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Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Leafs dial back Auston Matthews?

With the Leafs in the thick of the most meaningful stretch of hockey they’ve had on their plate in nearly four years, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything but leaving it all out there over the next month to make the playoffs. That likely means a few nights with shortened benches and relying more heavily on the talent.

But for their most talented young star, in the immediate term, Babcock might be well-served to wind things down for a few games.

While the blue-and-white have reeled off some important wins over the last week, I think anyone can see that Auston Matthews has not looked himself over this recent stretch of games. To this point in the season he’s been the most leaned-on forward despite being only nineteen-years-old, and you have to wonder if it’s burned him out a little given this is his first 82-game grind.

The main thing that’s stood out about Matthews over the last handful of games is that, well…he hasn’t stood out. In contrast to the earlier stretch in the season where plenty of “analysts” believed he hit a wall, this time he really does seem to have slowed a little. In the early part of the season he was simply going through a goal drought, but still managed to get away plenty of shots and scoring chances, and tilted the ice.

It seems he hasn’t been doing any of that with the same gumption over the past couple weeks.

(via Corsica.Hockey)

Now, I don’t automatically subscribe to the idea of rookies hitting the wall due to the increase in games from junior or minor leagues to the NHL. These are elite athletes that have conditioning coaches, doctors, and nutritionists on hand. They should be well aware of limits and the proper ways to recover.

TOI/GP

Auston Matthews

17:50

Nazem Kadri

16:40

Tyler Bozak

16:21

Brian Boyle

12:03

But with all that said, Matthews is perceived a little differently than other rookies even on his own team, because he’s had a different path. Marner, for example, played a full OHL season, playoffs, and Memorial Cup last year, while players like Hyman and Nylander had their tastes of professional hockey with both the Marlies and Leafs. Playing in Switzerland, Matthews is commonly believed to have had a lighter load in terms of league play. But I’m still not convinced this is what’s contributing most to his slowdown. He still played plenty of hockey last year, with trips to the World Juniors and World Championship, both of which he also dominated.

No, I think that, regardless of how much he played in 2015-16, it was inevitable Matthews would hit a stretch where he looked flat. Every player has to go through it here and there. Since the draft he’s attended the World Cup, playing on the top line there for North America, and missing his first NHL training camp in the process. Then he blew out of the gate as the best scorer Toronto has had since Mats Sundin. His pace has been incredible all season, and now that its apparently slowed, perhaps Babcock should dial back his minutes for the next few games and see if it can bring back some pep to his step.

A while back, I wrote here that, while Matthews is the team’s most leaned-upon forward, he still hasn’t been playing as much as the old JVR-Bozak-Kessel line that Randy Carlyle used so frequently. But in that same article I pointed out that some players, like Van Riemsdyk, have been used far less than usual this season. And that’s still the case.

For that reason, maybe it’s time to bump that line of 25-42-16 – which has been scorching anyway – up a few notches in terms of all-situations minutes. Between that trio, Kadri’s unit, and even the addition of Brian Boyle, the Leafs have enough options that they can take some minutes away from Matthews, if only for a week or so, and give him a chance to re-calibrate.

 

  • Stan Smith

    Reading this was funny. I have read a number of articles complaining that Babcock isn’t playing Matthews enough, and now one comes along saying he is playing too much.

    I have two thoughts on that. I notice that Matthews is playing more of a defensive game. He is spending more time deeper in his own zone, staying on the right side of the puck. A lot of times he is the first forward back to backcheck. I wasn’t seeing this at the start of the season. I think that Babcock is trying to teach him to play more of an all around game. That of course would mean the offence is going to suffer a bit.

    Second, the Leafs have one of the best medical staffs in the NHL. They monitor the players physical health constantly. I think they would be better to judge how much Matthews should be playing. Just the same as I am not worried about whether or not Andersen is being overplayed, I’m not the least worried that Matthews is being overplayed.

    It gets tougher to find open space on the ice this time of year, and teams key on the best players on their opposition. Matthews has to learn how to deal with the added attention, and the closer checking games this time of the season. I’m sure he will be just fine.

    • I remember a few articles about Matthews possibly playing more but you have to remember this is a blog with articles written by a bunch of contributors/authors. On the article Ryan sources written back in February, you actually commented that “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”. You also made reference to the high frequency of games and that the Leafs would have issues staying healthy and “fresh”.

      I think that’s what we are dealing with now. Maybe during the stretch we didn’t see much decline in his game but it’s a pretty solid bet to say that it’s taking effect now. I think it’s a little too early for us to expect Matthews to put the team on his back and drag them into the playoffs. We still have the vets that I’d like to see take the reigns a bit and help him out when he is so obviously drained.

      And if you are only noticing him backchecking more now, it’s probably because he was so dominant at stealing and keeping the puck earlier in the season. Probably my first takeaway from his first game, besides the 4 goals, was how often he was thieving guys on the backcheck with a quick stick lift at the blue line or before a cycle could get started. It’s just like the hitting paradox: just like more hits are tied to playing more without the puck, noticing him more defensively means he isn’t playing as often with the puck.

      He’s tired. No one is saying to give him a night off or something. Just maybe cut back his minutes a bit in games we are quickly ahead in scoring or against weaker teams over the next week or so. Let’s make sure he is as close to 100% in the playoffs.

      • Gary Empey

        Odd but nobody has mentioned Babcock took Brown off his line and replaced him with Nylander, most of the time. The team definitely needed to work on team defense. We were giving up far to many top scoring chances. According to Babcock, once defence becoming so ingrained players no longer have to think about it because it becomes second nature, it is at that point offense returns even better than it was before. This takes a period of time to develop. Kadri is a good example of that philosophy. At first we all worried about that Kadri was no longer effective offensively. Now after a year and three quarters we can see the results. As for being tired sure all of the players must feel it. The scheduling this year has to have an affect. Three days off followed by three games in four nights must be draining. Looking at Ryan’s chart above one can see Matthews is only playing about a minute and a half more than the other top nine forwards. Even at that he is still no playing more than 18 minutes per game. I think coaches do attempt to give their top players some rest heading into the playoffs. First though they have to be sure they are in the playoffs. We are not there yet.

  • getrdone

    These are the games that really matter and every team with the least bit of a chance to make the playoffs are pushing hard. The room on the ice is cut down especially for a guy that can really hurt your team. These are the things that Matthews has to work through and now that reality is here this is also telling on his linemates who themselves have not had this in the big leagues. So this is more difficult on a #1 center who is playing with 2 rookies. This is the grind.

  • Brent Wisken

    Good article, and valid points about scaling back a bit of Matthews’ minutes. He looks exhausted – growing pains during his first full NHL season as a 19 year old, the World Cup, the all-star game, plus lately being double-teamed by the opposition.

    Incidentally, it also looks like the benefits of Hyman with Matthews have dried up a tad lately. Keep them together and hope for the best or make some adjustments? Leivo could look good with Matthews and Nylander. Leivo is hard on the puck, has skill and puts up points. He also had good chemistry with Nylander while they were on the Marlies.

  • STAN

    As Stan Smith pointed out, with more money than a dozen NHL teams combined the Leafs had better have the best medical staff in the league (world?. That said, I’m not sure Babcock is the kind of new-age coach who will seek advice from trainers, nutritionists and medical staff. It’s clear that 34 is far better in the Leafs zone than he was for the first 40 games of the season, hence the odd-man rush situations will shrink. The kid is rounding into a powerful, mature, complete-game leader. That, plus he (and fellow youngsters Brown and Hyman) seems to be an all-round good person. He’ll be fine.

  • killerkash

    It’s obvious by just watching him play that he doesn’t have the same jump in his stride and he’s always ready to head for the bench after only 30 seconds of playing time. He’s usually one of the first heading for a change lately which is in stark contrast to his extended shifts earlier in the year where he was always the last man to head to the bench.
    The kid’s tired and it’s showing up in his game. No ifs, ands or buts. Lowering his minutes per game or sitting him out for a game or 2 isn’t going to help. At this stage he’s likely to need an extended rest in excess of 10 tens to get a bit of rejuvenation but that’s not going to happen. He’s just going to have to tough it out. He’s definitely not the only player that’s exhausted at this time of year. He’ll be receiving the most help and the best treatment, nutrition and advice that money can buy so there’s no fear of any harm coming to this budding superstar. Hell be fine sooner or later…….