When we debate over the Leafs’ top rookie, everyone wins

This season is only 11 games old, but it seems that with each 2-3 game chunk of this schedule, we’ve had a different “Whoa, [insert rookie name]” storyline to gravitate towards. If this is what life as a Leafs supporter is going to be like, establishing favourites among this trio of Matthews, Nylander, and Marner, is bound to happen. But that’s part of the fun of being a fan of a non-garbage team. This is all new.

With Marner’s light-up of the Sabres last night, he’s the trending topic currently. Before that it was Nylander who went on his powerplay rampage. And of course, to kick things off, Matthews left a crater where the Canadian Tire Centre once stood. 

If you could get three people together to argue on behalf of each of these stars in the making, you’d get three good responses, but they’d all be quite different. Up to now they’ve all provided plenty of ammo for such a debate, so let’s dig into it.

Marner

One area where Marner hasn’t been able to keep up with the other two so far is in the puck-possession game. Right now he’s at 49.2% in terms of score-adjusted CorsiFor, and -4.55% relative. That isn’t to say he can’t drive play, because anyone with a clue can see he’s a dog in terms of puck pursuit and causing turnovers, and about as good as anyone when he gets it. He’s just saddled with two historically weak defensive players in JVR and Bozak, and though he’s so clearly the more-talented of the three, it’s tough to ask a rookie winger to carry basically the entire load in tilting the ice in the right direction. 

Still, with all that said, Marner’s offence hasn’t really suffered, and we’re seeing it more and more how he’s just going to continue to be a numbers-generating machine like he always has been. This play, for example, is fantastic, and it shows off how he’s developed a comfort level in creating offence. He’s trying things at the pro level that made him special in junior.


But beyond the individual instances like this, Marner has somewhat quietly amassed eight points in eleven games, a 60-point pace over 82. And even further to that, all those points have come at even strength, which puts him in the team lead in that regard. [Matthews has six, Nylander four.]

Nylander

The team leader in points, and their best possession player according to shot-attempts metrics to this point (57.1% score-adjusted CF at evens, 6.3% relative), I think Nylander gets the nod from plenty of folks as the top rookie because he’s been so strong game-to-game since opening night. It’s been that consistency that television analysts fantasize about. 

He’s also been absolutely tearing it up on the powerplay, where seven of his eleven points have been cashed in. But depending on how you look at it, that could be seen as less-impressive as Marner’s torrid pace at evens. If special teams become kinder to the latter, who knows what kind of points total is possible. 

Matthews

Just before the Oilers game this past week, TSN did a laughable radio segment titled “Has Matthews hit a wall?” on the heels of what was a three-game goalless drought to that point. That “drought” has now stretched to five games, but there’s no wall to be found performance-wise. He’s just run into a lack of shooting luck, coming up empty on 20 shots over that handful of games. 30-seconds of research can show you that. 

Matthews currently sits fourth in the league in individual shot volume, with 46, just behind Tarasenko (48) and ahead of the likes of Tavares and Stamkos in terms of other players with 11 games played. [Ovechkin is also just behind Matthews with 43, but has played 10 games]. 

Unsurprisingly, Matthews also is near the top of the league in individual shot attempts at even-strength, sitting third overall with 50 behind just Burns and Pacioretty, and ranks 14th when you look at the same measure as a per-60 rate. 

It’s also no shock that Matthews has been a strong possession player, just a percentage point behind his linemate Nylander in terms of CF%, as that duo has really pushed the Leafs in the right direction in all facets, really. As for Auston himself, the goals will start to pour in again as long as his shot-rates keep up. Even during this somewhat dry stretch, he’s been able to get open for proper scoring chances every single game. Nearly every shift, it feels like. 

So whether you want to argue Marner has been the strongest rookie due to his incredible 5-on-5 production despite a relative lack of talent to play alongside, or that Nylander’s consistency makes him king, or Matthews’ place among the elite in terms of getting shots away is the most important thing here, you’re not going to be wrong. Whatever side you take in this debate, all three of these guys have given you enough to work with. This sure beats the days of hoping Tyler Biggs could break out of the ECHL. 

[Shot attempts numbers via Corsica.Hockey]

  • FlareKnight

    This is the kind of situation you just smile about. Any of these guys could win the Calder this year. They are all playing some fantastic hockey. And if one guy or one line hits a dry stretch, there are others who can step it up.

    Not surprised that Matthews might slow down at times in points. He’s getting the attention a top player in the league will draw. He and Nylander will take time to push through that kind of attention and get the puck in the net. Chances are being had so it will happen. Just have to wait for it.

    Great performance by Marner. He’s doing a good job carrying his line…which is really shame on JVR and Bozak. Help the rookie out guys. The second goal was almost more impressive than the first last night. He just dove in there, took the puck and put it in. He wants that puck and will go for it.