Considering how things went last season for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line with John Tavares, Mitchell Marner and Zach Hyman, you could be forgiven for being confused by new head coach Sheldon Keefe breaking them up in late-December.
The start of the season without Hyman on the line seemed to throw them all for a loop, and Tavares’ struggle in getting to the net earlier on, along with Marner’s early even strength struggles, really killed all the momentum they built up last season. Even after both Marner and Tavares got their feet under them, and Hyman returned, the magic of last season wasn’t quite re-appearing.
Meanwhile, the combination of William Nylander and Auston Matthews had been the offensive dynamo that had kept the Leafs going before the coaching change, and they didn’t slow down when Keefe came in. But in the interests of getting both his top scoring lines going, Keefe took a bit of a risk.
Flipping centres and putting Matthews between Hyman and Marner, while Tavares got Nylander and Alex Kerfoot. Considering the talent of all the players involved it may not seem like a big risk, but upsetting the apple cart when you’re winning is always a tough thing for a coach to do.
The result? Well Nylander was putting up great underlying numbers with Matthews, but the actual production was just good, nothing astonishing. Since the change, Nylander and Marner are both red-hot offensively, scoring at over a point per game, and the Leafs are rolling.
Points can be deceiving though, how are the two wingers playing since the change compared to what they were doing earlier?
Nylander has been crushing it all season, with the Leafs seeing massive advantages while he’s on the ice relative to when he’s not. While the change-up at centre has hit him in the shots and shot attempts a little bit, he’s still well into the positives there while the control of quality plays that drive goals has massively improved.
That’s a huge deal considering that Tavares’ numbers in those areas had not been good before this switch was made; the Leafs were controlling just 41 per cent of the inner slot shots while he was on the ice.
Like Tavares, Marner before the switch had been struggling to control play from the inner slot, while posting respectable numbers in shots, shot attempts and slot passes. Since being united with Matthews, Marner’s on-ice differentials look almost identical to Nylander’s, with extreme control of slot passes, especially shots from the inner slot, and taking a slight hit in shots and shot attempts.
Essentially by switching things up, Keefe has sacrificed a bit of quantity in favour of loads of quality, going from one mostly functioning line and a very good top line, to two ridiculously dominant top lines, at least as far as differentials are concerned.
The next question is whether the Leafs’ top wingers are actually getting the individual offensive boosts that their differentials and point production would have us assume?
This season has been a bit of a change for Nylander’s on-ice behaviour or style of play in the offensive zone. He’s leaned on shooting more than ever before, closer to the net than ever before, and you would expect that moving into Mitch Marner’s spot would cut into that a little bit, with more focus on playmaking… but you’d be wrong.
Nylander is making more passes to the slot, going from about league average to first-line quality since the swap, but his shooting has gone up more as well. Surprisingly, Nylander still leads all Leafs in inner slot shots on net per 20 minutes this season, and outpacing Matthews in that category is extremely tough to do.
He has seen a drop in both his completed and attempted passes off the rush, but his scoring chances off the rush are up, so it’s more likely that he’s being the one asked to shoot on those plays more often now instead of deferring to Matthews at times. The confidence is at an all-time high, and it shows through in the numbers.
Marner before the centre switch was having a brutal shooting year, barely doing anything from the inner slot and way below average at getting shots on net from the slot entirely. He wasn’t getting cycle changes and wasn’t attacking off the rush much either compared to what you’d expect from him, but he was leading the Leafs in completed passes to the slot by a wide margin.
Marner isn’t the kind of player you really want in the net front, but getting almost zero chances from that area is still concerning, and his shot numbers have drastically improved since he paired up with Matthews. He’s getting more chances off the rush, completing more passes off the rush and has massively increased his cycle chances as well.
The best news of all for Marner is that this uptick in shooting from better areas hasn’t negatively impacted his playmaking, and in fact he’s been among the league leaders in completed slot passes over the last couple weeks.
With how well this has worked out in the short term, you have to wonder why it wasn’t tested out earlier, but remember that Nylander missed a huge chunk of last season and when he returned to the lineup, the Tavares-Marner combination was among the best in the NHL. Still, it sure looks like Keefe has stumbled on something special here.