Should the Leafs be running a “Top-9” offence this season?

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Photo Credit: Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SPORTS

As the season approaches, fans and media have begun to dissect the remains and additions of this year’s roster while wondering where everybody should be placed. The most important question to many, of course, is how the top two lines stack up.

But in asking that, it’s possible that we’re looking into a less-than-optimal situation if we’re limiting the Leafs to a top-six, bottom-six team. Perhaps, with the coming injection of youth, the team should be looking towards more of a top-nine, bottom-three layout.

The logic behind a Top 9

One doesn’t have to spend much time splitting the atom to plead the case for running three lines instead of two. Obviously, the level of talent on your roster has to match (aka, you need at least a Top Six with no undeserving players), but once you hit that point, the philosophy comes with its incentives.

  • A third threatening trio makes line matching much harder for your opponents. The common train of thought is that playing against weaker opponents makes your life easier, your odds of having the opportunity to consistently match against anyone are very slim. If your team has the depth to stand spread its skill across lines without leaving the top groups too weak to compete, you set yourself up for more opportunity to get a skilled line out against the opposition’s closer-to-replacement level talent.
  • Short-term stamina comes into play. By spreading minutes over the course of a game, you ensure that your most capable forwards still have gas left in the tank in late-game situations, which could come key in close-score situations, be it in defending a lead, attempting to come back, or, in the case where you’d most need it, in overtime.
  • Spreading even-strength minutes also ensures that your more special-teams oriented players aren’t over-worked in a game where the referees lean in on the whistle with a bit more lung-weight than usual.
  • There’s also a long-term benefit too. By decreasing the high-intensity bursts over the course of the season, you minimize wear and tear on players. This ensures that your talent is as effective in April as they were in October, and can do wonders in helping prevent certain injuries.
  • While there’s still some debate about the strategy, there is some belief that teams might be best off with a “displacer” flanking one of the wings; a legitimately capable forward who excels on the forecheck and along the boards to restore and maintain possession in situations that would otherwise lead to an opposing breakout. We had a post along those lines after the Matt Martin signing; I don’t know if I totally feel that Martin is a skilled enough displacer to play with the team’s most skilled forwards, but you look at players like James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov and you can see the potential for using that layout.

Around the League

Out of curiosity, I looked at the minutes that the league’s nine highest-scoring teams at 5-on-5 gave their forwards. Specifically, I wanted to see what percentage of an average game’s even strength time teams were giving their first, second, third, and fourth lines. Here’s what I came up with.

Rk Team 1st FWD 3rd FWD 6th FWD 9th FWD 12th FWD
1 Washington Capitals 33.32 31.61 28.44 24.19 17.5
2 New York Rangers 32.07 28.03 27.56 24.16 22.32
3 Dallas Stars 33.69 30.63 27.44 24.03 21.86
4 Pittsburgh Penguins 34.35 31.16 28.94 25.02 21.83
5 Florida Panthers 31.64 30.42 28.43 23.98 21.52
6 Boston Bruins 32.35 30.57 27.98 25.17 19.42
7 New York Islanders 34.31 28.91 26.66 24.44 21.28
8 Calgary Flames 33.72 28.22 27.10 23.68 22.78
9 Tampa Bay Lightning 33.23 30.05 29.52 26.34 22.56

The players who ate up huge shares of their teams’ ice time weren’t shocking; they were the superstars big enough to break out of typical usage to be double-shifted into big situations, or stay on for extra time at the conclusion of a powerplay or penalty kill. Players who played 33% or more of their team’s even strength minutes in an average game included Alex Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Johnny Gaudreau, and Steven Stamkos. 

After that, though, you see an interesting thing; most of these teams are pretty good about spreading their minutes. Only Dallas (89.6%) and Washington (89.9%) don’t give at least 90% of the third-most used forward’s ice time to their sixth-most used, and only Florida (84.3%) doesn’t give at least 85% of the sixth-most used forward’s minutes to their ninth-most used.The Rangers, Stars, and Flames all break 87% in that regard, the Bruins and Lightning break 89, and the Islanders hit a whopping 91.7%. 

What’s key is that while these are some of the most skilled teams in the league, it isn’t just a matter of pure overflow. The star players might be at the top, but you can see some degree of talent spreading; things like Andre Burakovsky’s jump to Washington’s second line, Rick Nash playing with a bevy of different talents with the Rangers, Mattias Janmark playing with Jason Spezza and Valeri Nichushkin in Dallas while Ales Hemsky hangs out on the third line… you can hit pretty much every team on this list and find a similar scenario.

The most famous example of line spreading this year, of course, belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. Sidney Crosby played a whopping 33.97% of Pittsburgh’s available Even Strength minutes, but after that, there are five players in the 28.4-29.6% range (Malkin, Hornqvist, and the HBK line). Kunitz and Sheary trail not too far behind at ~26%, followed by a tail-off. Many feel that Pittsburgh’s spreading of the superstars was key to their success in the playoffs.

Would Babcock Do It?

All signs point to yes. While it is a best-on-best tournament with an overloaded roster that you can’t really go wrong with, a quick look at his present Team Canada lines shows that his four most offensively skilled players (Crosby, Stamkos, Tavares, and Seguin) are all spread across the lineup. As the realities of the salary cap became more clear in Detroit, he began to separate Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and in his last year, there was a lot of mixture in a group that included Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Abdelkader, Nyqvist, Helm, Tatar, Shehan, Jurco, and Glendenning. While not quite three equal lines, the direction was certainly being inched towards.

Here’s how the Leafs’ ice time shares looked for their top 14 regular forwards last season under Babcock:

Player individual TOI team TOI avg iTOI avg tTOI Share
Nazem Kadri 1180.48 3866.87 15.53 47.16 32.94
James van Reimsdyk 598.47 3866.87 14.96 47.16 31.73
Tyler Bozak 822.77 3866.87 14.43 47.16 30.61
Leo Komarov 934.33 3866.87 13.95 47.16 29.57
William Nylander 299.45 3866.87 13.61 47.16 28.86
PA Parenteau 1035.22 3866.87 13.44 47.16 28.51
Nick Spaling 433.98 3866.87 12.4 47.16 26.29
Joffrey Lupul 563.63 3866.87 12.25 47.16 25.98
Daniel Winnik 681.28 3866.87 12.17 47.16 25.8
Colin Greening 358.05 3866.87 11.94 47.16 25.31
Peter Holland 772.7 3866.87 11.89 47.16 25.21
Shawn Matthias 592.4 3866.87 11.62 47.16 24.63
Brooks Laich 240.47 3866.87 11.45 47.16 24.28
Michael Grabner 900.1 3866.87 11.25 47.16 23.86

Toronto’s “balance” actually appears to be tighter than the other teams we looked at; while most have their ninth most used forward playing about 24% of the minutes, Daniel Winnik approaches nearly 26, and all 14 are at around 24. The Leafs are an outlier in a situation like this, though; they have so many players that came in and out of the lineup due to injuries and trades that you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of the team who didn’t get to play big minutes on a couple of nights.

Looking at lines that did manage to stick together for more than 100 minutes at a time, the lean is ultimately a bit closer to a top/bottom six, mostly due to the team’s lack of depth at centre. Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak both had many different players flank them for stretches, but until Nylander and Laich were brought in late-season, there wasn’t exactly a ton of reason to trust Nick Spaling with an offensive workload.

With the addition of Auston Matthews and the potential to slot Nylander or Mitch Marner at centre in the event of injury or a transaction, it would be of no surprise to see the Leafs become more reliant on that third line. In fact, Babcock has already said that Matthews will start the year there with Nylander on his right wing, thogh we’ll see how long that lasts, and what the definition of a third line really is.

The Top 9 Starter Kit

So if the Leafs went with a top nine, who would even be on it? Here’s a look at a couple of pairs of forwards that could be used. Keep in mind that this isn’t my own personal order; I’ve simply attached “Matthews at 3” to the minute assignments of Kadri and Bozak from last season.

Left Wing Centre Right Wing
  Nazem Kadri Mitch Marner
James Van Riemsdyk Tyler Bozak  
  Auston Matthews William Nylander

As for how the pairs came to be, there’s not a gigantic level of research here either. We’re running with the Nylander quote on line three, JVR and Bozak have a lot of ice time together, and now that Kadri has been talking more and more about being a mentor and leader, I’m intrigued as to how much help he could be to Marner, soon to be a fellow ex-Knight who was looked down on for his size but carries an abundance of skill and a bit of a pesty side as well. All three lines have centres who can carry the puck (something we learned about Bozak last year), and a winger who can create opportunities.

From there, it’s a matter of plugging in your third wheels. Leo Komarov, Colin Greening, and Milan Michalek are the runaway candidates as far as veterans go, though it’s possible that the team sees more in Martin that we do, or that they go full rogue and move Holland to higher left wing slot. Keeping these as more replaceable roles is good in the long term as well; while there may not be a ton of room for other young players like Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov, or Kerby Rychel to make the team out of camp; these are lineup spots that they could potentially jump into as the year progresses.

Theoretically, you could almost argue that this organization has the depth for a proper, legitimate top twelve; though the drop in skill level from a Matthews, Kadri, or Bozak to a Brooks Laich or Byron Froese is probably a significant enough one that the minutes will see a dive. Instead, they’ll likely settle for a stronger-than-most fourth line that can wait out the clock more proficiently than most other teams.

While the Leafs will no doubt be looking to their watches awaiting the moments where the big three blossom into minute-eating stars, scattering the array of “good enough” talent that the team presently possesses might be an effective way of keeping the energy and  momentum going in situations where other teams may start to flame out. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s the direction the team goes come October.

  • LeafDiehard

    I doubt Marner will be with the team all year. From what I understand he hasn’t put on the weight this off season. Also it would be bad cap management to start both Matthews & Marner the same year, their overall salaries will be similar.

    • Stan Smith

      Funny, I read where he has spent the summer bulking up and I feel it would be a huge mistake to return him to Junior. I think it would be a step backwards in his development.

          • Randy Fraser

            You people s all try to use other small players for comparisons, but there is usually one big difference, a person like Goudreau though short at 5’9″, is 177 lbs. which is a good weight for him as he has some muscle mass for his body. Marner Is 5’11” and weighs about 165 lbs. Though only 2″ in the difference in height, there is a huge difference in body mass.
            Now I’m not saying that Marner isn’t good enough to play in the NHL, but when he gets hit and he will, he can get seriously injured. The players are just too much faster in the NHL than the OHL.

    • The Russian Rocket

      I think the narrative changed over the past month from “Marner needs to put on weight” to “Marner needs to add strength” so he might be deemed okay by Babs so long as he doesn’t get pushed around in training camp.

  • G2

    The options are many, opportunity is there for young players who step up. Camp, and the early season, are going to be very, very interesting. I would think that the team does indeed see more in Matt Martin than you do, we’ll soon see. Can’t wait for this to get started.

  • BarelyComments

    Wouldn’t mind starting off the year with something similar to…

    Van-Riemsdyk – Kadri – Soshnikov
    Komarov – Matthews – Nylander
    Michalek – Bozak – Marner

  • Draper55

    I can’t see Marner starting one the first line this year. He has all the talent in the world and would be able to do it but I don’t see Babcock putting him in a situation like that so early on in his career as it could possibly slow his development of he is unable to produce right away. I think putting Marner on the second line with Bozak and Hyman or Greening and leaving the line of JVR Kadri and uncle Leo as our top line at least for the start of the season until the kids show that they can handle the bigger work loads on the big stage. But I’ve always liked the idea of a top 9 as like he said I the article, can cause matchup problems for other teams and helps with secondary scoring, which is something that every team always needs if they plan to make the playoffs.

  • Harte of a Lion

    I like the other comments section better as on some other Leaf sites where Disqus is used it is filled with spam messages on how I can make $1,000 /hour by playing with myself

  • Harte of a Lion

    This is the most exciting preseason since 2003/4. Whoever makes up the lines and the team, I expect this season to be the last great sell-off of veterans

  • Stan Smith

    I thought the 3 offensive lines was a given this season, with the plan being that Matthews and Nylander would be 2/3 of the third line.

    As for the whole idea, that old Dinosaur Carlyle had three offensive lines his first full season as a coach. He had Kadri and Lupul comprise 2/3 of the third line, and it was very successful.

    • Randy Fraser

      Babcock said he’d try them in preseason, never said it would be that way throughout the season. All coaches muse about line combinations in the summer, but during exhibition things always seem to change.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Last year we were short of goal scorers to finish the offensive drives.
    This year, I think Babcock is definitely looking to roll three, speedy, defensively responsible, offensively capable lines. All getting relatively equal minutes. I believe it is time to change how we think, about top line, second line, third line. I expect to see our top guys come together on the power play and at the end of the game if we are in need of a goal. I think you may see some unexpected players put on waivers. Holland was unclaimed just before he signed. I am not sure now if he can go straight to the Marlies or has to be put on waivers again. Brown, Soshnikov, Rychel, and Hyman are all ready to play in the NHl, but there doesn’t seem to be room for them at the moment.Not to forget about Leivo and others. Sure one could say just send them back to the AHL, but players that know they are capable of playing in the NHL are not happy playing in the minors.. Would you be?

    • DukesRocks

      Oddly enough all the baby Leafs are RW: Brown, Nylander, Marner, Hyman, Soshnikov.
      And all the veterans are LW: Komarov, JVR, Greening, Rychel, Martin, Michalek, Leivo, Lindberg, Leipsic.

      So unless Babcock is playing left hand shooters on the RW, Soshnikov, Brown and Hyman should make the roster. The exception is Leivo who is listed as LW but shoots right.

  • DukesRocks

    Marner might be ready for the NHL, but I feel the Leafs aren’t ready for Marner. Until some contracts are moved Marner will start in London. If contracts are moved before the season starts, the Leafs are not going to take any chances with Marner, Nylander and Mathews. So you can bet Martin will be seeing time with some of the young guns.

    Having said that I agree with the writer that Babcock’s philosophy is to field as many balanced lines as possible. I actually believe they can field 4 balanced lines. Kadri’s line will be playing against the opposition’s best most of the time. Therefore his line will lead in minutes by default. The remaining 3 lines will share minutes based on performance.

    The way I see the lines are:

    Komarov – Kadri – Soshnikov
    JVR – Bozak – Hyman
    Martin/Greening/Rychel – Mathews – Nylander
    Martin/Greening/Rychel – Holland – Brown

    That’s a total of 13 forwards and the contracts I feel they need to move Laich and Michalek. Other contracts that could move as well are Leivo and Leipsic.

    If Marner is on the team, I think you put Nylander between Hyman and JVR and put Marner on Mathews RW. This will move Bozak to 4th line line centre. Keep in mind there is no 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines, since performance will dictate minutes.

  • Ron K

    With Mathews being spotted on the 3rd line which has already been confirmed by Babs, there is no doubt the Leafs will be rolling a top 9 system. With the abundance of talent emerging with the forward positions there won’t be much of a drop off with the 4th line either. That may not be the case at the start of the year but will emerge in the 2nd half of the season after the trade deadline as I see it. This team is only going to get better as time goes by.

  • Ron K

    Randy, I agree with you about coaches always speculating on line combinations in the summer and always changing those lines once they’re in training camp. Happens all the time.
    However, I really do believe Mathews will remain the 3rd line centre as Babs has stated. He wants to ease this young star into this level of play and protect him from the high expectations and added pressure that would be associated with him playing higher up the lineup on the second or first line. It’s part of his coaching philosophy and the organization doesn’t want to rush any of their young guns or put them in a situation they might not handle well or are properly prepared for.
    The biggest question mark going into training camp for the Leafs IMHO, is what to do with Mitch Marner? He’s been working hard all summer to get stronger and it will all depend on how he looks in camp and how well he can take the physicality of playing against bigger, faster and stronger men. If the brass thinks he can take the heavy going my bet’s on him making the team or at least getting a long look out of the gate.
    That would create an even bigger question for Babs……..Where would he play him? My guess is he might pair him up with Mathews and move Nylander higher up the lineup because he has a bit of NHL experience.
    There’s another avenue that Marner could take if the Leafs were in agreement and thought it would be the best thing for him and the organization in the long run. I don’t think anyone thinks he should be playing junior hockey this year but what about him playing in Europe if he’s not NHL ready? Thoughts……..

    • Harte of a Lion

      He can’t play in Europe after being drafted out of the CHL. The CHL has an agreement that prevents any player drafted from a CHL team from playing in any league other than the NHL and CHL until the player turns 20. This includes all Professional leagues including those in Europe. The Rule was initiated to prevent star prospects from leaving which is seen as a talent drain on CHL teams and the league as a whole, as they are businesses as well as development situations.

      • Ron K

        Thanks for your input Harte of a Lion. I wasn’t aware of that restriction but I certainly see the logic in it. The one aspect that I don’t agree with is the inability of a player like Marner who has outgrown the CHL but maybe not ready for the NHL physically, to be denied a chance to play in the AHL. There should be a process where a team or player can apply for special consideration to play there much like certain underage players can be allowed to play in the CHL. It only makes sense for that to be allowed in certain situations. It would really be a sad state of affairs if he sticks with the Leafs and ends up getting seriously injured because he wasn’t physically ready.

    • Randy Fraser

      When he joined the Knights he basically signed a contract. Though the money isn’t much ($100.00 a month I think plus lodgings), it’s still a contract. So Europe is definitely out.
      Also my comment to Stan was about Matthews and Nylander being tried out in the exhibition then being discarded as a bad idea that looked good on paper napkins at the time. I know he’ll be started out as the 3rd center, but he’ll work his way up in no time at all.

      • Ron K

        Randy, Mathews will eventually be the number one centre for many years to come. The organization will be careful not to force him up the lineup too early but they won’t want to hold him back either. His on ice play and off ice maturity will dictate how fast he makes the transition up from the 3rd line. There’s no sense in rushing his development as it’s going to be another couple of years before this team starts to really climb up the standings. All of the young guns need a safe and secure environment to fully reach their potential and the brass will make sure they get the proper insulation and protection which is key. You don’t want to expose a kid like Mathews too much and too early.

  • Ron K

    Randy, an amateur contract like the one Marner has with London would not prevent him from signing a professional contract in Europe. As long as the Leafs were in agreement with him playing over there there’s nothing contractually that would prevent that from happening. This is a situation that should be decided on what would be the most beneficial for the player and the organization in the long run. Playing in Europe certainly hasn’t hurt Mathews and the sledding isn’t as tough physically over there and would give Marner more time to fill out. Marner’s older brother was the same size as Mitch at his age and now he’s 6’2″ and 215 at 22 years of age.
    Personally, I think it would be an ideal situation for him………