Should the Leafs start leaning on their stars more heavily?

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Photo Credit: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SPORTS

We’ve written countless words on why the Leafs have taken a bigger-than-expected leap in their climb to contention this season, and there will continue to be plenty of pieces digging into why that is. But the simplest catch-all answer is just that the rookies have been far more NHL-ready than advertised, and that’s elevated what was left of the existing core. 

Mike Babcock relies heavily on players like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander to generate offence, along with givin plenty of penalty-killing responsibilities for guys like Brown, Soshnikov, and Hyman. How they’ve responded – with huge point totals, rock solid special teams, and good underlying numbers for the most part – has been nothing short of mindblowing for a fanbase that’s been hurting like this one has. 

But now that the Leafs find themselves in what will be a serious grind for one of those last couple playoff spots in the east, is it time to turn up the dial on a few of these guys? Sure, these rookies have been pouring in the goals and racking up exciting wins to this point, but you could argue there’s still another gear to hit yet, and Babcock can run those horses harder if need be. 

via GIPHY

As things currently stand, Auston Matthews earns the most ice time of any Leafs forward this season, averaging 17:43 per game. That doesn’t seem like very much, because it isn’t, really. In terms of workload, Babcock has relied on Matthews and the other core guys much less than Carlyle did in years past. 

In fact, here’s how the top forwards for the Leafs have seen their ice-time divvied up since 2010:

Player
Season   
TOI/GP↓  
Shifts/GP  
1
James van Riemsdyk
2013-14
21:03
26
2
Tyler Bozak
2013-14
20:56
27.1
3
Phil Kessel
2013-14
20:39
24.5
4
Tyler Bozak
2012-13
20:18
27.6
5
Phil Kessel
2011-12
20:03
22.9
6
Phil Kessel
2012-13
19:48
23.9
7
Phil Kessel
2010-11
19:38
22.3
8
Mikhail Grabovski
2010-11
19:21
23.4
9
Tyler Bozak
2010-11
19:16
23.7
10
James van Riemsdyk
2012-13
19:12
24.4

Not only does Matthews not make this top-ten list, he isn’t even in the top 20. He’s 22nd. I mean, compared to the ice that trio of Kessel-Bozak-JVR was being fed in 2014, Matthews is averaging three fewer minutes per night. A huge drop-off.

But we can obviously understand see why this would be the case. The Leafs don’t want to send these kids, some of whom have never played close to 82 games in a season, into waters too deep. That could be seen as rushing the Shanaplan, and they won’t do that.

Still, you have to wonder if the lines Babcock has put together on the heels of a bad loss this past Tuesday signal somewhat of a shift as things move forward in this second-half stretch. Perhaps the coaching staff is starting to feel the top performers in this group are ready for more. 


Now, obviously that isn’t a massive shake-up, but it does look a bit more like a top-six/bottom-six setup than Babcock was rolling out there previously. With that third line weakened defensively as Kadri “moves up” to play higher-end skill guys, and Nylander gets his spot alongside Matthews back, we could (or, should) see these top two lines play heavier minutes, somewhat abandoning the top-nine look we’ve seen before. 

And though the fourth unit this season is something far better than we’re used to seeing in the Nonis and Burke days, there are minutes to be cut there as well, if needed. The face-puncher lines with Orr and McLaren often averaged somewhere around 4-6 minutes per night, while this year’s trio is closer to 11. It obviously helps that now these are depth players that can actually kill penalties, but still, the fourth line these days gets far more even-strength minutes as well. They can be rolled back a bit.

It’s tough to say whether we’ll see a major uptick in ice-time for a lot of these guys who make up the most skill in the lineup, now making up the top two lines, as there’s obviously the big picture factoring in here with how this staff makes these decisions, especially with the youngsters. But even when we take a quick look at a veteran like Van Riemsdyk, his production this season is almost even more impressive given his 15:53 ice-time per night, a far cry from that 21+ he averaged on that Kessel line. Maybe there are injury concerns there. In either case, that’s all fine and good. But should the standings remain tight and the potential for playoffs get closer to reality, it appears the Leafs have left themselves in a position to tap into some fuel in reserve if needed. That’s even better. 

  • Stan Smith

    First on the line changes. This isn’t the first time Babcock has shaken the line up for practices after a rough spell or a couple of losses. Each time he has done it, he has gone back to the original line up fairly early into the next game, so I would expect some changes tonight. Plus I don’t think it makes much sense to go from 3 scoring lines to 2. I take that as a step backwards.

    As for player usage the Leafs are entering the most grueling schedule in the history of the franchise. As Bozak and JVR have showed, playing increased ice time doesn’t necessarily mean increased production. While game situations are going to dictate ice time to a certain degree, the important thing, with so many games over an extended period of time, is to spread their usage out more evenly to keep the players as fresh as possible,

    • LukeWarmWater

      Stan this is the traditional time of year that the leafs indeed go through their roughest part of the schedule. Their poor cousins the Raptors went through a horrid west coast trip over the Christmas holidays, came home and immediately played 3 games in 4 nights and have had this type of schedule for the past 5 weeks. Don’t you just love M.L.S.E.

      • Stan Smith

        While the schedule is usually grueling at this time of year I don’t think I have ever heard of a team being forced to play 35 games in 69 days. As I commented earlier, I can see why Babcock isn’t happy. Even if the Leafs manage to make the playoffs they will be a tired and banged up crew.

  • leafdreamer

    I don’t see how Brown and Komarov on Bozak’s wings makes that a checking line. I think Babcock is always trying to play 4-line hockey and I really like the fact that noone’s playing 20 minutes per game. It keeps the guys healthy and able to ‘come down in waves’. All we’re missing in the forward group for this approach to work is an upgrade at the 4C spot – both the Goat and Ben Smith look like traditional checkers. I don’t think Babcock is happy with the 4th line being a purely checking line. A veteran on a short-term deal (someone like Joe Thornton or Eric Staal) would make a world of difference.

    • Marcel DePass

      Lol, both Thornton and Staal will be expensive for the remainder of their career. When they are affordable, they’ll retire. The weak link offensively speaking, is Martin, not Gauthier. In saying that, the Goat needs to carry the puck more, but I do see improvement in his game.

  • Marcel DePass

    I like these lines. I’m sure Babcock will ride the top two lines in the O-zone, while Bozak and Gauthier will battle it out in the D-zone. What Babcock has done is allot the proper skill placement down the middle. Bozak’s new line actually has a more equal level of skill on it than before, Brown having the most. Kadri now has legit skill on both wings for the first time in his career, and Matthews hopes to rekindle the magic of the season’s beginning. The bottom 6 can focus and killing penalties, winning faceoffs, and not getting scored on. And the top 6 can focus on bludgeoning the competition. I like it for this roster. I’d rather Leivo to replace Hyman, but I’m not as smart as Babcock.
    The Leafs are not deep enough to have 3 high-end scoring lines, it’s a rare thing. By the time Matthews and Marner’s ELC is up, it will be almost impossible.

    • Stan Smith

      I think the Leafs have had 3 effective scoring lines for most of the season, and will continue to do so. I really don’t think you will see the changes stick.