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Splitting up Matthews and Marner

Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs
Are we the baddies? | Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Is this shuffling deck chairs, or is it the one trick to save the Leafs and make them great again?

There is a lot of talk about the Maple Leafs top six these days, and most of it surrounds Sheldon Keefe very occasionally splitting up Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Every time they play together and don’t score, the chorus of “split them up” bursts out. Every time the Leafs lose, we hear it. When they win, we hear it. What’s going on?

I could psychoanalyze an entire fanbase and say that because these two were not that hot in the playoffs against Montréal and struggled at times against Tampa last year, there is a predisposition to blame them for everything that’s wrong. It might be simpler to just recognize that the very top-heavy Maple Leafs must have their top six producing goals or they lose. Let’s just stick with that.

Now, I am in favour of the following lineup:

Guy - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Guy - John Tavares - Mitch Marner

And I don’t much care who the Guys are, although I’m not very enamoured of Nick Robertson most of the time. I think it’s important to clarify why I like that lineup. I think the key to a successful Leafs team is a Tavares line that works. And Mitch Marner fits there better than Nylander. Nylander fits better with Matthews to a lesser extent.

And absolutely none of that means they are bad and should feel bad about this season so far.

Now I’m going to do something I think is bad analysis. But I’m going to do it because this is what everyone is thinking right now. They have some eye-testy rationale that says Matthews is bad all the time, except when he plays with Nylander and Sheldon Keefe is a dummy for not seeing that. To interrogate that concept, I’m going to look at a WOWY. (shudder)

I think WOWY’s were outmoded ten years ago, and there’s rarely a good reason to look at them other than to say that no, Nylander and Marner aren’t really very different other than in how much the centre they play with scores. That long-running argument has been crushed by Marner’s struggles this season, which are real, but a struggling Marner isn’t bad, he’s just less than he needs to be. Okay, onto the sinful numbers:

This is data from Natural Stat Trick’s line tool, and it is five-on-five, not score adjusted because that makes very little difference in chopped up data, and fractional goals irritate me. I’ve simplified it by removing all the “even more data missing” numbers for shots by danger zone, and things like faceoffs. I had to pick Fenwick or Corsi, and I went with Corsi to more clearly show the activity in each zone. Fenwick lines up more cleanly with Expected Goals, and if you like that better, you can look at it on NST.

Let’s go through this and see what it all says.

Off the top, we have Matthews with Marner, but not Nylander, and that’s almost 200 minutes and might actually mean something. They have 57% Corsi and 60% xG, and if that’s supposed to be bad, I don’t know what to tell you. Their on-ice shooting and save percentages are terrible, however.

I can now do the rant about how skaters don’t create their on-ice save %, but if you truly want to believe that they did that thing, and the goalie had no chance, etc. etc., I can’t stop you. On-ice save % is not repeatable, which means it’s not a blame or credit stat. That 8 % shooting percentage isn’t really bad by ordinary mortal standards, either, but it is for Auston Matthews. And that’s why they look bad, the Goals For of 47%.

Nylander with neither of them is next with 157 minutes, and he’s at 56% Corsi and 57% xG. He has a Goals For of 58% because his on-ice save % is great. Now, just to drive this home relentlessly, William Nylander and John Tavares were blamed last season for a terrible GF% which was almost entirely their on-ice save %. That wasn’t their fault, and they aren’t suddenly reformed or something. This is output, not input and a player can’t make it vary one way or another in a predictable way.

Next up, Marner away from both of them at 35 minutes is a scrap of time with Tavares or some bits here and there with other lines. HIs Corsi is under 50% and his xG is well over that, while the Goals For is 100%. This is what you get in 35 minutes. Noise with no signal.

Speaking of, next is Matthews with Nylander in 35 minutes and they look fine. One goal for and one against, which is just, again, noise.

Matthews on his own in a scrap of time, mostly with the fourth line is even noisier.

And now comes the truly important line on this chart. The “none of the above” measure, which shows you what’s really ailing the Toronto Maple Leafs. In over 300 minutes, the rest of the team — so the bottom six except for that one weird game where Nylander was the 3C — had 47% Corsi, 46% xG and a Goals For nearly right on expected, which you should expect from any bottom six, of 47%. You can’t blame the goalies for it, and their crappy shooting percentage is likely not far off their true talent.

They are bad and they should feel bad. They are not quality shooters, and there is only one way to make up for that, and that’s with zone time, and they don’t have it. Matthews and Marner are on the ice for 210 Corsi For in 23 of the minutes that the bottom six needs to get to 255. This is the problem right now. And no amount of top-six tinkering is going to fix it.

Until the “everyone else” measure floats up to something a little more respectable, this team will win it when the top-six dominates and lose when they don’t. And no one, not even Matthews is great every single game. Last season, the “everyone else” group were at 51% Corsi and xG, and 52% Goals For. That’s what this season’s team needs.

Split up the Skipper and Gilligan or don’t. Either way, we’re stuck on the island of meh until the rest of the crew starts playing better hockey.

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