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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Line balance a big part of Leafs’ success against Caps

Even with a Jack Adams trophy all but locked away, one of the more persistent talking points about Mike Babcock all season has been about how he puts his lines together. For example, there’s been a lot of debate out there over Zach Hyman being glued to Auston Matthews the way he has been, or if the Leafs should load up their most talented trios a bit and make more of a top-six/bottom-six lineup. Either way, it doesn’t matter much, because the Leafs’ bench boss has a formula he’s always followed, and likely will continue to do so.

Babcock has always been known for balancing lines and trying to create a perfect mixture of toughness and talent on each one. This usually loosely follows something like you’d create in the NHL 2003 line chemistry calculator, with an “energy guy” or heavy forechecker, a playmaker, and a trigger man. It’s hard to say Toronto’s lines all look that way, obviously, because real-life players don’t often fit neatly into those boxes, but you can see how each line is made to have a lot of elements.

Of course the “distributor” and “goal-scorer” tags are interchangeable in the case of Nylander and Matthews, but you get the idea of what every line should have the tools to do – cause chaos, dig the puck out, set up, score.

But while the Matthews line has been by far the most dominant in these last three games, their share of even-strength ice time hasn’t been over the top. In fact, the Bozak line has seen the most minutes by a hair, and overall the spread of shifts has been relatively evened-out.

P1 P2 P3 ES TOI (min) CF%
Marner Bozak Van Riemsdyk 40.82 41.84
Hyman Matthews Nylander 38.44 67.11
Komarov Kadri Brown 35.32 45.07
Kapanen Boyle Martin 28.65 49.02

(Combos via Corsica)

A twelve-minute spread from top to bottom through three overtime games is pretty impressive, especially considering we once cheered for a team that iced players like Orr and McLaren for four minutes a night.

Here’s a nice breakdown of how the lines have gone head-to-head with the Caps through three games at even-strength, via Japers’ Rink contributor Muneeb Alam:

As you can see, each of Toronto’s lines is more-or-less getting it done against their primary opponents, with a mismatch emerging in the Matthews line absolutely cooking the trio of Williams-Johansson-Kuznetsov. The Bozak line has had the toughest go from a overall defensive perspective, which isn’t entirely surprising, but against their main matchup – the Eller line – they’ve been fine.

In all this excitement over the last three games we’ve inevitably started to see headlines emerge about what the Caps are doing wrong or how the Leafs are doing everything to get in their heads. But that kind of talk is premature, and definitely not the point I’m making here. This is a close series, as evidenced by those three straight trips to overtime. Washington has had their share of the run of play, and have gotten some prime chances of their own. Andersen, like Holtby, has played well.

No, the Caps have looked fine for the most part. And so they should – they have plenty of talent all through their forward group. What’s emerged in this series is how much of their own the Leafs have. Add to that a level of speed on every line that’s seems to be negating the apparent defence mismatch between the two clubs, and that’s why this is so close. That common thread of quickness throughout has allowed the Leafs to get contributions from all four units, hence why Babcock has no problem rolling over lines much more than we were used to in the Carlyle years.

A coach from the Eastern Conference was asked about this recently by Pierre Lebrun of ESPN:

“I think Toronto right now is the third-most talented team in the East,” the coach said Sunday over the phone. “Now, they’re young, but who cares? That was a tough draw for Washington. Outside of Pittsburgh and Washington, to me the Leafs are the third-most talented group in the East…As a forward group, boy, I would put them up with anybody. They can go depth for depth up front with Washington. They’re one of the few teams that can go line for line with Washington. I know when we played them, I thought Toronto was a matchup nightmare because you couldn’t match them line for line”

Think about how incredible that quote is to read just one season removed from this club being dead last in the NHL.

  • Stan Smith

    The Leafs have scored 10 goals in 3 games against the Caps. Only one player has 2 goals, 4th liner Kapanen. There are 8 others with 1 goal each. With the scoring spread out so much the Caps can’t possibly defend against them all.