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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

Forward Matchups In The First Round

One of the questions that’s of interest heading into any playoff series is how the two head coaches are going to strategise in order to maximise their chances of winning.  This obviously happens in the regular season too, but since a playoff series typically lasts several games against the same team, it gives coaches more chances to execute on a gameplan and to adapt it, and it gives us as viewers more of an opportunity to try to understand what the coaches are trying to do.  One way that coaches execute a game plan is by figuring out how to match lines, which is what I’m going to take a look at in this post.

Since the Leafs’ series against the Capitals has now featured two home games for each team, we should be able to get some sense of how the two coaches want to match lines, and from there we can take a look at whether that match-ups seem to be working.  I’m going to break this down in a couple of ways.  First we’ll take a look at how much ice time each Toronto forward line has played against each Capitals line in every game in the series so far.  Then I’ll add up the ice time and take a look at the Corsi rate for each line to see whether the match-ups are coming out in the Leafs’ favour.  To simplify, I’m comparing time for the eight centres rather than for entire line combos.  Neither team has changed lines too much, so this should be a close approximation for the output of each line.

Let’s start by looking at Auston Matthews (all of the statistics in this post are for 5v5 play only):

Backstrom Kuznetsov Eller Beagle
G1 4:36 9:46 0:13 3:07
G2 3:49 15:07 1:36 3:16
G3 1:48 7:03 2:22 2:27
G4 1:52 14:49 1:09 1:13
Total 12:05 46:45 5:20 10:03

The most common match-up for the Matthews line has been the Kuznetsov line.  Kuznetsov is by far Matthews’ most common opponent in all four games.  You can see that when Babcock has had last change (games 3 and 4) that he’s pursued the Matthews/Kuznetsov match-up more strictly than he was able to in Washington, as Matthews spent very little time against the Backstrom line in either of the games in Toronto.  It looks like either Babcock is having more success driving the match-ups he wants to see, or perhaps Trotz simply isn’t as interested in matching forward lines.

Next is the Nazem Kadri line:

Backstrom Kuznetsov Eller Beagle
G1 8:04 2:13 1:57 3:01
G2 10:28 3:40 1:31 4:34
G3 9:12 0:15 1:25 1:15
G4 13:16 1:34 0:55 0:01
Total 41:00 7:42 5:48 8:51

The Kadri line has been given what most people would consider the toughest match-up, playing most of their ice time against the Backstrom/Ovechkin line in all four games.  Once again we see that the match-ups become a bit more rigidly defined when the series shifts to Toronto, as the Kadri line played more than 80% of their ice time against the Backstrom line in game 4, putting in a whopping thirteen minutes in that match-up.  Babcock was clearly pursuing that match pretty strictly, with the Kadri line not taking a single shift against the Beagle line and seeing almost none of Eller or Kuznetsov.  Nazem Kadri (along with Leo Komarov and Connor Brown) certainly seems to have earned Babcock’s trust in a way that he couldn’t under previous coaches, as there aren’t a lot of harder match-ups in the entire league than being tasked with shutting down the Ovechkin line in a playoff series.

Now here’s who the Bozak line has faced:

Backstrom Kuznetsov Eller Beagle
G1 4:37 5:28 4:34 4:18
G2 4:48 4:40 6:49 3:12
G3 0:37 4:16 6:04 2:22
G4 0:51 2:58 4:28 1:10
Total 10:53 17:22 21:55 11:02

In Washington, the Bozak line faced a pretty even mix of all four opposition centres.  It seems likely that Barry Trotz recognises that the Bozak line is Toronto’s weakest defensively, and he managed to get his top two lines out against Bozak for about 10 minutes in each of the first two games.  When the series shifted to Toronto, Babcock began doing everything he could to shelter his 3rd line from having to defend against Ovechkin, as they played just 1:28 against the Backstrom line in the two games in Toronto combined.  Unfortunately, Washington is so deep at forward that the Leafs can only shelter their 3rd line so much, and so the Bozak line still saw a fair amount of the Kuznetsov and Eller lines even when Babcock was able to make the last change.

Finally, we have the Brian Boyle line:

Backstrom Kuznetsov Eller Beagle
G1 1:09 2:16 6:09 2:36
G2 2:10 2:58 5:10 5:01
G3 0:28 2:57 2:30 5:22
G4 0:25 0:52 4:00 3:22
Total 4:12 9:03 17:49 16:21

It’s generally expected that coaches will try to get their fourth lines out against other fourth lines, but the Boyle line for Toronto has played a fairly significant chunk of their ice time against Washington’s third line.  Once the series shifts to Toronto we can again see the effects of how strictly Babcock has tried to keep all of his centres except Nazem Kadri away from Washington’s top line, as Brian Boyle has played almost no ice time against them over the past two games.

Now that we’ve looked at the breakdown for each game, let’s see the totals for all the lines:

Backstrom Kuznetsov Eller Beagle
Matthews 12:05 46:45 5:20 10:03
Kadri 41:00 7:42 5:48 8:51
Bozak 10:53 17:22 21:55 11:02
Boyle 4:12 9:03 17:49 16:21

In the bigger picture, we can see a few things clearly.  One is that Babcock has heavily pursued two particular match-ups: Auston Matthews against Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nazem Kadri against Nicklas Backstrom.  The Kadri line has played two minutes against Backstrom for every minute they’ve played against all three other lines combined, while Matthews has been matched nearly as hard against Kuznetsov.  In a series like this, where the same teams play several games in a row, quality of competition can have a huge impact on results.  There’s no way to get around the fact that the Tyler Bozak line has faced much easier minutes than Kadri or Matthews has.

So now we know what the match-ups are, but are they the right ones?  Let’s see how each of these lines has fared in their ratio of shot attempts:

Backstrom Kuznetsov Eller Beagle
Matthews 66.7% 56.9% 63.6% 55.0%
Kadri 48.5% 47.4% 23.1% 30.8%
Bozak 39.4% 33.3% 51.0% 47.6%
Boyle 0.0% 52.6% 26.2% 71.4%

I think on the whole it looks like the match-ups are working for the Leafs.  The Bozak line is, unsurprisingly, doing far better against Washington’s bottom six than their top six.  Keeping Bozak away from Washington’s better players looks to be the right decision.

It might look from these numbers like the Leafs would be better off playing the Matthews line against the Backstrom line, given how well Matthews and company have performed against all four Washington lines, but it’s worth noting that even though Matthews has been matched against the talented Kuznetsov line pretty strictly, they’re still getting much softer deployment than the Kadri line in terms of zone starts.  Nazem Kadri has been on the ice for just four offensive zone face-offs at even strength in the entire series; yes, just one per game.  Matthews, by contrast, has received 27.  So it’s possible that the Matthews line could do well against Backstrom and Ovechkin, but Kadri has actually been doing a very good job considering the difficulty of the minutes he’s being given, and the current deployment seems to be giving the Matthews line more opportunities on offence, which I think is exactly what you want out of Auston and frequent linemate William Nylander.

So, on the whole, it does seem like Babcock is pursuing the match-ups in a way that makes sense, and he seems to be succeeding in getting the players he wants out against each of Washington’s line.  Matthews and Nylander have looked great so far, and each player has three points in four games in addition to their dominant shot ratios, but don’t overlook the role the Kadri line has played in keeping this series as close as it’s been.  Buried in the defensive zone against one of the highest-scoring lines in the league, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, and Connor Brown have helped put the Leafs in a position to succeed.

  • MartinPolak

    The other fine point I noticed is the Boyle line is used by Babcock for hemming in and pounding the opposition defenders and tiring out the forwards after which Matthews is often the next line out to prey upon a group that has iced the puck. Of course, like anything in hockey (shot differential, scoring goals, faceofsi etc), it is tough to always win at the factor as the other team are trying to do it as well. And I have yet to find a good stat that captures this in the analytic community who usually make fun of this when I ask. That said, it was good to see Babcock tracks “heavy shifts” which is exactly what he tries to accomplish with that line to turn the momentum. And was exactly the type of analytic that captures the value of the Boyle line.

  • The Russian Rocket

    Look at the Ellers line and then look at the Bozak line with two 60pt players on the wings. As long as they get quick d-zone exits in the next 2-3 games, this line should be the difference maker.