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Maple Leafs vs Canadiens: different philosophies of ice time

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Usage of a player is about getting the best team you can on the ice. The Leafs and Canadiens do it very differently.

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Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The biggest difference between Montréal and Toronto is Auston Matthews. That’s fairly obvious in several ways, but one less obvious way is that no forward on the Canadiens plays remotely the minutes Matthews and also Mitch Marner play. The top-heavy minute structure on the Leafs, where there are forwards outplaying defencemen in time on ice, is just not how the Canadiens are structured.

Time on Ice

To compare these teams, I took Natural Stat Trick’s five-on-five, score and venue adjusted data for both teams and plotted the time on ice per game vs on-ice Expected Goals %. The xG is there to give us a broad strokes look at how ice time correlates to player quality. This includes all players with at least 15 games played:

Maple Leafs

With the Maple Leafs, you can see that obvious break between the top four defence and the third pair. You also see four forwards with over 14 minutes a game at five-on-five. They are Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman and John Tavares.

William Nylander, Alex Galchenyuk, Ilya Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot round out the 12 and up players with Zach Bogosian and Travis Dermott mixed in.

Below 12 is the deepest part of the depth, and they have mixed results. The two in the bottom left are Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd, but the man with the least minutes is the special teams master, Jason Spezza. The savant at 10 minutes a game and the hot xG%? Wayne Simmonds.

Broadly speaking the Leafs do play their best players the most, and they have excellent xG numbers for everyone still on the team to show for it. Coach’s deployment or usage, is about playing the player in a tough enough situation that he earns his pay, but not so tough his performance degrades. In that sense, the Leafs have done a good job, and the only real complaint is William Nylander playing too little at five-on-five.

Canadiens

The Canadiens are a totally different story. Everything is different, driven by the abilities of the players on the ice, but also by the concept of the team that was built for Claude Julien. This is a Julien team. You can tell just by the flat line of good, but not great xG from the depth to the six different defenders who lead in time on ice.

There is one lone forward playing less than four of the Leafs forwards do, and he is Nick Suzuki. It’s good he plays the most, because he is their best player, taking advantage of Brendan Gallagher’s injury absence to outshine him. But he’s not getting a lot of time to make an impact, almost 2.5 minutes per game less than Matthews.

The curious choice is the constellation of three very good forwards that look underplayed. They are Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar, which might be largely a relic of the Julien period on the team. They are a hot like burning forward line, and if you gave them to Sheldon Keefe, he’d play them 16 minutes a night. Only he wouldn’t because they’d slot in behind the Matthews line.

The rest of the forward contingent on the Canadiens shares that 12-14 minute a night block and they just roll out, three lines that play one-two-three, leading to the conclusion that the Habs have a great third line, they just have three of them. The miserable depth players that have rotated in and out of the fourth line would have been lost on waivers to Vancouver if they were Maple Leafs, and sometimes the Canadiens do have a good first line, so the joke is slightly wrong, but not by much.

In that bad end of the spectrum is Corey Perry and deadline acquisition Eric Staal, who is as lacklustre as the players he joined in the bottom six. The thing that would trouble me, if I was cheering for the Habs, is the dullness of the forwards outside that good quartet at the top. Josh Anderson, Tyler Tofolli, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Joel Armia are supposed to be the heart and soul of this team, and they’re okay, but they aren’t really outstanding.

Leafs vs Habs

The ice time and the results show the Habs for what we already know they are: a team built for the system, the grind, the responsible, low-risk choices first, and the exciting offensive magic on very rare occasions. Like getting out the good dishes for Christmas.

What is shows for the Leafs is that maybe we should quit complaining about this depth we think is old, slow and bad. We’ve been watching the Leafs all season, and it’s warped our minds about what good is. By the way, that bleeding edge defender on the vanguard of the Maple Leafs with almost 55% xGF? That’s Morgan Rielly. You know, the guy we console ourselves with by talking up his offensive contributions and assume he’s gone this summer because he’s so bad now? Him. The good defender on the Habs is, of course, Jeff Petry, not those other two who look the part.

The fear of Leafs fans is that the Canadiens will do what the Islanders do, play structured, boring, unassertive hockey until they get a turnover, score two goals, and win 2-1. To that end, the Canadiens play their forwards like Suzuki’s skill is secondary to their needs, and they wish they’d drafted a checking centre. They play like the rolling grind of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and even Brendan Gallagher, all playing about what Alex Kerfoot does is the point of hockey.

A few things got in their way this season on the road to being a juggernaut. All teams seem to tire of Claude Julien eventually, and their bottom third of their interchangeable structure-grinders suddenly seemed bad. They took out a good insurance policy on Carey Price with Jake Allen, but that only works if they play Allen in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Leafs will start Jack Campbell, play the hell out of Matthews and use the third pair defenders as little as possible. It’s very clear the Leafs think the point of hockey is to do what their top six forwards do. And that hasn’t changed by adding Nick Foligno and Riley Nash. They eat on the good dishes every night, and you better believe they’re from some trashy designer and cost too much money.

It’s not just Montreal vs Toronto, Lower Canada vs Upper Canada, them and us — it’s a clash of hockey philosophies. I know who I want to win.