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Mike Babcock needs to stop playing Roman Polak so much

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Why are the defensive players on the Leafs playing so many minutes?

Florida Panthers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Everyone is getting so angry about ice time. Bob McKenzie, on his most recent Bobcast, talked about Mike Babcock’s coaching style, and he also forecast, accurately, that if the Leafs failed to start winning, the press would pressure Babcock more about how he uses his players.

He’s playing Roman Polak too much, of that everyone is sure. McKenzie himself said he’d play Travis Dermott over Polak, and while that raises the inevitable special teams questions everyone likes to ignore in these discussions, he didn’t put a time frame on that, so I don’t know if he meant right away, just put this 21 year old rookie in the lineup full time, sink or swim, or if he meant eventually. Perhaps he meant when Nikita Zaitsev is back on the roster.

Regardless, the perception is that Babcock is playing Roman Polak a lot.

It turns out, Babcock already quit playing Polak so much. If you look at the dates of that spike of four recent games with high minutes — two are over 17 minutes — you will see that they are the first four games after Zaitsev was hurt.

Babcock upped his minutes a little, discovered that really wasn’t going to work, and he dialed Polak’s time way back. If you average his minutes per game before and after Zaitsev’s injury, the difference is a few seconds per game. If you just look at the last few games, particularly with Dermott in the lineup and Connor Carrick playing on the top four, you see standard-to-low third-pair minutes.

If you’ve seen big numbers, someone’s been giving you all-situations stats which includes a lot of PK time, and the reason for that should be obvious: Zaitsev carried the PK load with Hainsey prior to his injury.

Babcock also needs to quit playing Leo Komarov so much.

It’s really hard to see a pattern here, but the last 25 games have more minutes on average than the first. Not a lot, maybe a minute or so. But it’s clear his ice time really fluctuates, and that depends on how much the opposing coach plays his top line, the game score, how much penalty kill time Komarov does and various other factors related to line matching.

Recently, I think we’re seeing compensation for the fourth line barely playing in close games as well as line matching as the other team is trying to score in that close game.

Now, look at that weird first four games. It’s been a while, so I had to look that up. There are two games there with over five minutes of PK time just for Komarov. So the overall PK time was bigger than that. He also played a small bit of power play in two of those games. One game had less than 38 minutes of five-on-five play.

Babcock isn’t playing Matthews as much as Komarov and I’m outraged.

Komarov is almost always below 15 minutes per game, and Matthews is above that mark almost half the time. His overall average is over 15. Again, those first few games are weird because he played massive power play minutes.

There’s a few really low games, and I think most are injury related as they come either in the games leading up to a layoff or right after. In recent, very close games, his ice time is up as the Leafs are trying hard to get goals.

Connor Brown needs to play more.

Brown has played more than the rest of the fourth liners. He’s the first player promoted when there’s an injury, and he sometimes moves up to play on Matthews’ or Nazem Kadri’s line late in close games. The utility of that is debatable. He does not have good defensive results overall, and in some ways is much worse than Komarov, playing much lighter competition.

A better solution than moving him to the top nine, is to have a fourth line that can play 10 minutes a night, but until the Frederik Gauthier experiment is resolved or the Leafs get in some blowout wins, that might not happen. His recent low minutes is more about other things than it is his play which hasn’t changed.

And lastly, the culprit for some of the increased all-situations minutes for players seen as defensive:

There has been a clump of games lately with a lot of penalties in them after a run with very few in most of the games. The Leafs are generally a team that takes very few, but lately they’ve had some games where everything gets called. At least against them.


The desire to see the best offensive players play all the time is natural. Watching a line like Kadri’s, whose job it is to hold as close to even as they can against the other team’s top line, is not always a lot of fun. There is a very real question to be asked if Leo Komarov helps with that as much as he used to. But the bottom line is there is no other player on the Leafs who has any legitimate track record at playing that role.

An underlying theme in this ice time saga is also the undeniable fact that Tyler Bozak’s line isn’t one you want on the ice when a goal against is the game for the other team. And yet, they actually do play in that situation a fair amount simply because there is no choice.

The Leafs need to upgrade in several places in their lineup, and that third line centre spot sure is one place they need to do it. But in the meantime, it’s hard to see how meaningful differences can be achieved by playing defensive players less in defensive situations in very close games.

While there’s a very valid argument that the structure or tactics of Kadri’s line in the offensive zone aren’t working, the real answer seems to be to have fewer defensive situations in the first place to allow all of the scoring lines to get more five-on-five ice time, and likely draw more penalties as well. To get there, the top two lines need to get more offensive zone time and do more with it.

Sometimes the right thing to do is just wait for the good parts of a team’s play to all come together, and the downturn in shooting percentage to bounce back up. But the real driver of success on this team has to be the top line, and odds are, they’ll start piling up points as long as they keep playing as well as they have been since Matthews’ injury.

All data is from Natural Stat Trick’s Game Logs.