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Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Enemy: Maple Leafs face off against a depleted Senators team

So, this is a new series that I’ve decided as a way to both be able to do some of my favourite things in writing (which is well-researched statistical deep dives into all the teams in the league, and break them down), as well as give Leafs fans a way to know what they should expect against an opponent going into a game. It’s easy to latch on to narratives thrown around in the hockey world and assume that that’s the case without any evidence, but it’s also a lot of work to keep up with all 32 NHL teams. So, I’ve decided to do the work for you. This will either be done for every game, or just for the bigger matchups, depending on how much work this is for me, and how exhausted I get from it.

The Leafs may have a depleted lineup, but if there’s any team that’s a great matchup to get their skating legs warmed up against, it’s the Ottawa Senators. The Senators are a team that many expected to take the next step after a strong second half last season, and they’ve done anything but that, with a 9-17-2 record that finds them in 7th in the division, better than only a Canadiens team that lost most of it’s best players so far this season. Not only is their record bad, their performance also doesn’t give much confidence either. But, there are still a few parts of this lineup that could give the Leafs trouble, even without a PDO bender, so let’s dive in and see how the Leafs can match up against them.

Tale of the Tape (via Mark Norman)

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Projected Lineups

Forwards

What might be the biggest shock for me forward wise for the Sens is that they’ve decided to separate Tim Stützle and Connor Brown, who have probably been the Sens most reliable duo defensively. Together, they have a 51.92% CF% and 52.12% xGF% at 5v5 when they’re on the ice, and the team falls to a 42.34% CF% and 44.04% xGF% when they aren’t, which is roughly 80% of the time for the Sens this season. That said, Stützle does see a bit of success on his own, as while his CF% drops to a 46.7% without Brown, his xGF% actually jumps up to a 53.28%, so perhaps putting him in between Drake Batherson and Brady Tkachuk might be a smart idea. Both players are really good offensively, as Batherson has emerged as a really good scoring winger after a breakout season in 2020-21 with 26 goals and 62 points in 79 games these past two seasons, and Brady Tkachuk needs no introduction, as he’s managed to be one of the best in the league at creating individual scoring chances (he’s eighth in the league with 1.31 individual expected goals per 60 minutes since his rookie season), although this season is the first season that that’s actually translated to results with 12 goals and 22 points in 25 games. But, those two really struggle defensively, so perhaps putting the team’s best defensive forward with them might help (or just drag Stützle down and waste his defensive ability), but Stützle also has the skill to keep up with them offensively regardless. This combo has barely three minutes together, so the results are a bit wacky (62.33% CF% and 25% xGF%), but it has some potential to be a good first line on paper.

Brown hasn’t been quite as good away from Stützle as Stützle is from Brown, as he sees his CF% drop to a 45% and xGF% drop to a 39.95% away from Stützle, but the second line has some potential to be good defensively considering that overall Brown and Chris Tierney are solid in that regards, although Tierney’s usually used to lighter minutes, so there’s still the potential to struggle. Alex Formenton isn’t good defensively, so that might also weigh down the line a bit and cause some problems. Like the first line, the trio hasn’t spent much time together (only six minutes), so the results are equally wacky with a 34.68% CF% and 60% xGF%. Aside from Brown, they don’t exactly bring a lot to the table offensively either, so there shouldn’t be too much concern there either. With a healthy lineup, the Sens top six could potentially give the Leafs some trouble (emphasis on some), but with Norris out of the lineup and them moving Stützle and Tierney around as a result leaves a bit more uncertainty.

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On top of a top six that’s a mystery box, the Leafs should have no issues matching up against the third line, as the Sanford-Gambrell-Watson trio is one of the worst in the NHL. Among lines with 30 5v5 minutes together, this line is the second worst in 5v5 CF% with 30.06% and fourth worst in 5v5 xGF% with 26.09%. It’s not even like it’s one player weighing the rest down, the Sens have four of the 40 worst line combos in CF% and two of the 40 worst in xGF%, and all of those line combos contain one of those three players. All three of them are absolutely horrid at driving play and suppressing chances, with the only real bright spot on that line being Sanford’s goal scoring rates being one of the better on the team, but relative to Ottawa, that’s still not good.

Normally, I’d suggest playing the Tavares line against the third line, and let the Matthews and Kampf line pick and choose among the top six, but the Mikheyev-Kampf-Kase line hasn’t done too well in the early going, with a 35.54% CF% and a 48.44% xGF%, so they might be better suited to take on the weaker third line tonight, while you let the dominant Bunting-Matthews-Marner line and the not as strong defensively but still really good Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander line handle the first two lines, but at the same time, this is the Senators we’re talking about, so it probably won’t make too much of a difference.

The fourth line has never actually played as a trio before, but there is a bit of potential for the group, as they all are at least competent from a play driving standpoint, and they will be doing it in super easy fourth line minutes. The only problem for them is that they’ll be up against the Engvall-Spezza-Simmonds line, which has eaten weak competition alive and turned that line into one of the best in the league from a results standpoint, as they rank fourth in the league with a 69.59% CF% and eighth in xGF% with 73.57%. Again, it’s against weak competition, but that just means that I don’t think this fourth line should be a problem for them.

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Defense

The top pair of Thomas Chabot and Jacob Bernard-Docker bring a little bit of intrigue, as the early returns from their three games and 24 minutes together at 5v5 have resulted in a 56.5% CF% and 66.48% xGF%. A lot of that has to mostly do with Chabot being as good as he is, but he’s not exactly a sound defensive presence either, as he has yet to really have a strong defensive season up to this point of his career (his best defensive GAR is 2.6 in 2019-20). So, this can probably be chalked up to a small sample size, but if they can keep this up, there could be a Holl-like career for Bernard-Docker if he can hold his own in tough minutes with Chabot.

The Nick Holden-Artem Zub second pair also isn’t worst by Ottawa’s standards, as they’ve had a 46.12% CF% and 49.05% xGF% in their 130+ minutes together at 5v5. It’s not great, but for a team that’s second worst in CF% with 44.47% and fourth worst in xGF% with 45.64%, it could be a lot worse. Zub is definitely the better defenseman of the pair, as while he has his flaws at driving and surprising overall shot attempts (only a 45.52% CF%), he’s at least good at creating and suppressing scoring chances (a 50.27% xGF%, the only defenseman on the team with an xGF% above 50%). Meanwhile, Holden is just straight up bad at everything, and probably shouldn’t be in a top four role in a healthy lineup, even on the Senators.

If they can, I’d probably put Rielly and Brodie up against Chabot, while you give Muzzin and Holl the slightly easier matchup of Holden and Zub, but Chabot has a tendency to get a lot of ice time, as he ranks second in the league in 5v5 ice time over the last three seasons. That could create a bit more trouble trying to make that matchup work, so it might just be easier to try and make sure one of those two pairs are out against Chabot.

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Victor Mete and Erik Brannstrom haven’t played together yet this season, but on paper this doesn’t look like the most promising pairing. Mete has a reputation as a player who puts up strong underlying numbers in sheltered minutes, but he’s been absolutely brutal defensively this season, while Brannstrom has struggled to cement himself as an NHL defenseman up to this point of his career. It’s definitely best for this pair that they get sheltered minutes, but the problem is that against the Leafs, it’s still not really sheltered minutes. Much like their fourth line, the Leafs bottom pair gets strong results in those sheltered minutes, as Sandin and Dermott have a 57.94% CF% (35th in the league) and a 67.87% xGF% (12th in the league) when together, so they’ll probably eat this pairing alive as well.

Goaltending

Matt Murray is confirmed to get the start tonight, and it will be his first start for the Senators since being sent down to the minors in late November after a rough start to the season. His underlying numbers aren’t actually terrible, as he actually finds himself 29th in the league in 5v5 save percentage, 32nd in adjusted Fenwick save percentage, and 34th in goals saved above expected. That’s not exactly starter material still, and definitely not worth the money he’s making, but it also probably isn’t “get sent down to the minors” bad, and is still better than whoever else the Sens have thrown in net.

That said, pretty much anyone is going to lose the goaltending matchup when up against Jack Campbell, who isn’t confirmed for the start, but has been deemed likely at this point. Campbell finds himself third among starters in 5v5 save percentage, seventh in adjusted Fenwick save percentage, and fifth in goals saved above expected. As the calendar switches over to 2022, he actually found himself with the best save percentage in the year 2021, so overall Campbell has really found his form this past year.

Overall

On paper, this should be an easy win for the Leafs, as they have the better upfront scoring, forward depth, blueline, and goaltending, and even the weaker parts of their own lineup are still better than what the Sens can bring up. Obviously luck will play a bit of a role, and no win is 100% guaranteed in hockey, but the Leafs are in a pretty good position for a win tonight.

Projected lineups and starters via Daily Faceoff

All scoring stats via NHL.com

All WOWY stats via Natural Stat Trick

All advanced stats and line combo statistics via Evolving Hockey