Are the Leafs Mis-Using the Forward Units?

It’s a luxury that a lot of teams wish they had; Four forwards, two wingers and two centers, who are all all-star caliber talents, all playing on one team together. The trouble you run into when you have that luxury is knowing how to use those four to their highest level of effectiveness.


The line making decisions have been put a little more under the microscope this season given the early season struggles of William Nylander and the 5-on-5 struggles basically all season for John Tavares. With the two of them failing to get anything going Keefe went through a small amount of time where he tried anything an everything to get them going.


All four of them have seen different combinations with each other at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons, and as such there is plenty of data available to bring up when comparing the different combinations. Obviously you could look at the overall point totals from the group, but that doesn’t really give you the whole picture in terms of 5 on 5, or whether or not the combination is outplaying what the basic numbers indicate.


I took a deep dive into the numbers thanks to both Natural Stat Trick and Money Puck to see what the analytics are on the two potential options, and to shed a little light as to whether or not the current situation is the best possible group.

The Current Situation


It’s the pairing seemingly everyone loves to see and the other one that nobody ever expected. Matthews and Marner have been turning heads all season on the score sheet with Matthews leading the league in goals, and the pair both sitting top six in points in the NHL. The other line however has John Tavares seemingly slumping based on the score sheet, and William Nylander getting benched once because of poor play.


While John Tavares has taken a lot of flack for his lack of offense this season, a closer look at his game reveals that the point total may not be telling the full story. As it stands right now, when John Tavares is on the ice at 5-on-5, his line has the lowest on ice shotting percentage of his entire career at 6.9% (according to hockey-reference.com). His previous career low came last season when his line had an oiSH% of 8.3, while his career average oiSH% currently sits at 8.9%.


On top of that, John Tavares currently sits 15th in the league in expected goals, with William Nylander sitting nine spots above him in sixth. Basically, what this all means is that while they may not look like they’ve been doing much in terms of production, the numbers show that the chances are there for the duo but they can’t get the bounces.


When comparing the analytics of both lines over the past three seasons you can see some interesting trends between the two lines. In terms of corsi (an analytical stat which can essentially be described as a puck possession stat), Tavares and Marner have the slim lead over Matthews and Marner with a 54% CF% as opposed to the 52.81% that the M&M line have. The Tavares/Nylander line also manages to outshoot the opponents at a higher rate than the M&M line with a SF% 53.36 compared to the M&M’s 52.57%.


In terms of goal scoring metrics however, the M&M line has the decided advantage over the Tavares/Nylander line. They are ahead in GF% (58.95% to 56.25%), xGF% (57.45% to 55.53%), Scoring chances for percentage (57.84% to 56.02%), and high danger chance percentage (57.95% to 56.83%). A couple factors could play into this. Firstly, the Tavares/Nylander line isn’t taking high percentage shots, but still getting them on net, thus padding their corsi and shots for numbers. Meanwhile the M&M line is willing to wait the extra bit of time to get the high-quality look, giving them a better chance of burying a goal.


The second, and much more prominent factor, is the presence of Auston Matthews on that line. Not only is Auston Matthews one of the most deadly shooters in the NHL this season (18 goals in 23 games), but he also has a premier passer in Mitch Marner giving him great opportunities from everywhere on the ice. His ability to shoot the puck opens up plenty of looks for his linemates, and as such, increases their goal scoring metrics. Even in the other option, the pairing with Auston Matthews on it has the better goal scoring metrics.


Flipping the Two Wingers


The other option that the Leafs have gone with in the past is the combination of Matthews/Nylander and Tavares/Marner. The first thing that stands out with these groups is how sheltered the Matthews/Nylander line has been. In their time together, Matthews and Nylander have had 64.62% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone. When you compare that to the 51.28% that Marner and Tavares were getting, it’s very clear that former coach Mike Babcock wasn’t a huge fan of that line in their own end and wasn’t willing to see them try to make it work.


Usage aside, the analytical breakdown is a little bit different than it was in the other scenario. Matthews and Nylander have the better numbers in CF% (55.35% to 53.06%), SF% (54.25% to 51.88%), xGF% (54.61% to 53.95%), SCF% (56.38% to 55.12%), and HDCF% (56.06% to 54.94%). The only thing that the Tavares/Marner combination was better at was GF% with a 55.92 to 52.56 advantage. Essentially, the Matthews and Nylander line was dominant, but couldn’t find the back of the net, while the Tavares and Marner line didn’t quite dominate the way the other line did, but they did manage to score at a higher rate.


Now, some of the goal scoring data is definitely skewed by the fact that William Nylander had the worst season of his career following his hold out in the 2018-19 season. Because of it, the numbers could probably be a little more improved this season.


The Verdict


Now the comparison isn’t quite perfect given the improvements made by three out of the four players, but the numbers that we do have available seem pretty clear. While personally I thought it made more sense to switch the wingers prior to my research, the numbers seem to indicate otherwise. Both centers have better numbers in nearly every analytics category with their current linemate as opposed to what they had with the other option.


Personally, I think it doesn’t hurt the team at all to try changing things up if things aren’t going well. With Nylander’s improvements offensively I think you would see an uptick in the goal scoring metrics from the Matthews/Nylander combination. Conversely, giving John Tavares a playmaker like Mitch Marner may help break this little funk that he has been in, thus making the contract a little easier to swallow for the average fan.


Given the information however, despite what people think about anyone’s struggles, it seems as though the best course of action is to just leave it alone and let the point totals regress to the means. Luckily for us, Sheldon Keefe is paid the big bucks to make that decision, and we are get to watch four stars every single game, no matter what the combinations may be.

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