During the mid-season break, the Toronto Maple Leafs addressed a position of need in acquiring defenceman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings.
When the team finally sorts out the pairings on defence, the team should be able to field 3 sound defence pairings, providing no further moves are made.
Up front, the Leafs for most of the season had the chance to field 3 sound forward lines thanks to their big three centres: Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Nazem Kadri.
With the group of wingers the team has, some young, some old, there was a chance to throw over the boards 3 excellent units that could help the Leafs establish depth dominance over teams and have scoring strength up and down the lineup. Unfortunately for one reason or another, it has not quite happened as frequently as hoped.
Matthews missed some time with injuries. Kadri’s goal production dipped well below the levels shown the last two years. Many nights in the last several weeks, one line, the Tavares line with Mitch Marner, was driving all the play and scoring the majority of the goals. Even the potent power play they were to be able to put together faltered.
The inconsistency is something they are hoping to correct for the second half.
While obviously the play of the blueline and how things shake out there is extremely important to the success of the Leafs, it may not be the biggest key. It may come down to two things. One, goaltending from Fredrik Andersen and two, the play of the so called 3rd line, centred by Kadri.
Their production may be what drives the team to not only win a playoff round at the very least, but reach something much higher. Much grander.
Its been a season full of experiments for coach Mike Babcock as he has been looking to find a group of lines he can throw out over the boards he can trust game in and game out.
His style has been to use pairings up front. Dynamic Duos if you will of two highly skilled players, with a player more like a worker than a super skilled player joining them.
The last couple seasons we saw William Nylander paired with Matthews. We saw former Leafs Tyler Bozak and James vanRiemsdyk joined at the hip. Kadri and Patrick Marleau played almost all of last season together. This was sort of by design to try and have a more balanced lineup than having a super line which teams like Boston and Colorado employ.
This year, with a few newcomers, the Matthews injury causing him to be absent, and the long absence of Nylander due to a contract dispute, the search to find what works has been a process.
The team started with Tavares and Marner joined together (with Zach Hyman), and then a few questionmarks after that. The Nylander holdout was the biggest cause as he was to be the main top line winger for Matthews. It hasn’t worked out as planned obviously and as a result we’ve seen Babcock break out the blender almost every game.
However, they may have something now with the way the lineup was constructed the last game.
The team employed Matthews with Marner for really the first time in their careers. It seems like they plan to try this for the foreseeable future.
While Matthews and Tavares were All Stars, Marner has probably been the Leafs best forward, leading the team in points and literally driving every play. He has probably not taken any shifts off at all this year.
Him and Tavares have been excellent together, so, ideally you would see apprehension in breaking up what has been working. But from what we’ve seen from Tavares, its clear he can drive plays all on his own quite fine. He has done that throughout his career.
So, the opportunity to put the Leafs two biggest stars together, while long overdue for some, is something the team may have been contemplating for a while and they finally implemented this plan.
The trickle down effect to this experiment was the creation of a line with this duo: Nylander and Kadri.
The two forwards have played together off and on this season, but had their best game in the last game before the break combining for 7 points, including 3 goals by Kadri.
If Matthews and Marner do what we all expect them to do, and Tavares excels at the big matchup versus other team’s top lines, while still producing offence, it will leave this line of Kadri and Nylander to swoop in hopefully and add supportive offence from the 3rd line.
Overall, we know, Kadri’s numbers are down. In back to back seasons he scored 32 goals. Prior to last game, he wasn’t even on pace for 20. That is a big drop off. Yes, the addition of Tavares bumped Kadri down a notch, but he was averaging only 10 seconds less ice time than last season per game and was still playing on the Leafs top power play. So Babcock has managed to find him the same ice time.
Nylander as everyone knows had an atrocious start to his season. Holding out until December 1st, it was definitely the last game he played vs the Capitals which was his best game of the season. The struggles have been both surprising and not surprising. Many figured that with his skill, yes a slow start was possible, but he could still notch points. But too, being 3 months behind everyone else, was a big hill to climb. Just that no one expected the hill to be that large and take that long.
But taking a deeper dive these two haven’t played too poorly.
Kadri has a 5 on 5 Corsi For of 53.62%. That is a career best. He has been on the ice for 351 scoring chances as opposed to 292 chances against. His High Dangerous Scoring Changes For percent is 54.59%. And he has a On Ice Save Percentage of 93.43 5 on 5. The issue has been the shooting percentage which has been way down, despite more Offensive zone starts this year, and as many shots directed on goal as in the past.
Nylander has a 5 on 5 Corsi For of 54.70%.. He has a scoring chances percentage of 56.12 and a high dangerous scoring chances percent of 60%. Though his sample size is smaller, he hasn’t been completely horrific.
Together, even though the time has been brief, the numbers are better still. As a pair, their Corsi for 5 on 5 is 60.10%. Their scoring chances percent is 62.11%. As for high dangerous scoring chances, its at 71.43 percent. This has been done in over 90 minutes of playing time together this season.
It is yes limited playing time, but in comparison, Matthews and Nylander as a pairing have a 42.86% Corsi For and both the scoring chances and high dangerous scoring chances are below 50%.
Perhaps over time those two would get their mojo back, but it seems Kadri and Nylander might work and so let’s see if they can run with it over the last 30 games.
The key for Kadri will be to stay hungry and engaged and stay physical. The best Kadri is one throwing his weight around and getting into the hard areas. He hasn’t been used as the exclusive shutdown centre this season. So at times he seems lost in the shuffle. Now maybe asked to battle while in a more offensive role, that defined task may help his production.
For Nylander it’s simple, bring up that battle level. His will to fight for that puck, which he should do since he’s really good with it, has to keep going up. He’s tiny and is susceptible to lost puck battles. But a never give up on a play attitude could serve him well and get him putting points up. He showed all those traits Vs the Caps. He has to do it consistently.
Overall, it’s probably imperative the team finds chemistry, some cohesion between lines and D pairings and a flow to their overall game that can be lasting. It’s probably a troubling sign should they be making it up as they go come April.
For the most part, teams around the league are really good so easy games are not there. The Leafs are one of those teams. They’re not without holes in their lineup but are a team that, unlike many others, can come at waves with a lot of skill.
We’re starting to get serious now as the trade deadline nears and teams prepare for the playoffs. The players should start, hopefully, to take their game to another level. The coaching staff needs to keep pushing so everyone is on the same page, but maybe get out of their own way and let things stick and just keep throwing these key guys out there and give them a chance to build something.
Maybe management keeps adding, we shall see. But for a team that can play Matthews and Marner, then send Tavares out, and then send Kadri and Nylander over the boards, teams will get tired of seeing it.
That Kadri line has a real chance to do some damage during the stretch drive and beyond. Both he and Nylander are striving to score and if together they do, it’ll be kind of what the organization envisioned when they signed Tavares.
Facing possibility 3rd pairings and 3rd or 4th line opponents, coming in when the team is in an offensive situation and delivering, that really could be the major key to the Leafs playoff aspirations.
It will be interesting to see how things play out. But based on their first act, we could be in for some entertaining and exciting times with this line and it’s fit in this lineup. Hopefully too the act can be taken all the way to June.