It’s late summer and I was all prepared to come at you with an article today going into the merits of splitting up Tavares and Nylander and trying to spread the offense around to three lines. There might still be some interest in doing that, and I’ll discuss it, but the numbers certainly don’t support it. What it looks like the numbers support is that Kerfoot if he returns this season, shouldn’t be on that line. That’s certainly an idea worth exploring as the salary cap could dictate it as a necessity for the Leafs anyway, and it probably makes sense to prepare for that outcome.
Last start with the place where most bad ideas start, and that’s with WOWYs. The second we start breaking down the large sample of a season into these smaller bite sized samples there is a lot more situational context at play. For one late in the game when the Leafs are looking for offensive opportunities the Leafs will put Nylander and Tavares out on the ice but not necessarily Kerfoot. When Kerfoot was playing with Nylander and not Tavares, that was likely during Auston Matthews’ injury and required Kerfoot to move to center and resulted in him doing heavily lifting at a position he’s as strong at. And when Tavares and Kerfoot were playing together without Nylander, that was certainly an attempt to make the line less dependent on offensive zone starts, and the numbers will be skewed from that usage as well. Still seeing the results under that usage matters, as does the frame of reference to when none of them are on the ice and that’s why we look at WOWYs anyway.
Players on ice
None of them
So it’s very easy to see that when sorted by the xGF% column, the time when Kerfoot was on the ice was dragging the Leafs down. The same is pretty much true if this was sorted by CF%. Where it gets interesting is how much the story changed when it comes to looking at the GF%. And by actual goals, Kerfoot was significantly better and there was an advantage to keeping Tavares and Nylander off the ice. That’s a weird juxtaposition but certainly points to things that should work together not producing the results you’d hope for. The Tavares and Nylander combination got scored on at an excessive rate and that is why splitting them up has some merit. There’s just not a lot of merits to say that Kerfoot was the answer for either of them once they were split up.
When you start looking at who plays with Tavares if not Kerfoot or for that matter Nylander, it seems the Leafs will be left with a mystery box. During the Matthews injury, Tavares would inherit Bunting and Marner as his wingers and they would be his most frequent linemates after Nylander and Kerfoot. Or he would play with Mikheyev, Ritchie, or Kase, who are all no longer available for that assignment. The next most frequent option would be when Tavares would play with Matthews late in the game when the Leafs were looking for additional offense. That’s far from a set line we can plan on seeing.
The remaining options that had over 20 minutes playing with John Tavares last season don’t offer the most encouraging results, albeit the sample size is criminally small.
There might be something to Pierre Engvall finding his way next to Tavares, but Robertson will require even more sheltering than is necessary for Nylander, and Simmonds does not factor into a second line conversation at this point of his career.
When it comes to Nylander the best case for splitting him and Tavares up probably comes from the player who isn’t on John’s WOWY list, and that’s David Kampf…
For Nylander, there was a definite benefit in putting him with a center who could handle the heavy lifting required in the defensive zone, and from the numbers you can definitely see that Nylander and Robertson together resulted in shelling opposition goaltenders, but was an even worse experience for Leafs’ goaltenders. That’s where I think we immediately scratch the idea of seeing a Robertson-Tavares-Nylander line despite all three being second line players on paper.
For those wondering, Kerfoot had favourable GF% numbers with Engvall and decent ones with Kampf, but play was often heading in the wrong direction as he didn’t have favourable results when it came to Corsi or expected goals. In short, Kerfoot dragged everyone down a little play wise, but somehow the puck stayed out of the net. I’m not sure if there is a marketable skill in that or not.
When it comes to how the Leafs get better in all of this it seems that there is a lot riding on Calle Jarnkrok. Whether together or separate, it seems like Jarnkrok is tasked with making either one or both of Tavares and Nylander’s line more defensively responsible while not having to sacrifice offense.
It also seems like there is a need to find the right fit for Nick Robertson to put him in the best chance to succeed, and it seems that one of Tavares or Nylander might be a necessary offensive catalyst for him, but he’ll need one or more of Kampf, Engvall and Jarnkrok to provide him a safety net for when the puck is in his own zone.
There are also plenty of other potential surprise fits that could emerge as Alex Steeves, Joey Anderson, Nick Abruzzese, and Denis Malgin are all lineup wildcards at this point.
As for Kerfoot, it seems odd that so much of this summer has been spent dumping on a 51 point forward. To some extent, it could just be that Kerfoot is that no one is ever thinking to prioritize what works best for Kerfoot and put him in situations beyond his abilities. If you take the salary cap reality out of the picture, I think most people would be happy to have Kerfoot around.
As for Tavares and Nylander staying together, there is an obvious offensive benefit if the two stay together, it’s just a matter of finding a way to keep the puck out of the Leafs’ net when they are playing together. There are interesting small sample results between Nylander and Kampf, and it wouldn’t hurt to see if Tavares can be the right fit for Robertson.
We’re now only three weeks away from seeing what Sheldon Keefe has in store for this trio.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick
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