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Miscellaneous Leaf Thoughts: Matthews’ Defence and Other Rants

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Some thoughts as the Leafs get a few days off.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs
  1. Matthews’ defence. This isn’t my favourite thing to emphasize, but at some point we have to address this: Auston Matthews is not good defensively, yet.

My esteemed colleague Arvind tweeted about this and got a huge amount of shit for it. But he’s right. The Leafs bleed chances when Matthews is on. In expected goals against rate since the start of last season, Matthews is the fourth-worst forward in the NHL (min. 300 minutes at 5v5.) Phil Kessel, who is famous for being a conscientious objector to the very idea of defence, ranks 25th-worst on that list. Not great, Bob!

Even if you want to discount these numbers a little (fair enough), I don’t get how you can watch the Matthews’ line get run around the defensive zone for what feels like several months at a time and think that this kid is Selke-adjacent. You don’t have to blame him for all of the struggles of his line, and you can rightly point the figure at his wingers or defencemen for some of it. But there’s no statistical argument that he’s getting much done defensively, and takeaways and polite compliments from opposing coaches aside, I don’t see it with the eye test either.

2. Well, who cares? His offence is so good it doesn’t matter. This is generally my attitude on it, but...this season he’s actually been a net negative at 5v5 in goals, both the expected ones and the real ones (I’m going by Corsica’s model.) He’s been better than this before and I’m sure he will be again, but if we’re having a serious best-player-in-the-world conversation, 34 can’t be eh at evens. I think he can get there, and I think he will, and I don’t discount the truly brilliant stuff that he does. I just think we’re looking at a franchise player and I’m greedy. I don’t just want great shooting. I want it all.

3. Time to scale back Zaitsev’s minutes. Not everything is his fault anymore than anything is any one player’s fault. It takes a village to be this bad, to quote Katya, but I don’t think there is a successful pairing to be had on this team with this usage for this player. It ain’t working, even by the low standard of our wafer-thin right side. Try Gardiner-Rielly as a hard minutes pair if you have to. If they put up 45% CF like Gardiner-Zaitsev has been doing, break out the blender again. Gonna quote Franklin Roosevelt here:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

4. THE SYSTEM. New rule for Twitter: if you want to complain about the System that the evil Babcock is using to hold the Leafs back, you have to clearly articulate what the system is. And it isn’t enough to shout STRETCH PASSES.

Hell, if you really want to push it: think about why a coach with a full trophy case and a fat contract would be meeting the Einstein definition of insanity in his playbook, and take the path through the best possible explanation defending him before you settle on him being dumb.

5. Nylander is boiling people’s brains, y’all. The Nylander impasse is frustrating. I don’t want a crippling contract and I don’t want to lose an excellent player. I get it.

Some of the commentary about the Nylander contract has been deranged, though, with people turning it into some weird morality parable on one side and a failure of the Wonderboy on the other. If we get to November I think people will be casting William as blond Satan and Kyle Dubas as the world’s most incompetent nerd. Half the reason I want him to sign now is to end the fever dream.

6. Nazem Kadri is going to break through big. Okay, now that I’ve ranted, some sunny stuff. I think Kadri’s playing well and is going to be rewarded for it. Especially if we get him a nice winger soon—where would we find such a thing—but even so. He’s been looking better than his point totals and has been putting up borderline-silly shot ratios on a line where he has the only two hands across the six arms present. He’s going to start scoring again before long.

7. The team is still doing okay. The metrics are disappointing for a team trying to contend, and not having Nylander has cast a pall over what is, all things considered, still a successful start. Winning twice as often as you lose will win you the President’s Trophy some years. There’s a lot to fix but there’s still also a lot to like. And hey, we still have the NHL’s leading scorer right now.