Bunting, Matthews, Marner have a chance to be the best top line in Leafs history

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Hobart
1 year ago
It has not been rare to have a consistent top line in the Leafs recent history. For years it was @Tyler Bozak, @Phil Kessel, and either @Joffrey Lupul or @James Van Riemsdyk.
Now, of course, rather than Kessel and Bozak, we have @Auston Matthews and @Mitch Marner. And instead of JVR taking over for Lupul, we have @Michael Bunting taking over for @Zach Hyman.
In the tumultuous years before the Kessel era, though, the lines were much more fluctuating. It was impossible over @Mats Sundin’s career to find him a set of wingers that worked permanently.
Before that is before my time, but there haven’t been any stories passed down from generations before me of epic line combinations. There were superstars, sure. @Doug Gilmour. @Wendel Clark. @Darryl Sittler. Then, there were the heroes of the Cup-winning era. @Dave Keon. @George Armstrong. @Frank Mahovlich. @Ted Kennedy. These are names we’ve heard for generations, but when has a line ever passed on its glory through the years?
It’s happened for other teams. Think of the dominant years of the Detroit Red Wings with @Pavel Datsyuk, @Henrik Zetterberg and @Tomas Holmstrom at the forefront. Or reaching further back, there’s the Trio Grande out in Long Island: @Mike Bossy, @Bryan Trottier and @Clark Gillies. Or the Finnish Sandwich in Edmonton, with @Wayne Gretzky centering @Jari Kurri and @Esa Tikkanen.
The closest I could find to a line with such a capacity for carrying its story through the generations is the @Lanny McDonald, @Darryl Sittler, and @Errol Thompson. Maybe I’m ignorant, but yesterday, when writing this, was the first time I’d ever heard of Errol Thompson.
This top line is shaping up to be able to do what their sporting ancestors haven’t been able to.
Look at how incredible they have been, using HockeyViz‘s Environment Distiller tool. That huge, seething pool of red in front of the opponents net is a great sign, showing that they are so much higher than league averages in getting shots from these dangerous areas. On defense, too, there is a vacuum in front of the net where the opponent’s offensive opportunities go to die.
Here’s how it stacks up against all Leafs top lines in the stats era, using the same model from the same source. They are second in terms of the best impact in the stats-counting era. As much as it would have been nice to write that this is the best line in Leafs recent history (that was my hypothesis when entering the research portion of this article), they are out done just slightly by last year’s Hyman – Matthews – Marner combination.
SeasonIcetimexGF/60xGF/60 over Lg. Av.xGA/60xGA/60 over Lg. Av.
Bunting – Matthews – Marner2021-22308 mins3.73+46%2.13-17%
Hyman – Matthews – Marner2020-21290 mins3.77+55%2-18%
Hyman – Matthews – Marner2019-20376 mins3.4+37%2.54+2%
Hyman – Tavares – Marner2018-19818 mins3.37+35%2.81+12%
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander2017-18645 mins2.98+23%2.8+16%
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander2016-17523 mins3.25+42%2.6+14%
JVR – Kadri – Komarov2015-16264 mins2.36+8%1.94-11%
JVR – Bozak – Kessel2014-15718 mins2.35+4%3.22+42%
JVR – Bozak – Kessel2013-14732 mins2.53+11%3+31%
JVR – Bozak – Kessel2012-13504 mins2.27+0%2.53+12%
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel2011-12607 mins3.14+37%3.1+36%
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel2010-11243 mins2.38+2%2.99+28%
Ponikarovsky – Stajan – Kessel2009-10252 mins3.16+34%2.11-10%
Blake – Moore – Stempniak2008-09173 mins3.42+44%2.65+12%
Ponikarovsky – Sundin – Antropov2007-08226 mins2.9+29%2.72+21%
It might be easy to conclude from that that Hyman was a better piece for that line than Bunting has been. There can be some truth to that depending on where you look.
As Matthews and Marner hit their respective peaks, some might consider either Bunting or Hyman simply a passenger. Again, that could be true, depending on your source of information.
Per the NHL’s stats, since 2009-10, there are only 6 players in the NHL with a better rate of scoring primary points (goals and first assists) than @Michael Bunting. Three of them are obvious, Matthews, @Connor McDavid, and @Sidney Crosby. Some less obvious names are @Kirill Kaprizov, @Jordan Kyrou, and @Jason Robertson. That’s it. That’s the list. To me that indicates pretty strongly that he’s playmaking and finishing plays at his own ability, not just racking up secondary assists while Marner and Matthews work their magic. Note, Bunting also has the smallest sample size of any of these top players. I cut it off at 50 games played, Bunting has 79. McDavid has 460. @Steven Stamkos has 813, and is just a hair behind Bunting in this category. That is a lot more statistically significant.
From Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement model, @Michael Bunting has added 18 more goals to the scoresheet than a replacement player would. That converts to about 3 wins and about 6 points in the standings. @Zach Hyman never broke 9.0 Goals Above Replacement in his time as a Leaf (his time as an Oiler is the worst showing since his rookie year, so far). This model does isolate out some teammate related factors but perhaps not all that strongly. Either way, Bunting looks excellent both on his own, and as compared to his predecessor.
Going back to HockeyViz, their Isolated Impact model attempts to isolate a player’s performance from influencing factors such as the quality of their teammates. Here is how Bunting shapes up in that model, as compared to Hyman:

Final Thoughts

There’s one thing that the Leafs of recent history have lacked that is the key to having your story passed on. It’s quite obvious in retrospect: championships. It’s one thing for this line to be dominant. But to reach the levels of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Holmstrom, and the other famous trios. You have to win it all. That, or you have to have a great nickname. Any suggestions?
Just because this Leafs team hasn’t won anything in over 50 years doesn’t discount anything from what this line has done to this point. This is Bunting’s first year here. Maybe he’s what the team needed drive them over the finish line, or part of it anyway. Maybe not.
All that we can say right now is that the numbers show that this line is dominant, and that we should expect it to continue to be that way.

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