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Maple Leafs lineup options without John Tavares

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Who’s going to play with Marner now?

Minnesota Wild v Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 15: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal against the Minnesota Wild during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 15, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Wild 4-2.
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

So John Tavares has a broken finger and will be out of the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup for the next few weeks. That sucks, a lot.

The Tavares line with Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen (later Trevor Moore, later Ilya Mikheyev) struggled at the start of the season, producing only three goals for and nine against at 5v5. That’s not good, but the Leafs without Tavares are going to be way worse. It’s John freaking Tavares.

The two keys to the Leafs offense that are going to need to be replicated by the new lineup are having lines that can keep up with the competition they’re going to be facing, and providing the elite players support so they’re not working all on their own.

With Tavares out, there are now only three bone-fide stars at forward that the Leafs have, so unless they go out and make a superline together, one of them is going to be left on their own. The question is who?

Matthews alone

Johnsson-Matthews-Kapanen
Mikheyev-Nylander-Marner
Moore-Kerfoot-Spezza
Timashov-Gauthier-Shore

First up, is it worth splitting Auston Matthews and William Nylander? These two have combined to create one of the best lines in the entire league when it comes to generating shots and chances. They get 64% 5v5 score adjusted shot share, and 67% scoring chances. They are a dominant pair and breaking up that chemistry didn’t work out well for anyone last year.

This seems like an obvious thing not to do, but when you factor in that Nylander is the Leafs’ second best top-six centre on the team, there is a pull to split them. When pulled apart, Matthews and Nylander are still very good, but Matthews has suffered because of the lack of support in terms of transition play.

Looking at this through the numbers, over the past three years, Matthews’ on-ice shooting percentage is two percentage points lower away from Nylander than it is together (11.25% to 9.77%). Nylander away from Matthews is even worse (8.15%). A lot of that could be random or luck based, but from what we’ve been able to see on the ice (and use as our ammo in Twitter arguments) is that they’re better together than they are apart.

As evidence from their first three seasons together, Matthews lost about 3 percentage points of his usual shot share away from Nylander when paired with the likes of Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Patrick Marleau, and Connor Brown. Nylander has done better, keeping his numbers afloat with some of those players, but he had help from Nazem Kadri and for a very brief time, Mitch Marner.

Right now, with the way Matthews and Nylander are humming, they’re the best line on the Leafs and it’s very risky to split them up for the sake of balance. After looking at the numbers (and last season) I’m not fully on board with the idea that Matthews can drive a line without a play driver like Nylander, especially when the talent used to replace him doesn’t pass very well (I’m looking at you #24).

What about Marner and Nylander?

The idea of playing Marner and Nylander together on the second line is very intriguing to me. In my research, I read Arvind’s piece on Nylander’s time at center in the spring of 2018. He recapped all seven of those games and a lot of the time, Marner and Zach Hyman were Mike Babcock’s go-to pair of wingers to give to Nylander when that group needed a spark on offense. In 72 minutes together over the past three years (yes, it’s a small sample), Marner and Nylander have a 54% shot share and take up 61% of the scoring chances when they’re on the ice together. That’s some pretty good numbers.

Picking from the small sample size, one of those seven games was on February 24th, 2018 against the Boston Bruins. Marner and Nylander more than doubled their competition (mostly Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy on defense) in shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals. I’ll let Arvind explain further because it’s a great piece and it definitely gives the Leafs something to think about if they want to go bold.

Nylander alone

Johnsson-Matthews-Marner
Mikheyev-Nylander-Kapanen
Moore-Kerfoot-Spezza
Timashov-Gauthier-Shore

As much as I love Willy, leaving him left out in the cold with nothing more than a pair of third liners would defeat the idea of the second line that splitting Matthews and Nylander would be intended for. I remember the 2019 playoffs quite well and Nylander kicking butt in corsi against Boston’s third line with Marleau and Brown dragging behind him. Maybe better wingers would improve a Nylander-centric line and bring it up to par with other second lines, but until he gets his shot good and consistent, he needs a shooter to finish the chances he creates.

He needs Matthews.

Marner alone

Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander
Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Marner
Moore-Gauthier-Kapanen
Timashov-Shore-Spezza

Not joking, if Marner is asked to drive a line with Alex Kerfoot and one of Ilya Mikheyev or Trevor Moore, and he does it, I’ll never speak of his contract again. Scouts honour. If he can drive a line without an elite goal scorer like Tavares, or James van Riemsdyk, he’ll have earned that stamp of approval as a dominant, $11 million player. I hope he does it.

I would really like to see a Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Marner line. It combines three strong forwards who can move the puck in the offensive zone and create chances for each other. Defensively, I have no problems with any of these players. Marner will have someone to pass to in transition and it seems Mikheyev knows how to do all the dirty work Hyman did for Marner last season.

This is the option I’m least averse to because it keeps the elite duo of Matthews and Nylander together, while also giving Marner to tools to succeed, even if it’s not the same calibre of tools he’s had in the past. This season, Kerfoot and Mikheyev have put together a 52% shot share, with 55% of the scoring chances when they’re on the ice together. They’ve been good. Adding Marner to that mix could make them a reasonably decent second line.

The biggest effect this scenario will is on Alex Kerfoot. Can he handle top-six minutes? Looking at his time with the Colorado Avalanche, Kerfoot played a lot of time in the middle six. Relatively even splits of time on the second line and on the third line. On one hand, he was never given third line or higher competition, but on the other, he never spent significant time with anyone of the calibre of Mitch Marner.

When Kerfoot was on the second line, he was often with J.T. Compher. Compher was the team’s fifth most used forward, behind the big three and Carl Soderberg and he was frankly bad across the board last season (46% corsi). Right now, the answer is a maybe-probably, but the Leafs don’t have the time to see if it’s true or not.

The Rest of the Lineup

If Nylander moves to centre, the bottom six is going to be pretty easy. No one moves up against harder competition except for maybe one of the fourth liners who gets a chance with Kerfoot and Moore/Mikheyev.

The fourth line is the fourth line. It’ll be nice to see Spezza back in the lineup, but as long as they stay mostly invisible for 8-10 minutes and don’t take any penalties, there’s not much to worry about here. Fourth line depth is not a problem for Toronto.

The current third line takes on heavy defensive minutes, so finding a player who can handle that usage and not be a black hole is ideal. If the third line were to lose Kerfoot at centre, the obvious candidate — and I can’t believe I’m saying it — is Frederik Gauthier. He’s been the best fourth line centre for the Leafs and he’s earned the first chance to play higher in the lineup. No, don’t say Spezza, that’s your nostalgia talking.

Back in the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs, Freddy the Goat was tasked with playing defensive-heavy minutes with Colin Greening and Pierre Engvall, allowing the Marlies to shelter their younger players and better leverage their offensively gifted stars. The line worked like a treat, scoring nine goals in 20 games and coming out even or better every night. If the new and improved Gauthier can do this with better linemates in the NHL, there’s nothing stopping him from taking over the world.

Kapanen and Gauthier were on the same team for about three seasons, and they played 14 games together as linemates. They had a variety of left wingers, ranging from Nikita Soshnikov, Brendan Leipsic, and Josh Leivo. That said, that was the AHL, so grain of salt, but if this is the necessary arrangement, I really don’t think I would hate a Moore-Gauthier-Kapanen line very much. Heck, a Mikheyev-Gauthier-Kapanen line would be a downright comedy special, especially if you have three guys under 5’10” on the second line.

When Hyman Returns

Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Hyman - Kerfoot - Marner
Mikheyev - Gauthier - Kapanen
Moore - Shore - Spezza

We haven’t yet talked about Hyman’s imminent return. The left winger has been skating with the team for over a week now so he could be back as soon as Saturday against the Boston Bruins. In that scenario, he would be bolted to one of Marner, Matthews, and Nylander, pushing everyone else on the left side down a line. He’s a top-six piece that will add depth and make everyone’s job a little easier.

Katya has covered the cap implications of the Tavares injury in a separate post, but long story short, the Leafs will find a way to activate Hyman in the coming weeks without much worry. The crunch only comes when he and Tavares are back. And no, the Leafs can’t accumulate cap space when under LTIR.

At the end of the day, this is a bad situation and the Leafs are going to have to make the best of it. The schedule might be a key part of the debate as strong teams that can match up well (Boston, San Jose, and Washington all in the next 12 days) might force Nylander to his own line so the Leafs don’t get kicked in from lines 2-4. Hyman’s return is another x-factor.

Expectations for both Matthews and Marner are high right now. Both lost their security blanket and it seems the Leafs are going to have to choose which gets an easier ride for the next whatever number of weeks it will be before we see a C on the chest of a Leaf in a game again. It would be really nice if Nylander went on a shooting percentage spree right about now.

Poll

Which lineup philosophy do you prefer?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Keeping Matthews and Nylander
    (248 votes)
  • 12%
    Moving Nylander to centre, Marner top-six
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    Matthews, Nylander, and Marner on separate lines somehow
    (10 votes)
  • 27%
    Matthews-Nylander-Marner super line!
    (118 votes)
432 votes total Vote Now