In December, reader and fanposter theForester26 graded the top five forwards and three defensemen on the Leafs based on their mid-season results. They posted their final rankings (so far) over the weekend and it was a really smart and well thought-out article to read. So, I thought I would add my two cents on the top eight players that were written about, with my grades as well.
Roughly, I’m going to give players an “A” for exceeding my expectations, “B” for meeting expectations, “C” for falling below expectations, and “D” for failing to meet the standard of their role. “F” to Mike Babcock. I’ll throw pluses and minuses in there, too.
Top Five Forwards
1. Auston Matthews: A+
To quote theForester26, “Since the end of December, Auston Matthews had really started dominating the game on both ends, and took an especially big step defensively.” By the numbers and on the ice, Matthews was a beast. His points were strong, his defensive threat is outstanding, and he made maximum use of the increased icetime from Sheldon Keefe. I especially noticed how much he carried the puck more, especially with Mitch Marner. For example, on the goal shown below, Matthews took charge of the puck in transition and allowed Marner to play off him and make some magic with the time and space Matthews had provided. Adding that dimension to the offense — rather than players being stuck in siloed roles — was much more dynamic.
Marner vs. Burns pic.twitter.com/VzERltE2IV— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) May 24, 2020
2. John Tavares: B+
Honestly, I didn’t hate Tavares’ season. He had 33 goals at 5v5 last year, shooting 16.5%. This year, that number was unsurprisingly cut in half. Pro-rating for a 82 game season, Tavares’ 13 goals would be 17, which is a little over half of 33. Last year, every puck went in for him, this season they didn’t. Every player has gone through this in their career.
What hit Tavares the most was on the power play. Tavares had seven goals shooting 22% when last season he had 10 shooting 14%. This season, under Paul McFarland, the power play shifted away from Tavares in front of the net, and towards Matthews on his off-wing. The boys on Back to Excited had a great breakdown of the power play a few weeks ago on their podcast, I suggest listening to it.
For Tavares, his shots on the power play were cut in half in similar icetime to last year, meaning fewer puck-touches and chances from in tight. Personally, the Leafs will be better off with a power play that takes shots from the chaos that is the front of the net. They have the size and creativeness to make it work. Plus, I think Matthews is better shooting from his strong side. His wrister is incredibly strong and maximized his best quality, accuracy.
On the whole, the majority of his drop in goals can be attributed to 5v5 where he maintained the same assist rate, but got killed in shooting percentage relative to his talents. 8.97% shooting was the lowest in his career at 5v5.
3. William Nylander: A-
Year-over-year, Nylander increased his 5v5 goals from six to 19 (thanks to a shooting percentage boost from 7% to 12%). His power play ice time doubled, while his goals at that strength went from one to nine. Primary assists also up from one to six. The narrative attempted to establish Nylander as a perimeter scorer, but countless results proved the opposite, showing Nylander as one of the best scorers from in front of the net that season. Shooting percentage obviously had something to do with it, but after the season he had last year, no one deserved it more. Not quite an A+ season like Matthews, but a damn respectable comeback.
4. Mitch Marner: B+
Let’s get this out of the way early. The power play with Marner on his off wing didn’t work. Shots with Marner on the ice on the power play dropped by a third in comparable minutes, going from 4.28 on-ice shots per two minutes to 3.47, losing almost a whole shot per power play. Looking at the maps, shot locations also got worse, though we have no way of accounting for pre-shot movement, but it’s reasonable to say from the eye-test that may have increased with those cross-ice passes to Matthews for the shot. That was done at the expense of versatility. Marner didn’t look himself on the power play. I hope the new offensive coach leans into Marner’s creativity more next season.
Marner was on pace for 10 5v5 goals this past season, which is six fewer than what he had last year. His individual shots also fell, but that is absolutely expected when his main linemate was Matthews. Another number I noticed out of place was penalties drawn. Marner had between 13 and 15 at 5v5 in each of his first three seasons in the league. This past season, he only had four. Stares directly at the refs.
5. Zach Hyman: A
In a full 82-game season with him healthy, Hyman would’ve had 33 goals and 60 points while shooting nearly 20% in all situations. While his shooting percentage has been steadily climbing for the last four seasons, his high-danger shot attempts rates this season increased dramatically, thanks to time on the power play. He only had three goals at the strength, but he did it in 56 minutes, which is about a quarter of what the first unit got this season. He and Matthews had the same goal rate on the power play this year (albeit with twice as high of a shooting percentage). If nothing else, that’s a testament to the value of goals from the front of the net.
Top Three Defensemen
1. Jake Muzzin: B+
Injury aside, Muzzin is exactly what the Leafs needed when he was acquired last trade deadline. He had great shot share numbers, succeeded against top competition when Morgan Rielly was injured or paired with Tyson Barrie, and was a key minute-eater on the penalty kill. I like the contract, it’s far less than any other alternative, and at this point in the Leafs cycle, they couldn’t afford to be choosey and wait for a younger, cheaper Muzzin to come out of nowhere. They need him now.
2. Justin Holl: A
From Corrado’s seat in the press box to a genuinely competent defenseman in the top four. He’s not the best defender, but he does well enough. As the only right-shot defenseman on the Leafs can defend at any sort of level, it’s going to be very easy to overrate Holl in the coming months and years (did I mention he has a shiny new contract for the next three seasons?), but hey, every team needs an Esa Lindell.
3. Tyson Barrie: C-
I really didn’t like how much Barrie was sheltered away from top-six scoring lines while getting lots of offensive-zone starts and kicking Rielly off the first power play for...no reason whatsoever? It showed me that his high point totals were more a product of his minutes than his overall ability. If you look at Evolving Wild’s GAR, he had a score similar to Cody Ceci, so everything he was getting on offense he was giving back at the other end. He was the Tyler Bozak of defense.
Leaf of 39 games Dmytro Timashov is reportedly heading to the KHL. He asked to be put on waivers by the Leafs after not getting a larger role. He didn’t get it with the Detroit Red Wings either.
The NHLPA Executive Board voted 29-2 in favour of the new 24-team playoff format for the 2020 postseason. The two teams that voted no were the Tampa Bay Lightning and Caroline Hurricanes. Here’s what the Bolts representative Alex Killorn had to say about it.
#tblightning player rep Alex Killorn said Thursday an issue with 24-team format was that teams who had play-in series would be playing more competitive playoff hockey before those in round robin games (which is for seeding but not quite same as playing for season). FWIW. https://t.co/KTv9m90AtO— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) May 23, 2020
It’s pretty clear the players know this isn’t an ideal situation, it must be really hard for the players to risk their health for this. They’re not even getting paid more than their final pay cheque from the regular season.
More to come, but PIT NHLPA representative Kris Letang says Penguins voted “yes” to playoff format. “At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want. But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.” He adds safety of everyone remains paramount— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 23, 2020
Justin Bourne had a good piece in the Athletic that also addressed the topic.
Minor hockey coaches and families are breaking their social distancing rules and are being forced to re-close the rinks they so desperately wanted to open.
Update: A few Toronto area rinks opened this week, allowing 1 on 1 instruction. (ie. 1 coach, 1 player only on ice at a time.)— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) May 24, 2020
One rink already has been forced to re-close because a rep hockey coach brought as many as 9 kids on the ice at once. https://t.co/ZWY3uoaNE3
New York state are allowing their professional sports teams to open training facilities.