How the Leafs won the Edmonton Matchup War before the opening faceoff

Photo Credit: Perry Nelson/USA TODAY SPORTS

In case you missed it last night, the Leafs beat the Edmonton Oilers again. It was a fun time; Auston Matthews scored on the powerplay, everybody got mad at Nazem Kadri a bunch of times, and boy, oh boy, did we ever hear about the “matchup” angle again and again and again. At least it wasn’t like the 2013 playoff round against the Bruins, though, where Randy Carlyle was given credit for waiting a bit to pick his line whether it worked or not simply because it was convenient; in this case, Kadri really did give Connor McDavid a run for his money a few weeks prior.

You have a $4.5 million, 26-year-old player, once considered defensively irresponsible, neutralizing a player who might become the league’s best since Mario Lemieux. It was a huge deal. So much so that it became the talk of both morning skates.

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“Sometimes it’s easier to get the match you want on the road,” said Oilers coach Todd McLellan ahead of yesterday’s game, trying to downplay the significance. But he dove straight into the big example. “If Nazem is going to check against Connor, soon as Connor comes out or he’s not out, they change and they just match. But I look at Ryan Kesler, Anze Kopitar, Jamie Benn, a number of these high-end players that Connor has to play against every night, and he’s done a real good job against all of those players.”

With the game now in Edmonton, the ease of Babcock nailing down a matchup was sure to dip. That would at least be the case directly off a faceoff; the Oilers, with home ice advantage, would be able to send out their players last. One way to throw the home team off, though, is to not give them a clear, easy line to target. So, on the other side of the ice..

The Distraction?

Mike Babcock didn’t even wait for the members of the media to open their mouths to make sure they knew where they stood with William Nylander. Specifically, that his sudden disappearance before Saturday’s game was a matter of the medical staff not clearing him to play, and that there were no crazy motives to his out-of-nowhere injury. But he wasn’t about to go back to his normal spot tonight; he’d head to the fourth line.

“That’s where we’re going to start with him,” said Babcock after morning skate. “The guys played really well the other night when he wasn’t in, so he’s starting there with Smith and Martin. He’s going to play on the powerplay, and we’ll see what happens as the game goes on.”

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This caused a lot of initial concern, particularly after a couple day stretch of media criticism and trade speculation involving the 20-year-old Swede. Some weren’t sure if his placement was a punishment or a showcase for a trade, or something else to generally panic about.

But then it clicked in. Putting Nylander on the fourth line put a legitimate threat on all four lines that the Oilers would have to plan for; whether it was where to target their placement of McDavid or even their own shutdown checkers. Matchups were now the first thing on everybody’s mind, and by stating that one of your stars was going to play on the one line lacking a bonafide offensive threat and play-driving forward, it significantly changes McLellan’s game plan.

The Draw

As we stated prior, matchups only really matter right at the faceoff. So, if the Nylander line was largely to work as a matchup bluff, they weren’t going to show up to the dot much, rather acting as an on-the-fly option when the Top 9’s gas tanks were low, or being used in pieces on special teams; Smith on the penalty kill, Nylander on the powerplay.

That’s essentially what happened. The last faceoff that the fourth line took together came just 23 minutes into the game. Martin played just seven minutes. Smith played 12, but only 6 of them came at evens. Nylander played 12 as well, but only nine of his came at evens; with a lot of 4-on-4. The two teams combined for ten powerplay opportunities, which helped, but it became obvious that the pre-determined fourth line was more of a concept than a reality. 


Time on Ice Timeline: Grey indicates labelled player on ice without facing McDavid. Blue indicates McDavid playing against non-labelled player. Orange indicates labelled player and McDavid going head to head.

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Nylander never really had to see McDavid much over the course of the game, but the lack of predictability and the perception of a somewhat equal risk led to McLellan not doing a heck of a lot to time his battles. As the game progressed, Kadri, who had his shifts decently scattered and spaced out at the start, began to be used more. He was, after all, the centre the Leafs wanted against McDavid, and with the Oilers down multiple goals, they had no choice but to play him as much as possible in the final minutes, regardless of who the opponent was. The opportunity to match them up late fell right into Babcock’s lap.

Another thing that went more or less as Babcock expected was how exactly McDavid would be deployed. Specifically, Babcock foresaw the Oilers using him in other positions while trying to take advantage of Leon Draisaitl’s faceoff ability.

“We’re going to have to do a better job on the road, you don’t get last change on the road,” said Babcock regarding preparation, noting that the Leafs had things go in their favour in the first game between the two. “Obviously, this guy can play a lot of minutes, play on the wing, take the faceoff, not take the faceoff.”

In saying that, and you know the contents of these scrum conversations get to the other side pretty quickly in this day and age, it almost becomes game theory. McLellan can throw Babcock off by not playing McDavid on the wing, but that involves either slashing his ice time or putting the statistically weaker faceoff man in the middle in a specific game that’s already being sold as a mental one. Or you do what he knows you’re going to do.

Here are the draws that Connor McDavid was on the ice for:

Opponent Draws McDavid Draisaitl Other
Auston Matthews 5 3 2 0
Nazem Kadri 9 2 5 2
Tyler Bozak 3 2 1 0
Ben Smith 4 0 4 0
Leo Komarov 1 0 1 0
Roman Polak 1 0 1 0

First off, I still can’t believe that Roman Polak ended up having to take a faceoff tonight, but good for him I guess. But more importantly, you can tell that there was a degree of hesitance to let Connor take the draws that “mattered”; never facing “specialist” Smith, and rarely facing his key shadow. Draisaitl was often brought in to ensure that the Oilers could get possession of the puck and attempt to convert as soon as possible; particularly on the powerplay. 

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The End Result

Let’s not kid ourselves; this didn’t work out flawlessly. Firstly, he scored a goal; a very pretty one, as you can see above. Moreover, only two of Toronto’s forwards finished the night with a positive Corsi-For percentage (Zach Hyman and Connor Brown), while McDavid pulled in at just under 54%.  

However, that was the Edmonton’s fifth-lowest percentage from a forward, and when you can drag the most dynamic player on earth away from the flow of the game, particularly when you’re up by a bunch of goals and your opponents get more aggressive about trying to generate offence.

That’s the big thing, right? There’s a difference between building a game around a Connor McDavid matchup and say, a Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, or Alexander Ovechkin matchup. The Oilers have quality secondary forwards, but they don’t have the same level of top-to-bottom talent that other teams do. The Oilers struggle when he’s off the ice, and if you can bring him down from deity status to just quite good, you’ve already fought a lot of the battle in defeating the whole team. Certainly, I’d take my odds with Drake Caggiula getting 73% of the shot attempts over one of the best sophomores in NHL history having the same level of game control.

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That’s more or less what the team accomplished at the end of the day.  Other than the goal, McDavid only attempted one more shot; a wrister blocked by Connor Brown late in the first period. Toronto’s players didn’t allow him to strip them of the puck and forced him into two first-period giveaways.

But it was an effort that started away from the ice. They knew the game was going to devolve into this, so long as it was the talking point of a hockey-loving nation. Babcock made it clear he was going to have four solid lines out, and he made it clear he knew what the Oilers could do with their star. What could’ve been a game of exploitation became a game of rotation, and once it became a game of desperation, they found themselves stuck in the same position they were at the Air Canada Centre.

Combine that with the team being their usual eager, net-driven selves once they had the puck, and a lot of good things happened for them. Whether or not this is repeatable with other teams that might have only one or two focal point players is anybody’s guess, but it certainly worked out for Babcock against his former Detroit assistant tonight.

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