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John Tavares, Toronto’s New Lines, and the Impact of the Matchup Game

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Toronto’s forward depth provides a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches, and one of their high-scoring centres is bound to benefit.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders
At the very least, John Tavares won’t have to deal with matching up against Nazem Kadri next year.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With just a couple of weeks until Toronto’s first preseason game, it’s time to talk about Toronto’s projected lineup for this season. Adding a player of John Tavares’ calibre is obviously a major difference maker, and this is bound to carry various implications in terms of usage. It’s entirely possible, and perhaps even probable, that none of Toronto’s forward lines from last season will be reunited to start the season.

Mike Babcock made some questionable decisions throughout the first half of last season, but ended up with a strong lineup come playoff time. While Tavares’ addition will make all the headlines, there are various subtle improvements throughout the roster that should help the team to improve in terms of shot attempt differential and expected goal differential.

This article will look at last year’s lineup, and examine how the team will change going forward.

Losing Leo Komarov Makes Toronto’s Top Nine Far More Dangerous

Komarov was a valuable player for the ‘15-’16 and ‘16-’17 Maple Leafs, but his play fell off a cliff last season. Among the 367 forwards who played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 last year, only four scored fewer points per minute than Komarov: Nic Dowd, Joakim Nordstrom, Markus Granlund, and J.T. Compher. This was particularly concerning since his most common linemates were Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau, and it is frankly astounding that he could only score three goals in about 900 minutes of five-on-five ice time.

Ron Hainsey, Connor Carrick, and Roman Polak all posted a higher 5-on-5 points per minute rate than him, and my sources confirm that they were not playing forward on a line with Kadri and Marleau. The Leafs also gave up a ton of chances while he was on the ice, and while part of this is due to the fact that he played against tough competition, it was clear that he did not carry the same level of defensive impact that we had come to expect from him.

2017-2018 Leo Komarov Among Forwards with 500+ Minutes at 5-on-5

Stat # Rank among 367 Fs
Stat # Rank among 367 Fs
P/60 0.67 363rd
P1/60 0.4 363rd
Rel CF% -5.87 350th
Rel xGF% -5.8 337th

Komarov is a left-shooting winger who is not exactly known for his speed or skill. He was asked to play his off-wing last season, and it was tough to expect him to generate clean zone entries as a result. The Kadri line took off the second that Mitch Marner replaced Komarov on the right-side, and while Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Brown probably won’t be able to match Marner’s offensive production, they should easily double Komarov’s five-on-five points per 60 rate.

Toronto’s checking line is bound to improve next season, plus we won’t have to watch Komarov at the start every overtime. His impact on the penalty kill is mitigated by the fact that both Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson can contribute in this area, so the Leafs are not exactly short on options. Many will focus on Tavares’ addition and the improvement over the Bozak line, but taking an offensive-anchor away from Kadri could be the biggest difference that we see in terms of net impact.

Toronto’s Fourth Line Can Now Take Advantage of Easier Competition

Matt Martin played in 50 games last year, and may have played against the weakest competition in all of hockey during this time. Fourth lines tend to play against other fourth lines, but Babcock took this approach to the extreme for the Martin and Dominic Moore duo, and they are not exactly offensive forces who could capitalize on this opportunity.

I have no idea what to expect from Par Lindholm, but the winner of the Tyler Ennis and Josh Leivo training camp battle will be in a better position to beat up against weaker competition. Unless Babcock is planning on playing his fourth line against tougher competition, or wants to bury them with defensive zone starts, you might as well make this a somewhat offensive-focused line, and add a few extra goals here and there.

We could also see John Tavares and Auston Matthews take a few extra shifts in this spot, which would obviously help the production of this line dramatically. It’s tough to say just how much this line will improve, but I do expect it to be a little bit better than last year, and this is probably not an area that comes to mind to everyone when you think of where the Leafs got better.

Dermott’s Emergence Could Help to Solve the Team’s Main Weakness

Morgan Rielly has played with many different partners over the years, including Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Matt Hunwick, and Roman Polak. He’s been left to face opposing top lines without much help, and given Toronto’s thin group of defenders, it did not make much sense to play Rielly and Gardiner together. Dermott’s success to date should give Babcock that option, as they finally have another strong puck mover who can provide some depth to their top-four.

Ron Hainsey struggled greatly at five-on-five down the stretch, and I will be surprised if Babcock plays a 38-year-old left-shooting defender on the right-side of the top pairing come playoff time. Instead, I would probably look to pair Rielly and Gardiner together, and let Dermott be the high-end puck mover on the second pairing. You can organize Rielly, Gardiner, Dermott, and Zaitsev throughout the top four however you’d like, and possibly experiment with this throughout the season, but Dermott should quickly prove that he’s over-qualified for a third-pairing sheltered role.

Connor Carrick has proven that he can post strong numbers in a sheltered role, and if Hainsey joins him on the third pairing, Babcock should end up trusting them with slightly tougher minutes. The third-pairing is the least of my worries right now, especially since they will end up playing significant minutes with either Matthews or Tavares, and losing Polak should help them to move the puck up to their skilled forwards. The Leafs finally have another potential top four defender, and Dermott’s emergence could help to solve the team’s main weakness.

Tavares Won’t Play Against Top Pairings For The First Time In His Career

The Leafs are a nightmare to matchup against, as the team’s top three centres all scored 30+ goals last season. Unlike the centre situation in Edmonton, there’s plenty of high-scoring wingers to play next to them, and opposing coaches should be terrified of playing their third pairings. Mike Babcock tended to use Tyler Bozak in a sheltered role, and one of Matthews or Tavares is bound to benefit from easier usage now that Bozak isn’t using it up:

Tyler Bozak With-or-Without Mike Babcock

Coach Rel CF% Rel xGF% TOI% QOC ZSR
Coach Rel CF% Rel xGF% TOI% QOC ZSR
Pre-Babcock -1.09 -1.36 29.59 48.06
Babcock-Era 1.17 1.06 28.74 54.8

It is an interesting “problem” to have, as the Leafs do not have many players who are used to facing a weaker level of competition. The fourth line was often Matt Martin and company out against other fourth lines, while Babcock tried to keep Bozak away from opposing top lines as much as possible.

When looking at the top points per minute scorers at five-on-five last year, almost all of these players draw a tough matchup every night. Mathew Barzal was a bit of an exception to this last season, as he finished third in points per minute behind only Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, but did not face the same calibre of competition as most top scorers. In fact, among the top 50 points-per-minute scorers with at least 1000 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5 last season, only Phil Kessel played easier minutes than Barzal in terms of the TOI% QOC statistic.

Tavares posted an 84-point season last year, and this type of situation simply does not happen very often. He’s been the opposing team’s primary focus for nine seasons, and given the limited depth on many of those Islanders teams, he may as well have been wearing a bright-neon jersey when he was on the ice because he was such a focus.

Final Thoughts

If you choose to matchup your best players against Tavares, Matthews will be left to dominate, and to an even greater extent than usual. If you choose to matchup against Matthews, Tavares will dominate. Add in a fourth line that can take better advantage of playing against weak competition, and you have a completely different matchup dynamic from last season.

Komarov was an offensive-anchor next to Kadri last year, and taking him off this line for the full season will help to provide the Leafs with four dangerous scoring lines. The foot will be on the gas pedal at all times, while Dermott’s impressive play could give them an additional (and much needed) top-four defenceman.

Many analysts are pointing at Toronto’s mediocre numbers in terms of shot attempt differential and expected goal differential from last season, and essentially calling the Leafs a little bit overrated as a result. Frankly, I think there are enough significant differences with this year’s roster to overcome this, plus they are loaded with plenty of scoring talent, good special teams players, and a dependable goaltender. Watching Babcock navigate such an incredible matchup advantage is bound to be exciting.