterling as Matthews’ year in some respects, but that’s damn impressive. Despite the overall excellence of his chart, the one thing that jumps out to me is Nylander’s somewhat middling individual scoring. While his 5v5 scoring may not have been what some were expecting, we have evidence that he’s getting a little unlucky.

This chart (courtesy of Sean Tierney, Ryan Stimson, and Corey Sznajder) indicates how often a player sets up a teammate for a shot (also known as a shot assist, on the x-axis) and how often they shoot themselves (individual shot attempt, on the y-axis). You’ll notice most players clump into an unreadable mass in the middle. The players you can actually pick out are the standouts, either positively or negatively. Nylander is definitely the former. No one at his shot volume passes as much except Crosby (side note: holy shit, Crosby). He’s a passing machine, and not only that, he has upper echelon shot generation himself. Even though his on-ice shooting percentage wasn’t horrifically low, I think this is evidence that Nylander was unlucky to not get more points. He generates chances like a demon.

This is borne out in his incredibly high rankings in relative shots for and relative expected goals for (87th and 91st percentiles, respectively). Impressively, he combines this with solid defensive possession results. This is somewhat aided by the time he spent with Komarov and Kadri - two of the Leafs’ better defensive forwards. Ultimately, it culminates in an excellent ranking in shot share and expected goal share. In both, he is well into first line territory.

Also, it’s not reflected here, but we all know what a beast he is on the power play. The conclusion: William Nylander is so, so, good. If he and Matthews are a pairing next year, they’re going to tear up the league. But who will be their running mate?

Zach Hyman

Admit it, you thought Hyman would look worse here than he does. I remain a fan of him. No, he’s not a prototypical ‘first line winger’. But he’s a legitimately useful NHL player, who posted excellent results on everything except scoring and shot suppression (which was also a problem for Matthews). He’s a good possession player on the whole, indicated by his relative shot share and expected goal share both being above average. Is he someone I want with Matthews and Nylander long-term? No, but that line was undoubtedly successful with him there, and the marginal gain of moving a ‘better’ player on that line may not offset the loss to the line that player was originally on.

These graphics also don’t really dig into style of play too much, but Hyman definitely seemed to be more of a puck-retriever on this line than anything. Get in first, forecheck hard, create havoc, and so on. I’m not smart enough to say whether style synergies matter in this way, but Babcock has often put a player like Hyman with players like Matthews and Nylander. So don’t be surprised if this line is what the Leafs enter training camp with.

Komarov - Kadri - Brown

Nazem Kadri

I can’t tell you the joy it brings me to see Nazem Kadri get his due. He’s ALWAYS been a damn good player, and he finally got credit for it this year. There’s nothing here not to like. He’s solidly above average on everything and into first line territory on most of them. Simply put, this was the best season of Kadri’s career.

I don’t expect him to recreate his 30 goals next year. He feasted on the power play to get a lot of them, and that’s inherently a little random year to year, unless your name is Steven Stamkos or Alex Ovechkin. However, his even strength offense was also very strong, and as always, his shot generation was close to elite. What makes it more impressive is that aside from his stint with Nylander on his wing, he didn’t play with phenomenal offensive players at even strength. He’s really drove the offense on the line with Leo Komarov and Connor Brown.

As for his defense... this is one area where I think he got too much praise, to be honest. He’s not even close to Selke quality. His defensive figures are good here, but that’s also because he’s being compared to a bad defensive team. He’s the Leafs best option for a prototypical ‘shut-down’ centre, but the Leafs were (and are) lacking for defensively responsible centres. I’m not saying he’s not bad defensively - he’s probably around league average, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Because when you’re as good at the rest of the game as Kadri is, that’s good enough to vault you into being one of the 30 best centres in the league. He’s not a shut-down centre. He’s a power line centre. Match him up against anyone and let him do his thing.

Kadri will enter next season at age 27. While that is likely ‘past his prime’ based on what we know of aging curves, we also don’t have reason to expect significant drop-off in his play for a little while. That’s good news, because with him and Matthews down the middle, the Leafs have one of the best 1-2 centre punches in the league.*

*non-Pittsburgh division

Leo Komarov

Well, he’s nothing if not consistent. Komarov is basically the platonic ideal of 2nd line forward everywhere, except primary scoring. At his age, he is who he is, and as he enters the last year of his contract, he projects to continue being just that in 2017/2018. He’s also the Leafs’ best defensive forward. While the metrics here see Kadri as the better defensive player on his line, that’s largely due to a 100-minute sample away from Kadri where Komarov got killed. A notable amount of those minutes came when Frederik Gauthier was his center. Enough said.

The interesting question comes next offseason. At that point, Komarov will be 31, and as a guy who plays a very physical game, he then approaches a scary part of the aging curve. By all accounts, the team and management love Leo, both on and off the ice. And he has a ways to fall before he becomes a non-NHL player. Modest decline would still see him be a solid contributor - but any sort of term above two years would be very risky, especially with Matt Martin locked into the 4th line until 2020. That’s actually my biggest worry about this management group. That they’ll get attached to the middling guys on this roster and it will eventually bite us.

Anyway, that’s a bit of an aside. Komarov is a good player, on a nice (in hindsight) expiring deal. Nothing unexpected.

Connor Brown

I’m a little lower on Connor Brown than most people. Yes, he scored 20 goals as a rookie, which on the surface is very impressive. But dig deeper, and it loses a little lustre. For one, he’s 23, which is on the older end for a rookie. I’m not one of those ‘anyone above 24 should be sent to the glue factory’ people, but it is true that Brown likely has slightly less room for growth than what one would think given that he’s a rookie. For another, he had a high personal shooting percentage (14.4%, all situations) and 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage (9.2%). There’s no real reason to think either of these will continue. So while his scoring was in the range of a good 2nd liner this year, it may drop off.

The other problem is that he doesn’t do a whole lot besides score. He’s a below average possession player by almost all the metrics indicated above. His shot generation is close to average, but otherwise, he’s a clear notch below. Sum it all up, and I don’t think he’s a difference maker at the NHL level. He’s a RFA this year, and the Leafs will (and should) bring him back. However, I think fans may overrate him a bit.

Now putting that aside - Connor Brown might be my favourite Maple Leaf. His story is amazing... His family is generations upon generations of Leafs fans, and Brown himself grew up idolizing the team. He fought through a lot of adversity in his junior career, and every time he scores, you can see how he’s living his dream. It’s impossible to not root for him. He also represents one of the Leafs best draft picks of the Nonis era. As negative as I’ve been on him here, he’s absolutely a solid depth NHL player, and finding that for free is great management. He’ll likely see some improvement next year, and play a role on the Leafs’ middle six.

van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Marner

Tyler Bozak
James van Riemsdyk
Mitch Marner

I’m actually going to tackle these three all at once. Look at how similar their graphics are! They spent almost all of their 5v5 time together, and it shows. All of them boast elite point scoring, middling shot generation, and putrid shot suppression.

Credit must be given to Bozak, who has been a whipping boy for fans in recent years, because he really did play excellently this season. That level of scoring was not expected from him, at all. JVR also stepped up his individual offense. However, it’s disappointing that their possession results are so consistently subpar. In a sense, this season exemplified what we already knew about those two. Awesome offensive players, legitimately horrific defensively. It was just turned to 11 this year, especially on offense.

Marner already appears to be an offensive dynamo from his scoring. Given his draft position and OHL history, that’s not much of a surprise. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed with his possession results. That said, it’s hard not to ask some questions regarding that. How much was he affected by his linemates, and how much is he the same sort of glass cannon skill player? If we swap Marner and Nylander’s spots in the lineup, do we see different results? That’s impossible to answer with certainty but I find it very curious.

For that reason, I find it hard to evaluate Marner’s season besides the obvious. He’s really, really, really good offensively, and had poor defensive results. The offense seems likely to outweigh the defence, on the whole.

I actually think this line is better offensively than they appear on these graphics, largely because the relative stats are often comparing them to Matthews/Kadri/Nylander. They’re legitimately very good offensively. However, they appear to give a lot of that back on the other end. As a result, all their offensive talent only yielded a score-adjusted CF% of roughly 50%. Three scorers in the top 15% of the league, and all the line does is break even with regards to shot attempts. That’s a disappointment, in some respects.

That said, if you’re trading chances with these three... well, that’s not a good idea either. All are very skilled offensive players, and can burn you at a moment’s notice.

This makes the decision the Leafs face with Bozak and JVR all the more interesting. They are both UFAs after 2017/2018, and both are rumoured to be on the trading block. For JVR, it is unlikely that the Leafs will match his (deservedly) hefty contract demands. Look at the contracts signed by Kyle Oksposo and Milan Lucic. Am I comfortable giving that to JVR? No, but someone will be, and it’s probably not us.

For Bozak, he will be a 32 year old who will likely be looking for one last big payday. Again, it seems unlikely the Leafs will retain him, given his likely contract demands, especially with respect to term. In both cases, I’d argue the Leafs should not pay the market rate, simply because the term is too prohibitive (for Bozak especially).

That said, it is impossible to replace the kind of individual scoring these two have provided seamlessly. One thing that defined the Leafs’ identity this year was their forward depth - three lines that could score on anybody. It made them a matchup nightmare, and was a big advantage. The reason other teams can’t run three lines as offensively potent as the Leafs is because offensive players make money, and most teams don’t have three first liners on ELCs.

However, the Leafs were as bad on defense as they were great on offense. To me, if you replace these two players, you can’t maintain the same identity. You will 100% give something up on offense by dealing either Bozak or JVR; to make it up, you have to replace them with a player who can provide similar value on the other side of the puck. Ideally, that player is cheaper too.

This is the biggest decision the Leafs have to make this offseason regarding their forwards. I’m really curious to see what they do.

Martin - Boyle/Smith - Soshnikov

Ben Smith

Jesus Christ. I felt that his recent contract extension was for him to either act as a 13th/14th forward or to be a Marlie. I hope to God that’s the case, because he is no longer a NHL player. To his credit, Babcock seemed to recognize that, and as soon as he got a real 4th line centre, Smith was excised from the playing roster.

Brian Boyle

Looks pretty damn good for a 4th line centre, eh? To be clear, these are his stats across the whole season, not just with the Leafs.

Boyle had an excellent season - in years past, he was basically just a 4C, but last year, he stepped it up a notch. What stands out the most is his shot suppression. He grades out as one of the best in the league from this perspective. While his shot generation is relatively poor (and his individual offense is likely a mirage, as he’s typically not much of a scorer), Boyle has a real skill on defense, and that alone makes him a great depth option. Upgrading from Ben Smith to him almost singlehandedly made the Leafs fourth line a legitimately good one.

This is where graphics like the one above can be a little misleading though. Boyle had a GREAT year last year. That is not who he usually is, however. The defence is legit... but in years prior, Boyle’s offense undid a lot of the good of his defense. There’s a reason he was on the 4th line. Even when you’re a great 4th liner... you’re still a 4th liner. This year, he not only maintained his defense, but improved his offense to respectability. Add that up, and you get a damn good year.

Now, will he continue that? I’m skeptical. I just find it hard to trust that at age 32, he found some juice that was previously missing in his game. Prior to this year, he was consistently a respectable, though flawed player. If I was acquiring him as a free agent, I would be hesitant to pay for the outlier.

Matt Martin

You know, I actually like Matt Martin a good bit. He seems like a hilarious guy, all his teammates love him, and he’s not as bad a player as Colton Orr. Unfortunately, he’s still not particularly good at anything but shot suppression. That makes him a NHL player, but only just. Still not a fan of that contract, but you can live with him on your fourth line. I’d still prefer not to do it for four years.

That said, the argument for Matt Martin isn’t contained in his on-ice play. It’s that he’s a deterrent against shitheads taking runs at our stars, and that he’s good in the room. I’m not in the room, so I can’t evaluate that. That said, I do think there’s real value in bringing positive influences into a work environment. If the Leafs felt Martin was that, that’s a justifiable reason to give him a contract. I don’t think that it’s justifiable enough to give him a 4-year, $10M deal, but the Leafs did, and that’s what matters.

As for the deterrent argument... I’d like to introduce you to my tiger-repelling rock.

Nikita Soshnikov

Soshnikov was probably the most disappointing Leaf this year. Like the rest of the 4th line, he has good shot suppression numbers, and basically no offense.

Hopes were probably higher for Soshnikov. He has real offensive skills. He’s a solid skater, and he does have a heavy shot. However, he hasn’t displayed any offensive awareness, particularly in his shot selection and how to use his teammates. I don’t think it’s all luck that he’s in the 1st percentile for relative expected shooting percentage.

Granted, his teammates typically weren’t great. He spent a lot of time with Ben Smith and Matt Martin. It’s not surprising his offensive numbers weren’t good, both in terms of scoring and shot generation. Maybe if we play him up in the lineup, he shows a bit more scoring touch, like he did in the KHL and AHL, where he had impressive 21 and 22 year old seasons, scoring 0.56 and 0.53 points-per-game, respectively. He was unfortunate in a way, that the Leafs were so healthy. There was never a reason to play him higher up in the lineup, once Brown usurped his role with Kadri and Komarov early in the season.

In another universe, he plays the role of Zach Hyman, rides shotgun to the Auston and Willie Show, and we’re relatively happy with him. But that didn’t happen, and now, Soshnikov is in a dog-fight for playing time on the crowded Leafs wing. Unless someone like JVR is shipped out, there’s a real chance Soshnikov is next year’s Leivo. Kasperi Kapanen seems to have leapfrogged him on the depth chart, and perhaps guys like Brendan Leipsic will too. Not to mention any new additions the Leafs bring in.

Soshnikov is a RFA after 2017/2018, and is facing a pivotal year before then. Time will tell how he responds.