We hear a lot about players’ quality of teammates and competition and how much that factors into their on-ice performance, and from that, their numbers. It’s obviously no secret that coaches around the league seek out matchups that they believe will be favourable to their team, and that likely goes for essentially every level of serious hockey. It’s been happening forever.
But how does that #actually look from game-to-game?
We hear that Rielly and Zaitsev were a pairing that saw plenty of tough competition last season. We see the debates over Rielly versus Gardiner, often with the caveat that the former eats up more difficult minutes. We know Babcock relies on Kadri to take on the opposition’s most talented center a lot of the time, even to the point where it makes headlines when a huge name like McDavid comes to town.
If you want to see how a standard night of hard-matching looks, below is a visual of a game between the Leafs and Jets last season. It was in Toronto, so Babcock gets his final change and, for the most part, the matchups he wants.
You can find these visuals from Muneeb Alam, who has provided them publicly, by going to the DropBox location linked here.
At first glance this sheet might look intimidating, but it actually shows a tidy view of the matches Babcock sought out that night. The most stark, of course, is how Kadri’s line, along with Zaitsev and Rielly, went up against Laine and Schiefele, showing that Babcock likely feared the scoring of those two the most. [Even with Kadri and co. caving in that line in the run of play, Laine still managed a pair of goals, so I guess it didn’t entirely work.]
Now, if you pore over these charts for the entire season (which I did), you’ll see a relatively clear picture of how the Leafs generally went about this kind of business all year, especially at home where Babcock had the change advantage. Overall, the story is pretty much in line with what we see above: Kadri and Komarov (plus whoever) with Zaitsev and Rielly were being fed minutes against the other team’s most dangerous lines. I mean, this isn’t really news; most people probably would draw that conclusion themselves from following the club all season, but it’s good to see it summarized in these game reports, and the one above is somewhat of a microcosm.
With the way the NHL is these days, some teams can spread talent through their lineup and avoid being top-heavy, giving coaches plenty to think about. I’d argue the Leafs are definitely one of those teams. So who did Babcock decide was most-dangerous when things were tight?
I can tell you that, after going through each of the Leafs’ home games, the sought-after matchups become pretty clear, especially for division rivals (unsurprisingly).
Let’s get into a few examples.
First off, the Leafs and Sabres. They played twice at the ACC this season, and according to these visuals, both times Babcock elected to put Kadri up against O’Rielly, and Matthews across from Eichel. I mean, in this first instance, nearly 13 minutes at even strength against each other is a tad absurd, and it shows Bylsma either had a hard time getting away from these lines or was simply fine with it.
So what’s the story here? Is O’Reilly truly the Sabres’ most talented center? Maybe overall he has the edge, but Eichel terrifies me more from an offensive standpoint, so why not try to shut him down? If I had to guess, I’d assume Babcock’s thinking here was that Kadri and O’Reilly would be a wash, freeing Matthews from ROR’s smothering defensive game.
Now, let’s step back and think of the broader view.
If you had to classify the Leafs’ top three centers in terms of how they’re deployed over the course of the entire season, I’d assume most would see Kadri as the shutdown “tough minutes” guy, Bozak’s line as sheltered scoring, and Matthews basically in-between.
Against Kadri at 5v5
Against Matthews at 5v5
Against Bozak at 5v5
Upon looking at who these centers saw the most of, I’d say those classifications more-or-less line up. Bozak’s workload in this sample is the easiest, Kadri’s is without question the most difficult, and Matthews is somewhat of a mixed bag. Looking at Kadri specifically, he’s the only player who had a non-divisional opponent near the top of his list of most-common matchups. That was Crosby, who Kadri saw 30 even-strength minutes of in just three games, one of which was in Pittsburgh. The fact Naz ripped off 20 even-strength goals this season is pretty incredible.
Going back to individual games, we’ve looked at the Sabres, but it’s obvious from these quick lists above the Panthers were a team the Leafs looked to match against hard as well. Again, these charts are for home games where Babcock had control.
In contrast to the games against Sabres, here’s an example where Babcock has an easier choice to make. Barkov is far-and-away the Panthers’ best center, so Kadri just gets glued to him and Jagr in both games. The other lines are more-or-less left to roam around as they please, and Matthews doesn’t get such a blatant assignment in these games like he did against Eichel and Reinhart.
Of course there’s plenty more to dig into with all of this. We didn’t really get into the defence pair deployment, and there’s an investigation to be carried out as to how Babcock seeks out or avoids matching on the road. But it’s a long offseason and we’ll cover those in the coming weeks. Right now this is more of a quick look at how this goes down from game-to-game, and provides a nice visual showing how the Leafs’ coaching staff prioritizes which opposing players to go after the hardest.