How Mike Babcock divides Maple Leafs centres’ ice time

Brian Burke recalls the conversation he had with Kadri's dad after drafting him. Kadri Sr. told Burke to swat Nazem in the head if he gives him any trouble. The Leafs forward laughed it off saying Burke and his dad were two peas in a pod.

TORONTO – Mike Babcock has specific targets in mind for what has increasingly emerged as a hot-button issue among Toronto Maple Leafs fans and critics (a Venn diagram that typically resembles a perfect circle): how to divide ice time for his centremen.

The main point of contention is that Auston Matthews ranks 40th among the league’s pivots in average ice time (18:33). Not enough for the NHL’s leading goal-scorer and point-getter, goes the argument.

“Every guy would like to play as much as possible, but we’ve got so much depth, a lot of really good players, that it’s gotta spread around, and that’s perfectly fine,” Matthews said Friday. “Whether it’s 15, 17, 20, you’ve gotta make the most of it.”

Connor McDavid’s average is a ridiculous 24:09, 71 seconds more than the next-busiest centre (Anze Kopitar), and more than 13 clubs’ most-used defenceman. Thoroughbreds like Brent Burns, P.K. Subban and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are seeing less ice than McDavid.

Matthews did take notice that the other No. 1–overall draft pick a Canadian city has pinned its hopes on skated a whopping 28:26 in Edmonton’s 6-5 loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday.

“That’s with overtime, but still — that’s a lot,” Matthews marvelled. “It’s a long season. Some guys can do that; some guys it wears on them.”

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Leafs centre Nazem Kadri was even more blunt.

“That’s absolute insanity. I don’t know how the kid’s got the stamina for that. He’s just a different breed, so I think he can handle it for now,” Kadri said. “But as the year goes on, as a forward to keep on pace with that? It’s a lot to ask for.”

Fact is, despite the acquisition of John Tavares — 37th overall at 18:49, which, unlike Matthews, includes PK minutes — Matthews is the only Leafs centre who’s seen an increase in action. He topped all Toronto forwards at 18:08 as a sophomore (42nd overall among centres).

Tavares ranked 13th overall last season, at 19:59, and is seeing 70 seconds less work per game.

Kadri has taken an even bigger hit, as you’d expect, sliding from 2C to 3C.

He averaged 16:46 last season and is down to 15:56 now — and that’s with top-unit power-play time.

“[Evenly weighted ice time] is a benefit long-term because it is such a long season and you don’t have to rely on one or two guys to carry your team. As February, March and April come along, when it becomes more exhausting and the schedule becomes more gruelling, it’s easier to have that depth,” Kadri reasoned.

“Coming into playoffs, you want guys to be healthy and energized, so spreading out ice time is a way to do that, especially early on in the year.”

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Despite snapping his goal drought Wednesday in Winnipeg, Kadri is up against it to continue his streak as a 30-goal man. As Kadri’s still-developing chemistry with his own worker-bee wingers, Par Lindholm and Connor Brown, has yet to yield many goals, it’s no wonder the third-line centre is loving the occasional bump-up to a top-six wing position next to Matthews or Tavares.

“I feel like every time I’m out there with those guys, nine times out of 10 we’ve got the puck on our sticks. That makes it fun,” said Kadri.

“I get to play with offensive-minded players that have exceptional offensive abilities. I’ve learned that [winger] positioning—what to do on the defensive zone off faceoffs. I’ve studied that. Now I feel I’m getting good at it, and I know Babs trusts me out there, so I enjoy it.”

Time allotted to Toronto’s fourth-line centre — a spot currently, if tenuously, held by Frederik Gauthier — is down from the halcyon Tomas Plekanec days of 11:03 to 8:21.

Those hoping Matthews or Kadri or Tavares can squeeze out more ice should stop holding their breath. Maybe the coach could steal another 60 seconds from The Goat (a nickname, not an acronym), but Babcock is essentially hitting his time targets.

“In our situation, we’ve got three centres who want a lot of ice time. I’d like to have Matty and Johnny always between 18 and 19 — right at that level. I’d like to have Naz at 16 in the middle,” explained Babcock, before referencing Gauthier.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of cake for ya. That’s just the reality. So you gotta do your work quickly, and you’ve got to do it efficiently.”

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In a perfect 5-on-5 world, Babcock would have Matthews and Tavares skate 26 short shifts. (Tavares leads Leafs centres with 23.8; Florida’s Aleksander Barkov leads all centres with 29.3.) The coach declined comment on McDavid’s ice time Friday. Remember, doing just that got the coach into an uncomfortable position in back in 2016.

For Toronto, even more so than in years past, this is a marathon built on 82 sprints. Winning trumps egos and individual stat lines — that message is crystal. The Art Ross is not the chalice of choice.

“If you base it on how other people are managing their people, it would be different,” Babcock said of his cake-divvying, which is influenced by the research of the club’s sports science department. “We want to play as high a tempo as we can.”

Matthews did acknowledge Friday that he had plenty left in the tank upon Toronto’s seven-game, opening-round playoff series loss to Boston, in which he averaged roughly 17 and a half minutes per night. (Granted, he’d also sat out 20 regular-season games with various injuries.)

“You want to play as much as possible. You want to get out there,” Matthews said.

“Sometimes, whatever, you want to go out there a certain time, and obviously he doesn’t call your line, but that’s just the way it goes.

“It’s the coach’s job, coach’s decision, so for everybody you make the most of the ice time you get.”

A reporter brought up the Phil Esposito model – just refuse to come off the ice.

“Bad teammate right there,” Matthews chuckled. “Nah, just kidding.”

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