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Too many wingers: The conundrum of the Maple Leafs forward lines

Training camp will be a rousing game of musical chairs. How will it turn out?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Yesterday, I lazily stated the obvious about the Leafs defence. Now for the hard part — digging into the forward lines where there are more than enough wingers to go around.

There is no surplus of centres, so starting with them is easy:

  • Guy - Tyler Bozak - Guy
  • Guy - Nazem Kadri - Guy
  • Guy - Auston Matthews - Guy
  • Guy - Dominic Moore - Guy

It's fun using the alphabet to order these lines. I get to imagine people squirming in discomfort at Bozak being listed first. But his line scored the most even strength goals last year, by a large margin, so who is one or two or three?

Before we can start dealing out wingers like cards from a deck, we have to decide on some general ideas about usage.

The stock hockey team of a two scoring lines, a shutdown line and a fourth line has given way to more complex line usage. One scoring line, two middle-six lines and a fourth line is fairly common, but the Leafs didn't do that last year, they ran a very balanced top nine/bottom three by ice-time, shot differential and usage.

I assume I had you right up until usage, but let's unpack this a little. We know Kadri's line played noticeably more against tougher competition:

But as you can see here, not to the extreme that Rielly did. You want to look at the right side of the chart and wherever the blue bars go over the red line (denoting league average), you have the depth chart position of the opposing players who were faced more. Kadri faced less of two and three than Rielly, and more of the bottom six.

Now look at these two:

One is Matthews and one is Bozak, and if you can tell which is which without using the teammate side to guess from, I’ll eat Mitch Marner’s fedora.

So Kadri was taking some tougher usage, but he was doing it to lighten the load, not just from Bozak, as we tend to think, but Matthews as well. We believed two things that weren't true: Matthews played tough competition, and so did Brian Boyle.

The reality is, once you average out all the games played, no forwards had dramatically skewed usage, but there was a slight shifting of burdens to Kadri. He's not a natural-born shut-down centre, he just played one on TV for a season. But like the Rielly - Hainsey pairing, he's the closest the Leafs have to the real thing. We oversold ourselves on how much time he spent slogging it out against Crosby and McDavid, however.

Will Mike Babcock continue to run that system? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is a very good way to run a hockey team, to be honest, but you need to be able to accurately decide what is and isn't broken first.

The cost to running Kadri a little over his head much of the time is that you have to pick wingers for him that prop up that side of his game at the expense of offence. You also have to be very careful how you use Bozak's line in order to get the most shots and goals for and an acceptable amount against. The same is true for Matthews' line. Or it was.

It seems like, given the high-level offensive pace they delivered, the top nine wasn't broken, but this is the crew that scuppered the most exciting offence in hockey with a grotesque level of goals against. (Goaltending was only part of the issue.)

The new lineup shouldn’t do anything to dim the offence, but the goals against need to come down, and generally speaking, you need to get the hell out of the defensive zone with some alacrity to do that. The Leafs had very little zone exit alacrity last year.

So if you want to leave the Bozak line intact — they are the boys with no exit strategy to speak of — because all those even-strength goals were really damn nice, that's plausible. If you want to keep Nylander with Matthews, the second best place to get goals from and great at zone entries, that's understandable.

The thing you need to decide is how much shut down does Kadri still need to do to make that possible? Will Matthews get a less easy ride? Will Moore be able to do what you want in a fourth line and take some tougher assignments? (Hints from his Boston usage say he'll do okay at that but won’t be spectacular.)

Let's try the “it ain't broke” scheme of Leafs forward lines:

  • James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
  • Guy - Nazem Kadri - Guy
  • Guy - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
  • Matt Martin - Dominic Moore - Guy

Many fans, media, random people on the street, and everyone who thinks Zach Hyman is his shooting percentage want Patrick Marleau on Matthews' wing. They want Matthews to be given wingers that are his due. It's a status thing. He's the 1C, he should have the 1LW. You can figure who rates that honour with the eye-test or GAR or Game Score or cap hit. But before you go demanding Auston get his pony, er, winger, however, ask if he fits.

Forward lineups are not a report card. They aren't a marker of status. You can't deal out players from a list of who is best down to who isn't and produce a perfect lineup. That's how you get people suggesting van Riemsdyk should play with Matthews and Nylander.

I'm not sure if it was ever conclusively determined if they'd need three pucks or just two to make that work, but the charts contained in that very story show you that van Riemsdyk is one of the highest volume shooters on the Leafs. Hooking him up with the pass-first Bozak and the pass-often Marner makes more sense than having him fight Auston "no, I'll score that myself, thanks" Matthews and William "I love having the puck" Nylander for some time with the rubber.

And that's exactly why Marleau might not work out with Matthews. He has a very similar offensive style to van Riemsdyk, and he shoots from very tight to the net like Matthews does. He does not shoot at quite the high rate of JvR, but it's close. Marleau has also spent a lot of years playing with the grand champion of pass-first centres in Joe Thornton.

I think Marleau can play on any line, and that's one of the reasons he was signed. What we might see is him moving around depending on who the Leafs are playing on any given night. The days of the static lineup might be over for good. Babcock indicated last season that his unchanging lineup was due to lack of options, not choice on his part.

If you really need Kadri to be the shut-down guy and you can't make the usage more balanced, you need to keep Komarov with him, and that leaves you with:

  • James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
  • Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - Guy
  • Patrick Marleau - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
  • Matt Martin - Dominic Moore - Guy

Connor Brown, Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen are now fighting over the two vacant RW spots.

I consider Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov and Eric Fehr to be optional depth and not really worth considering right now.

Kapanen would be my choice to put on Kadri's line. He's got the right skillset to play tough situations, but I see a lot more offensive upside than Brown has. You can decide Kapanen can take his waiver exemption and go to the Marlies to make the numbers work out better. Pop Josh Leivo into the press box, and call this done. But I'm not thrilled with that.

Where this falls apart for me is that I cannot see the point of Zach Hyman on the fourth line. He's a dogged puck retriever and driver of play in the offensive zone. Who is he digging pucks out for with Moore and Martin?

Like Marleau with Matthews, it likely wouldn't be a disaster, but I don't like it because it feels like players are being wedged in contrary to the best use of their skills just to allow the one-dimensional Komarov and van Riemsdyk to keep their old jobs.

Both of those players are pending UFAs, and one of them doesn't add any offence to the team. If I'm going to shove a square-ish peg in a round-ish hole to allow those two to flourish while the clock runs out on their contracts, I'm doing it to keep van Riemsdyk where he is. I'm not convinced Komarov's elite level defensive ability (not elite level shot suppression, however) is worth it.

What was broke on the Leafs is the defensive side of the game. But I think that was a combination of structural issues, rookie-itis and defender usage, not a lack of defensive-specialist forwards.

There are too many left wingers, it seems. At least until the deadline.

But after it, if you remove the pending UFA wingers, you get:

  • Patrick Marleau - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
  • Connor Brown - Nazem Kadri - Kasperi Kapanen
  • Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
  • Matt Martin - Dominic Moore - Josh Leivo

You have sacrificed a lot of defensive ability on Kadri's line and added some offensive skill. You need to use Bozak's line a little less carefully, but they still score like mad. You added a shooter to the fourth line who naturally plays at their speed and won't make you wince in the defensive zone. Connor Brown is not ideal where he is, but he can likely handle it. Swap him around with Leivo if you believe in P60.

This lineup scores less. Period. There is no reasonable argument that says they don't. You have sold goals for draft picks by trading van Riemsdyk, which is fine if you're emphasizing future growth over current wins.

But now that the bar has been set with both Marleau and van Riemsdyk on the team, taking one away is a blow. If the team is gunning for a deep playoff run, you can keep van Riemsdyk call him an "own rental" with the cost being the draft picks you don’t get from a trade. You can worry about replacing him with someone permanent some summer day.

  • James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
  • Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Kasperi Kapanen
  • Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
  • Matt Martin - Dominic Moore - Connor Brown

And suddenly I like it more. It's somewhat balanced, you have three lines that can score, a sneaky bit of offence on the fourth line, decent defence, and the ability to still give Bozak a bit of a light load as long as Matthews doesn't also need it. You can swap van Riemsdyk and Marleau if that works better. You can swap Marleau and Hyman if that fits your opponents better.

Bob McKenzie suggested yesterday, after I’d written all this, that Komarov might see time on Kadri’s right wing. Which you could do with my final linup easily, and then turn that fourth line spot into the only one being fought over. That’s a really good idea if that defensive game of Komarov’s is more valuable than I think it is.

But who knows, by February of next year, there may be a player on the Marlies who has fulfilled some of that potential they all have and is ready to move up. Until then, set your blenders on Frappé, I don’t think this lineup is going to be carved in anything more permanent than ice this season.