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Despite Game 3 Win, the Leafs Third Line is a Problem

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The third line is a grouping that makes no sense in theory or in practice.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game One Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Leafs won Game 3 of their series against Boston, which is undeniably a good thing. Many of the reasons the Leafs won Game 1 were central to the victory on Monday night. A superlative performance by the Zach Hyman - John Tavares - Mitch Marner line to outplay the usually-dominant trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak deserves acclaim. So does the play of Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev. As someone who has criticized Zaitsev extensively, it’s only fair to compliment him. He has been part of a pairing that has drawn the Bergeron matchup and succeeded so far.

Unlike Game 1, the fourth line and power play also contributed extensively to the Leafs win. Both are areas where the Leafs can reasonably hope for continued success, though they obviously won’t get a goal from the fourth line and two power play markers on a game to game basis.

It was a good win. But, because it was a win, it means the lineup won’t change for Game 4, and that means we are very likely to see a reprise of the third line of Patrick Marleau, William Nylander, and Connor Brown.

This line does not work.

They don’t work in theory. I have no clue what this line is supposed to do. You have an elite transition player in Nylander, a defensive depth forward in Connor Brown, and the rapidly ossifying husk of a formerly great player. Neither Marleau nor Brown can get to high value areas of the offensive zone and generate shots.

They are the two least shot happy forwards in terms of their share of the Leafs shots when they are on the ice. How does it make sense to play them with one of your two best playmakers? Brown is 2nd to last among Leafs forwards in individual expected goal rate. That’s impacted by his teammates, but the guy just isn’t terribly useful offensively. And that’s fine! That doesn’t have to be his role. He has legitimate defensive ability, and was largely used that way this season by Mike Babcock.

In theory, Marleau is a finisher who should be able to capitalize on the chances that a passer of Nylander’s quality creates. In reality, we have 85 games of data that says he’s just not that good anymore. His decline has been covered here and elsewhere, so I’ll keep this fairly short. His shot rate is 3rd lowest among Leafs forwards. He looks slightly better by individual expected goal rate, but not by that much. Neither Brown nor Marleau can transition the puck offensively. So we’re left with a line whose offensive plan is for Nylander to gain the zone, and either start a cycle with two guys who can’t create shots, or to fire a weak shot at the net for those two to try and crash the net on. Neither is a sustainable offensive strategy.

Nylander is not faultless for this line’s lack of identity either. He gets fine defensive results, but those come about because he’s excellent at moving the puck in the right direction. In his own zone, he’s no Anze Kopitar. While I think his board work and commitment to defense have improved, he’s simply not a guy you want to give overly defensive usage to.

So what’s left is a line that is neither one that can reliably create chances nor reliably stifle an opponent (really, no Leafs line is built to do this). It’s a line that just makes no sense to me in any way at all.

Now, it must be said, Babcock doesn’t put this group together by choice. He’s been forced into it with the suspension of Nazem Kadri. With how he plays this line, I don’t get the sense that he’s particularly in love with it either. I just don’t see a way for this line to succeed.

And unsurprisingly, they haven’t.

As a group, in about 75 5v5 minutes in the regular season, this trio put up a shot share of 47%. They were worse when you factor in shot quality. With no one to get to the front of the net, they managed a paltry 41% expected goal share in these minutes. With only one player to transition the puck, and only one player with shot suppression talent, they aren’t even low event in a way that you can convince yourself that they’re killing time, even if they’re not coming out ahead. They’re just bad.

Against Boston in Game 3, it was more of the same. In nine minutes at 5v5, they had 8 shot attempts for, and surrendered 16 against, playing largely against the depth of Boston. Nylander played three minutes away from that pair, taking a shift or two with Auston Matthews and Andreas Johnsson, in which they lived in the Bruins defensive zone. Nylander played 3 minutes where he was not with both Brown and Marleau. In that time, Toronto had 6 CF and 2 CA. It’s a tiny sample, but I think it’s worth noting.

This continues a general pattern for Nylander this season. As long as he is not with Brown and Marleau together, the Leafs dominate the opposition in terms of shots, chances, and expected goals.

Nylander Lines (via Corsica)

Line 5v5 TOI CF% xG%
Line 5v5 TOI CF% xG%
Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander 174 56.86% 65.70%
Brown-Kadri-Nylander 118 58.34% 51.01%
Marleau-Kadri-Nylander 108 61.77% 62.07%
Marleau-Nylander-Brown 77 43.99% 40.85%

All of these lines got fairly similar zone usage... certainly, there is not enough of a discrepancy in that regard to adequately explain the difference in results. As stated before — Marleau-Nylander-Brown just doesn’t work.

This may sound overly negative. After all, the Leafs won. They’re up 2-1 in the series. They are, even without one of their best players, the favourites to progress. However, they can’t hope for two power play goals every night. They can’t hope for their fourth line to reliably put up goals. Most importantly, they can’t bank on shutting down the Bergeron line forever. Winning depth battles is important against a team as top heavy as the Bruins. The Marleau-Nylander-Brown line hasn’t done any winning all year. It’s not a group that works in theory or in practice.

The problem is, the Leafs don’t have any amazing alternatives. Kadri being gone the rest of the series simply means that the Leafs amazing forward depth is no longer amazing. However, they’re hamstringing their chances of success by utilizing a line that doesn’t make any use of Nylander’s offensive ability or Brown’s defensive nous.

In terms of alternatives, a line with Kasperi Kapanen instead of Nylander makes more sense to me. Let Marleau play centre, and have this trio engage in a rockfight with Boston’s third line. Kapanen is a more effective defensive player than Nylander, and his speed and direct style of play means that he’s a solid one man band on offense. He’s not gifted enough of a passer and playmaker to make use of strong forward teammates, but the flipside is that Kapanen isn’t terribly reliant on teammates for his offense. He creates for himself based on speed alone. This would also unite Auston Matthews, Nylander, and Andreas Johnsson, who have torn apart almost everyone they have played. In limited minutes this series, that trio has looked strong as well. While the Johnsson-Matthews-Kapanen trio hasn’t been bad (and in fact was fairly strong in Game 3), I’m confident that replacing Kapanen with Nylander makes them notably better, especially with how the former has struggled this series. Similarly, on a line where one player has to account for the vast majority of offense, Kapanen might be better suited than Nylander.

I’m not 100% on board with that suggestion. Marleau has looked bad on the wing; he might not be up for it at centre. There are other options available to the team, though none are perfect. The Leafs could promote one of their fourth line wingers, likely Trevor Moore, into Marleau’s spot. This would be somewhat extreme, and it’s an open question whether Babcock would trust Moore to play against players other than Boston’s fourth line. However, it feels like the Leafs need to change up something, as the evidence suggests that they are throwing away a depth matchup that they should be able to win if they keep this line together.