The announced lineups for last night’s game against the Washington Capitals had Mitch Marner swapped with Connor Brown. And the reaction to the demotion of Marner was predictable. Most fans really like Brown, and want to see him up the lineup, but not at the expense of Marner, it seems.
And that’s how it works, right? The lineup is a ladder, and you climb it.
Most of the time that’s generally true.
Prior to last night’s game, Mike Babcock spoke about a lot of things, but he delivers one-liners irresistible to the press, and most comedians know it’s the punch line that gets remembered. He knows what he’s doing.
Babcock: JvR-Bozak-Marner struggling so felt change needed to be made; Mitch demoted bc "tie goes to the veteran" & he's the kid on the line— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 16, 2017
“Tie goes to the veteran” is what everyone heard. And the spin placed on that by fans was that Babcock lets the veterans get away with more. They have a longer leash, see, and the kid gets kicked in the ass even if he doesn’t deserve it. And of course, you can’t watch Mitch Marner without seeing what he will be casting a glow over what he is. And those veterans are known commodities. It can’t be the kid’s fault. The kid is carrying that line.
We could go down a rabbit hole and discuss what fault is in hockey and how you decide who is carrying a line, but instead, let’s look instead at who was actually demoted in the game. Who got punished?
As we know, Connor Brown wrote it like a Hollywood script, and scored the only real goal of the game while on the ice with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, but look beyond the fact that the one chance of many that went in was his, and see who was promoted and who was demoted.
Maple Leafs forward ice time October 17, 2017
|James van Riemsdyk
So, a “normal” arrangement for the Leafs is the top three lines with very even ice time at five-on-five, with Matthews’ line shading a little higher and Bozak’s a little lower. The fourth line has been at or under 10 minutes most games, with Matt Martin always the lowest. That was last year’s usage and this year, barring a couple of really weird games full of power plays, has held to that, up until last night.
Connor Brown may have scored the goal, but he played only a hair more than Marner did. And the really telling name with fourth line minutes is van Riemsdyk. Bozak barely did better and saw just a shade more ice than Dominic Moore. So just who was demoted again?
You can’t play Auston Matthews’ line the whole game, but his crew ate up some extra minutes while Babcock rolled two fourth lines. It’s not an efficient way to get goals, not even with the depth the Leafs have, but for the first game of a back-to-back, it sure rested up some players who need to make a case tonight for their usual 13 or so minutes. That’s players plural.
The impulse when the spotlight falls on Bozak, van Riemsdyk and Marner is to assume their problems are defensive. They are. None of them are good at it, and as a centre, Bozak’s difficulty getting out of the defensive zone are a bigger flaw than they are for his wingers. But the real issue with that line this season, and with Bozak in particular, is that their offensive pace has been bad.
Bozak’s Corsi For per 60 minutes is worse than any forward not on the fourth line. He’s lower than Leo Komarov, which should be impossible. Now, to be fair here, the Leafs’ pace has been high, and they’ve cleaned up the shots against for the first few games to a respectable level. But something is up with Bozak, and it’s not just bad defence.
Bozak’s defence is iffy too, though. His Corsi Against is worse than the Matthews line’s by a hair, while Marner and van Riemsdyk are much better, the consequence perhaps of those post-PK shifts with other players.
You can’t play the Matthews line all game, and you don’t want to because the heavy pace against, the periods of shots by the other team that approaches too much to expect a goalie to handle, are coming when they are on the ice. That’s an area that can be improved, but they’re bringing the mega-offence to more than outpace their defensive laxity. Bozak’s line, and Bozak in particular are not.
And that has to improve no matter how the lines are arranged.