With the season coming to a close, I thought it would be fun to wrap up the year by breaking down the performance of each Leafs player this season. To do this properly, I decided that I’d need to break down my analysis into two parts: qualitative (‘the eye test’) and quantitative (‘the numbers’). In this piece, we’re going to look at the qualitative aspects of hockey, which I think can be useful to explain why a player is effective (or ineffective). I’ll be evaluating the Leafs’ forwards today, while tomorrow’s article will focus on defensemen.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to how present my scouting report, but after seeing my boss tweet about his latest ventures in NHL 17’s Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), I came up with a great idea. I’m going to evaluate each Leafs player using the 5 attributes in Hockey Ultimate Team. These include:
- Edges, acceleration, top speed
- Release, power, accuracy
- Puck handling & passing ability
- Strength, balance, aggressiveness, and (yes) checking ability
- Stick checking ability, positioning, and defensive awareness
If you’re unfamiliar with the HUT ratings from NHL 17, here’s a database with each player’s attributes. The NHL series is pretty notorious for poorly evaluating players (they’re not nearly as good as the FIFA series), so my goal here is to accurately assess every Maple Leaf in each of the five criteria. To help provide some context for the ratings, he’s a rough estimate of what each rating represents:
- Elite F: 90+
- 1st Line F: 87-89
- 2nd Line F: 85-86
- 3rd Line F: 83-84
- 4th Line F: 80-82
- Replacement Level/AHL F: <80
I ranked each of the 5 categories using this scale, then took the average of the 5 ratings to arrive at the player’s overall. This was much easier than trying to come up with a complex formula for player overalls (like NHL 17 uses), but the downside is that everything is given equal weight. For example, I would argue that skill is more valuable than checking when evaluating forwards, but in this exercise, they’re worth the same. Just keep that in mind when you see a player’s overall.
Alright, so now that you know how the rating scale works, let’s get started:
The Matthews Line
Comparable: Jason Chimera
We’ll start with one of the most controversial players in Leafs land, Zach Hyman. He’s an excellent skater with a tireless work ethic, making him one of the team’s best forecheckers. I was shocked to learn Zach Hyman’s only 6’1 and 205lbs, but this just goes to show how “big” he plays with his strength and tenacity when battling for pucks along the boards. When it comes to playing without the puck, I’d argue that Zach Hyman’s one of the best players on the team.
Unfortunately, the biggest weakness in his game is when he does have the puck. Scott Wheeler wrote a great piece at the Athletic breaking down how Hyman uses his speed and strength to be the first man to the puck on the forecheck but struggles to come out of the corner with possession because of his limited puck skills. I don’t want to spend too much time criticizing his offensive ability, but it’s important to note that in his last 50 games, he only scored 6 goals and 4 primary assists while playing with Auston Matthews (and William Nylander for most of those games). As a fan, I really like Hyman and completely understand why he’s one of Babcock’s favourites, but based on his inability to produce offence, I would personally prefer to see him in a bottom 6 role next season.
Comparable: Evgeni Malkin
We’re running out of superlatives for Auston Matthews at this point. His hands are incredible, his release is lightning quick and deadly accurate, he’s deceptively fast, and his defensive game has improved significantly throughout the course of the season. He’s also a generational talent on the dance floor (I’m so sorry). In all seriousness, the only significant flaw you can point to in his game is his faceoff ability, which I don’t value too highly since it tends to be a learned skill throughout a player’s career, but mostly because faceoffs don’t impact results nearly as much as most people think. They only account for about 0.3% of 5v5 shot differentials, which is essentially nothing.
that is just this season – but essentially 99.7% of the information contained in CF% is explained by something OTHER than faceoff wins.
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) February 5, 2017
The biggest area I think Matthews can improve this offseason is his strength. He has a 6’3 frame that he still has time to fill out. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that he’s only 19; this kid’s going to get a lot stronger. Once he adds some more muscle (and thicc-ness 🍑 ), I legitimately don’t know how defenders will be able to get the puck off of him. It’s pretty scary to think that he’s only going to get better over the next few years, and I for one can’t wait to see what improvements he makes to his game.
Comparable: Claude Giroux
For my money, William Nylander is Toronto’s most aesthetically pleasing player to watch (both on and off the ice). His confidence with the puck and smooth skating stride make him look almost effortless as he weaves through the opposition. Unfortunately, his elegance often gets misconstrued as poor work ethic, which is a side effect of having such a graceful skating stride and elite skill (think Claude Giroux or Nicklas Backstrom).
Let me preface this next paragraph with my unconditional love for this man – he’s a fantastic player and I couldn’t be happier that he’s a Maple Leaf. If we’re being objective though, there were times earlier in the season where Nylander would give up on a backcheck and glide back into the defensive zone. After getting a bit of tough love from Babcock, he became much more engaged without the puck. Whether he’s on the forecheck, backcheck, or attempting to get in the shooting lane in the defensive zone, Nylander’s 200-foot game has improved noticeably throughout the course of the season. I’d argue that he can become an even better defensive player in the future, but it’s been great to see the strides he made over the course of this season.
The Marner Line
Comparable: Wayne Simmonds
Hockey’s version of a designated hitter, JVR is fantastic offensively and pretty horrendous defensively. Starting with the positives, he’s one of the best net-front presences in the NHL (we know all too well about his hands in tight). In my opinion, though, the most underrated aspect of his game is his release, which has allowed him to score around a 30 goal pace for the past few seasons. He may not be the strongest 6’3 player in the NHL, but he’s definitely one of the fastest once he gets going.
Now, I wouldn’t be able to do an objective evaluation of JVR without talking about his defence. To put it lightly, he’s not very good without the puck. Often times he looks lost in the defensive zone and misses his assignments, especially later in his shifts. He also lacks effort when pursuing pucks on the forecheck. For example, if you compare the way JVR chases players in the offensive zone to the way that Marner does, you’ll notice a drastic difference. I really like JVR as a player and a person, but we have to call a spade a spade: he’s an excellent offensive player, but struggles mightily on defence.
Comparable: Tomas Plekanec (before he fell off a cliff)
You can take a lot of what I said about JVR and apply it to Bozak, except I think that Bozak is slightly better defensively and obviously not as talented offensively. For the longest time, we were fed the narrative that Bozak was the defensive presence on the Kessel line, but I think now we’ve finally come to a conclusion on what he is as a player: an offensive centre who can put up points and win faceoffs but needs to be sheltered given his defensive struggles. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that by the way. He may not be a 1st line centre, but he’s a very effective player.
Instead of critiquing his defence (which we all know is sub-par), let’s focus on his offensive game. Although he doesn’t have the greatest wrist shot, Bozak’s maintained one of the highest shooting percentages in the league over the past few seasons. This is because he’s a selective shooter who uses his hockey IQ to find open spots around the net for quick one timers and tap-ins. He’s an underrated skater, but I think the most underappreciated aspect of his game is his passing. He’s consistently been one of the better players at generating “shot assists” over the past few seasons, and I think he proved in 2015-2016 that he’s capable of creating offense without relying on a star player (his most common linemates were Parenteau & Matthias, yet he still managed to score at a 50-point pace).
Comparable: Martin St Louis
Marner’s such a unique player, he’s tough to really compare to anyone. If I had to describe him with one word it would be “deceptive”. Although he has good speed, the reason he’s able to generate so much space for himself is because he’s excellent at tricking defenders with his edges as he skates up the ice with the puck. He’s become so good at this that opposing defenses will often back up on him in the neutral zone and give him the clean zone entry, knowing that if they try to step up on him, they’ll get burned more often than not (if you let Marner get by you with the puck and give him an odd-man rush, you’re gonna have a bad time).
Now we probably all know what makes Marner such a special offensive player: his creativity & playmaking ability. I’d make the argument that his vision is already among the best in the league – some of his passes leave you scratching your head wondering, “how the hell did he see that?” This is the reason I didn’t compare him to an active player; I haven’t seen a player consistently make jaw-dropping passes since Martin St Louis. This is a rare breed, so the fact that he might be the 3rd best forward on his team is pretty frightening for opposing defences.
The Kadri Line
Comparable: Joel Ward
It’s time to say hello to Uncle Leo. I’ve always appreciated his two-way game, but I think this year Komarov really stood out as an exceptional defensive winger. Despite facing some of the toughest competition in the league, him and Kadri put up great results, consistently outshooting & out-chancing the opposition. I think it’s worth noting that DTMAboutHeart’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric gives Komarov more of the defensive credit, and Kadri more of the offensive credit, which sounds about right to me.
Komarov is probably the Leafs’ best player without the puck. Whether he’s terrorizing defenders on the forecheck, backchecking like a maniac, or using his stick to get in the passing lanes, it’s easy to understand why opposing players hate playing against him (okay there might be a couple other reasons). Similar to Hyman though, Komarov’s biggest issue is when he does have the puck – he’s not exactly the ideal forward to pass to on a 2 on 1. With that being said, he’s had some moments this year that have shown off a bit of the skill that I didn’t realize he had. Another fun fact about him is that despite having one of the worst wrist shots in the league, he has an underrated slapshot when he’s coming down the left wing (Exhibit A, Exhibit B).
Comparable: Logan Couture
This year really couldn’t have gone much better for Kadri. Despite having nightmare shifts every night (tough competition, DZ starts, and sub-optimal linemates), he had a career year, breaking the 30 goal and 60 point plateaus for the first time in his career. Let’s try to qualitatively break down how he was able to be so effective this year. He’s always been excellent at using his skill to gain the zone and create offence. He’s actually been one of the league’s best at generating scoring chances over the past two seasons, except this season the pucks finally decided to go in. I know that the jump in his goal totals this year is largely because of his shooting percentage regressing back to the mean (and then some), but personally, I would argue that his wrist shot has come a long way since last season.
Although he had a breakout year offensively, I would argue that the most impressive aspect of his play this season was the improvement in his defensive game. Kadri was never a slouch when it came to his 200-foot game, but this year he went toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the league and did an excellent job of shutting them down (the McDavid game stands out as the best example of this). I’m still of the opinion that Komarov is the best defensive presence on Toronto’s “shutdown” line, but Kadri also deserves some credit for their great defensive numbers this season.
Comparable: Jakob Silfverberg
How can you not love Connor Brown? He’s fast, he’s pretty much good at everything, and he’s done it all without a soul. As a fellow ginger, I’m very happy to see Brown perform so well in his rookie season. We knew he had the talent after dominating at the OHL and AHL level, so it was nice to see his skills translate to the NHL. He was essentially Toronto’s “Swiss Army knife” this season, playing up & down the lineup, chipping in on the PK & PP, and oh yeah scoring 20 goals in his rookie season. It’s easy to understand why he’s become one of Babcock’s favourites. When you take a talented player and give him the aggressiveness of a pit bull on 10 cans of Red Bull, you get Connor Brown (although I’d argue he looks more like a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel).
The Fourth Line
Comparable: Kyle Clifford
When it comes to Matt Martin, we’re going to ignore his contract and try to objectively evaluate him as a player. His biggest strength is his ability to work the corners and cycle the puck. The man is an absolute beast of a human being, so it’s only fitting that he receives the highest strength rating among forwards. Although he doesn’t have much speed or skill to work with, we’ve seen him and Brian Boyle cycle the puck extremely well in their time together. At the end of the day, Martin’s not someone who’s going to give you much offence, but he’s a defensively responsible 4th liner who can cycle the puck and give your team some low event minutes (and some of that other stuff).
Comparable: Martin Hanzal
It’s hard to put into words how much better the Leafs’ 4th line has been with Brian Boyle than it was with Ben Smith. With Brian Boyle, you have a defensively responsible mammoth who knows how to use his giant stick to take away passing lanes. When he’s on the ice, teams really struggle to get shots from dangerous areas. Throw in some underrated skill, excellent cycling ability, and a shot that’s allowed him to score at least 13 goals in each of his last 3 seasons, and you have a solid 3rd line checking centre. Put that guy on your 4th line, now all of a sudden you have some great forward depth.
Comparable: Carl Hagelin
Here’s my scouting report on Kasperi Kapanen:
He’s an exceptional skater who also has some skill, and a decent shot when he gets a hold of one. He reminds me so much of Carl Hagelin it makes me giddy (Hagelin’s always been one of my favourite players). When god gives you this much speed, there’s so much you can do with it: retrieve pucks on the forecheck, harass puck carriers on the backcheck, terrify opposing point men on the PK. I’m so excited to watch the evolution of Kapanen’s game after seeing him take some huge strides offensively this year (even though Age 20 PPG players in the AHL are “a dime a dozen”). If all goes well for him, he could end up becoming a legitimate Top 6 forward in this league. Even if he doesn’t reach his offensive potential though, I feel like his worst-case scenario is becoming a Darren Helm type of checker, which is still a valuable asset in this league.
The Other Guys
Comparable: Jannik Hansen
I always find Soshnikov the most difficult Leaf to evaluate, because I watch him play and I see a lot of tools that I like. He’s a very fast skater with some decent puck skills and flashes of a wicked wrist shot (ie. his first and second career goals). He seems to be a defensively responsible player (excellent on the PK), and we all know that he’s not afraid to lay the body. That sounds like a pretty complete player, right? Then you pull up his numbers and realize he only had 9 points this season.
A lot of that is because of context; he’s been given very little ice time and poor quality of linemates for the majority of the season (on that disastrous Martin-Smith-Soshnikov 4th line). At the same time though, you’d like to see a player with his tools produce significantly more on the scoresheet. Part of the reason he’s underperformed expectations is his terrible shot quality; his shots come from the furthest distance away from the net among Leaf forwards, and it’s really not close (this stat refers to a player’s “Expected” unblocked Sh%). Unless you’re Alex Ovechkin, you should probably be trying to get a better shot than a wrister from just inside the blue-line. I would make the argument that Soshnikov has all the tools to become a Top 9 NHL player, but needs to improve his decision making if he’s ever going to reach that potential.
Comparable: Chris Stewart
I’m a huge fan of Josh Leivo’s game. He’s a big player who uses his size and strength to win puck battles along the boards. He’s most well known for his great wrist shot, but also has a decent set of puck skills. Although he gets knocked for his speed, his skating is definitely at an NHL level. While he’s not the most defensively responsible winger on the planet, I’d trust him more to cover his assignment in the defensive zone than, say JVR. Overall, what you’re left with is a legitimate NHL talent who wasn’t given much of an opportunity to succeed this year. Unfortunately, it looks like the Leafs might lose Leivo to Vegas in the expansion draft this summer, and if so I wish him the best of luck.
Comparable: David Steckel
I have to eat some crow here; I never thought Frederik Gauthier would come close to becoming an NHL player. The Goat’s clearly put in some work with Barb Underhill to improve his skating such that it’s close to NHL-ready, although it’s definitely still a weakness in his game. His calling was always going to be his combination of size and defensive prowess, which he was beginning to show off towards the end of his latest NHL stint. I’m still not sure if he’ll ever become a full-time NHLer given his limited offensive game, but I came away very impressed with his defensive play this year.
Comparable: Chris Kelly (the 2017 version)
I wrote an in-depth piece on Ben Smith’s game back when I was writing posts on reddit. Yup, this is why I got hired.
Have any questions or concerns (did this bum underrate your favourite player’s skating ability), be sure to leave a comment or DM me on twitter to let me know what you think I might’ve missed. My eye test is far from perfect, but I’m trying my best to improve this area of my analysis. Cheers 🍻