Watching the Leafs’ preseason for me has been a mix of scout on the job and kid in a candy store.  You have your work—figure out who the third-pair defenceman is going to be—and the fun stuff.  And the fun stuff has tended to feature two names in particular.

The assumption has generally been that William Nylander will, at some point, move back from right wing to his natural position of centre, probably when Tyler Bozak leaves.  This would give the Leafs a centre lineup of Matthews, Nylander, and Nazem Kadri, which very few teams this side of Pittsburgh can match.

I’ve generally figured this was the way to go, myself.  Nylander sure looks like he can be a high-end NHL centre.  And being able to roll three strong lines is a very good thing.

But what if together, Matthews and Nylander form one of the best offensive weapons in the NHL?

The Numbers

The Leafs’ Big Three rookies of last season have been written up so much and so often that nothing needs to be added other than we’re damn lucky to have these players.  But in looking at them as individuals or a trio, sometimes it gets underplayed how good two of them were together.

Auston Matthews and William Nylander put up an adjusted Corsi For of 55.88% when they played together.  They combined for 56.36% of the scoring chances on the ice when they were both on.  That means they were dominant.  For the sake of comparison, I took five of the best centres on Earth and their stats with whichever winger they did best with shots-wise (minimum 200 minutes together):

  • Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel: 55.76 CF%/58.31 SCF%
  • Connor McDavid and Milan Lucic: 55.71 CF%/55.05 SCF%
  • John Tavares and Anders Lee: 55.87 CF%/55.18 SCF%
  • Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak: 62.84 CF%/60.29 SCF%
  • Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist: 56.98 CF%/60.09 SCF%/

Putting aside Bergeron, who is an insane shot attempts mutant, AM34 and WM29 show themselves on par with the best forward pairings that exist.

Statheads might want expected goals, and with the return of Corsica, we have that option too.  As I was doing this, in fact, Corsi Hockey League turned to the matter in expected goals for per 60 minutes last season:

In xGF% overall, that line is 11th for lines over 300 mins—something Twitter person PDWhoa located before I got around to looking it up.

This is about as good as it gets.  If the Leafs’ best line does this consistently, we’re in good shape.  If the Leafs’ best line does better than this—and the Matthews/Nylander pairing has the lowest combined age in that group of five by far, so there’s room to develop—we should call the engraver.

On the other hand, some of these combinations involve multiple very good players (I’ll note Jake Guentzel is better than you think if you haven’t looked into him) and some of them involve a clear star with a secondary player, like Tavares and Lee.  If Auston Matthews can do just as well with another guy on his wing, we should go with that.  Is there some special magic between these two?

Auston Matthews, Unicorn Centre

If you didn’t know already, you knew it after his first NHL game: Auston Matthews is a very special player.  More than that, he’s a very rare type of player.

The magic of Auston’s game is that he is very good at getting, holding onto, and releasing the puck, usually from a high-danger area.  He famously grew up playing on small ice surfaces, and it’s helped make him one of the most dangerous players on the planet.

More than that: Auston is a very high-volume shooter.  He was eighth in the NHL in shots his first year, or sixth in 5v5 shots per 60 minutes (min 500 min played.) Further to that, he shoots point blank, and he gets significantly more shots than anyone else on his line.

All of this adds up, predictably, to Auston having more goals than assists.  If you want, you can blame Zach Hyman for some of that, but AM did the same thing in the Swiss league.  Further to that, guess how many times Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, and Connor McDavid have had more goals than assists in an NHL season?

The answer is zero.  Despite what the NHL games tell you, Auston is a sniping centre, not a playmaking one.  There are other centres who shoot a lot (Bergeron shoots tons), but they don’t dominate their line’s shot totals like Matthews does (Pastrnak shoots a lot too.)  This is not at all a knock on Matthews’ style of play.  That would be crazy.  He’s the best.  It just means that he’s going to take up a particular piece of real estate, and he’s going to benefit from linemates who can get him the puck in those places.

In fact, if I were drawing up an ideal winger for Matthews, it would be someone who can get the puck into the zone with him, who can feed him the puck in dangerous areas, and who can still shoot enough from the wing to be a scoring threat.  Hmm.

William Nylander, Playmaking Winger

Here, have a look at a couple of shot maps.

That certainly looks to me like a sniping centre who has dominated the slot and a playmaker who can shoot from the wing.  And Nylander has the shot to score from the right circle.  Like so:

Fan me, I feel heated.  Anyway, Nylander is both capable of shooting dangerously himself and is an extremely effective winger at generating shot assists.  He’s dominant at carrying the puck in (narrowly the best on the team).  He’s exactly what I’d want if I’d drawn him up for the job of Matthews’ winger.  This isn’t accidental—Nylander has clearly adapted his game to Matthews’, and it’s worked wonderfully.  (And early in his career, everyone said he was a diva with a huge ego.  Weird.)

Matthews is too good a player not to produce with pretty much any NHL-calibre forward on his wings.  I don’t want to fall into the weird line of thought that somehow concluded Sidney Crosby was “hard to play with” for a while.  But I think having a player of Nylander’s talent whose skills line up so neatly with Matthews is a rare opportunity, and one I like to take advantage of.

Who Replaces Him?

Some people may be thinking that Connor Brown played RW to Matthews this year and did just fine.  And, well, it ain’t quite so.  Remember that comparison of CF% and SCF% we did above?  Matthews’ numbers with Brown were 49.81% and 50.70%.  Not awful, but a very big drop from the game-destroying heights of Nylander—and by expected goals, they gave a little back on offence and a lot back on defence.  Yes, they put up goals—but the Matthews’ line had an abnormally high on-ice shooting percentage while Brown was on it.  I wouldn’t want to bet on that continuing, and their expected goals suggests we shouldn’t.

If we’re going to keep putting a grind-and-retrieve guy like Zach Hyman or Carl Grundstrom on one of Matthews’ wings, I think having a quality playmaker on the other is very useful.  So that leads us to the obvious question: what about Mitch Marner?

Marner is certainly an elite playmaking threat, and I don’t doubt he and Matthews would do damage.  Their numbers together were notably inferior to Matthews and Nylander, but it’s not a big enough sample to judge on.  At the same time, though, Marner has a lesser shot than Nylander does (despite a lofty shooting percentage) and is not quite so good at carrying the puck in, by the numbers.  Would it work well?  Very likely.  Would it work as well as Matthews and Nylander?  I’m less sure.  And this is without getting into the other side of the puck, where Marner shows worse than Nylander in relative shots.

Maybe They’re Just That Good

I would not at all rule out trying different combinations.  Mitch Marner can get more play on Matthews’ wing; different wingers may pan out for us in the coming years.  Nothing needs to be set in stone, and it would be silly to say any line combination needs to be permanent through a whole month, much less multiple seasons.

But Matthews and Nylander operated at the level of an elite combination last year, and it’s possible this year they’ll be even better.  If the Leafs have a weapon on that level, it may be worthwhile looking elsewhere for our 3C and letting these two light the league on fire.  Our blog boss Katya Knappe, who is as clear-eyed a hockey watcher as I’ve ever met, compared the chemistry to Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri.  That’s heady air.

Just something to keep in mind this season.