Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Examining the Leafs’ top six at the Christmas break
1 month ago
A new year is nearly upon us, so let’s take a look at how players in the Leafs’ top six have done so far.
In this series, we’ll look at how the top six, the bottom six, the defence, and the goaltenders have done. In this article, we’ll look at the top six, player by player.
Matthews is the man for the Leafs. Through 30 games, the 26-year-old centre has 28 goals and 41 points and is on pace for an insane 76 goals on the season. Will he hit it? Probably not, but it looks as if he’ll easily blow by his career-high 60 goals.
Heading into Christmas, Matthews leads the league in goals, with the next closest player being Vancouver’s Brock Boeser with 24. The race for even-strength goals isn’t even that close either, as he once again leads the league in that category with 20, with Boeser, Nathan MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov, and Sidney Crosby all being tied for second with 15.
In terms of advanced stats, Matthews has a 56.45% goal share during even-strength play, the fifth-highest on the team. The 26-year-old is exceeding his expected goal share, as it sits at 54.32%. He has had a revolving door of left-wingers in his time as a Maple Leaf. However, there’s been one constant, and that’s Mitch Marner on his right wing.
Marner has long been Matthews’ winger, and the chemistry is apparent. So far in the 2023-24 season, He has 13 goals and 36 points in 31 games. He is currently on pace for 34 goals, which would be one below his career high. Moreover, the former London Knight is on pace for 95 points, which would be just four shy of his career-high in that category that he set in the 2022-23 season.
Marner has a similar goal share to Matthews (they’ve played 271:12 minutes together), as it sits at 56.14%. Like Matthews, he’s exceeding his even strength expected goal share of 51.43%. He has picked up the pace since November 30, as he has eight goals and 16 points in his last 11 games, including six even-strength goals in that span. He has a legitimate chance at besting his career high.
Knies didn’t start the season on Matthews’ left wing, but he’s sure earned the role. The 21-year-old left winger made his professional debut towards the end of the 2022-23 season, picking up an assist in just three regular season games. However, he made his mark in the playoffs when he scored his first career goal, along with four points in seven games played as the Leafs made it to the second round for the first time since 2004.
So far this season, Knies has seven goals and 13 points in 29 games, and also recently picked up a Gordie Howe Hat Trick.
The Knies-Matthews-Marner line has a 53.85% goal share and a 50.98% expected goal share in 108:07 minutes at even strength. Interestingly, when Matthews only plays with Knies and not Marner, the two of them have a 50% goal share and a 54.13% expected goal share in 110:49 minutes. When it’s just Marner and Knies, their goal share is 66.67% and the expected goal share is 17.59%, but they’ve only played 14 minutes together.
It’ll be exciting to see how Knies continues to develop throughout the years.
Moving on to the second line, it’s hard to say that John Tavares hasn’t been worth his seven-year, $77 million deal. So far this season, he has 10 goals and 30 points in 31 games, a point away from being at the point-per-game pace that he was last season. Tavares recently hit the 1,000-point plateau for his career, as the former first-overall pick for the New York Islanders did it against his former team on the road.
As second-line centre, he has a 52.94% goal share in 441:48 minutes of even strength again. There’s a case to be made that he’s underachieving his goal share, as he has a 55.04% expected goal share, the third-highest mark on the team.
The 33-year-old centre has played the majority of the season on a line with William Nylander and Tyler Bertuzzi. Let’s look at the latter first.
When just looking at Bertuzzi’s number on paper, his five goals and 13 points in 31 games don’t really stand out whatsoever. It’s far removed from his 2021-22 season with the Detroit Red Wings where he scored a career-high with 30 goals and 62 points in just 68 games.
However, the underlying numbers tell a much different story. In 449:33 minutes played at even strength, Bertuzzi’s 58.33% goal share is the second on the team except for Conor Timmins, who has only played 182:45 even strength minutes. Think he is just overperforming his goal share? Not at all, as he has an expected goal share of 60.19%, the highest on the team. Not just that, but he’s complimented the Tavares line really well.
Without Bertuzzi, Nylander and Tavares have a 56.52% goal share in 98:12 minutes together, which is still really good. But when you throw the former Sudbury Wolf in the mix, that goal share rises to 69.23% in 178:13 even strength minutes.
In terms of goal share, it’s the ninth-best line in the league with over 140:00 minutes together of even strength. Bertuzzi didn’t start the season with Tavares and Nylander, but the line has seemingly picked up chemistry along the way.
It’s time to sign Nylander.
The 27-year-old right-wing leads the Leafs in points with 16 goals and 45 assists in 31 games, and those 45 points are fourth in the league, behind Kucherov, MacKinnon, and J.T. Miller, but ahead of McDavid and a few other elite players. It’s been a career year for the Swede, who is on pace for 119 points, which would far surpass his previous career-high of 87 points in 2022-23. We don’t need to tell you how good he’s been this year, but it’s worth mentioning every time his name comes up. Furthermore, his 16 goals in 31 games are on pace to slightly edge out his career-high of 40 goals that he had last season, as he’s on a 42-goal pace.
And it couldn’t come at a worse time, as Nylander is in the final season of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. If he hits anywhere near 119 points and 42 goals, teams (especially a team like Detroit or Buffalo), will offer Nylander dump trucks full of cash.
Now, Toronto will have the cap room to re-sign him with ease, as there’ll be a rise in the cap ceiling, and a bunch of expensive contracts are off the books. However, you can’t chance Nylander walking to another team, as he’s been incredibly valuable for the Leafs in 2023-24.
In the next article in the series, we’ll look at the bottom six players, which will feature the rest of the forwards that are on the roster or are injured.
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