James van Riemsdyk

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Laying it on the lines: Maple Leafs rolling after adjustments

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It’s kind of crazy how a little tinkering can completely change the complexion of an offense.

On Jan. 23, the Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck in a rut. For the better part of the past month-and-a-half, dating back to Dec. 12, they’d essentially spun their tires.

With a 6-7-3 record during that 16-game span, something needed to change, even if they were still sitting comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division.

Still, limping into the playoffs wouldn’t be ideal for Mike Babcock, so he did what he’s done best over his long tenure as an NHL bench boss: he adjusted.

Gone were the lines that weren’t working and in came something to experiment with.

Mitch Marner moved up to the second line. Leo Komarov dropped down to the fourth. Gone was Frederik Gauthier, who went from the fourth line to the minors. Matt Martin took a seat in the press box. And the Leafs brought up 21-year-old prospect Kasperi Kapanen, who put up good numbers in the American Hockey League.

The result looked like this:

Zach HymanAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander

Patrick MarleauNazem Kadri – Mitchell Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown

Leo Komarov – Dominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen

Babcock must be quite the alchemist. His concoction has proven effective. Really effective.

Kadri and Marner have benefitted most. The former had two points in his previous 20 games before welcoming Marner on his right wing. Kadri, during the team’s 9-1-0 run as of late, now has seven goals and 15 points (including a hat trick and a five-point night on Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 6-3 win).

Marner had just one goal in his previous 11 games before linking up with Kadri and Marleau. Since then, he has seven goals and 13 points.

Even Kapanen is getting in on the fun. He’s got two goals and three assists in that span playing a less offensive role on the team’s fourth line.

Babcock wanted balance, and he got it.

The Leafs, for all their offensive successes during this stretch — they’ve scored 43 goals during their past 10 games — could give Frederik Andersen a bit of a break.

Andersen is seeing a lot of rubber. In Wednesday’s win, Andersen saw 19 shots come his way in the first period and another 22 in the second. The barrage continued in the third with a further 16. Yes, the quick math says 57 total shots. The man made 54 saves.

Wednesday’s result could have been much different if not for Andersen’s heroics.

In four of the past 10 games, the Leafs have surrendered 40 or more shots.

As good as Andersen has been for the Leafs, that isn’t sustainable.

The good news for the Leafs and their fans is that Andersen is in the top-five among starters (minimum 1,500 minutes played) when it comes to goals saved above average, one of the better goalie metrics to judge how good a puck-stopper is.

Andersen is also sixth in adjusted save percentage, which takes into account shot location when determining a goalie’s save percentage, taking the traditional metric one step further.

It’s all working right now for Toronto. And within their reach is the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs are just four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Blackhawks may have hit rock bottom

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It can only getter better from here, right?

The Chicago Blackhawks entered play on Monday night having lost five games in a row and 10 of their past 13 to fall 10 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Things did not get much better in Arizona where they were blown out, 6-1, by a Coyotes team that had won just 13 of its first 55 games. The Blackhawks’ losing streak now sits at six games (with losses in 11 of their past 14 games) as they failed to gain any ground on any of the teams ahead of them in the standings.

They remain 10 points out of a playoff spot with still four teams ahead of them.

Not great.

It was another ugly night for the goaltending situation as starter Anton Forsberg had to be benched after giving up three goals on 13 shots, including a really ugly goal from a terrible angle by Tobias Reider to make it 3-1.

That performance came after Jeff Glass allowed three goals on 19 shots in their previous loss to the Minnesota Wild over the weekend. Glass did not do much better in relief of Forsberg on Monday by giving up three goals on the nine shots he faced.

Corey Crawford‘s absence has obviously been a huge issue for the Blackhawks. The defense is not very good and Forsberg and Glass could never be expected to adequately replace one of the best goalies in the league, and arguably Chicago’s most important player at this point. But even if Crawford returns to the lineup there just does not seem to be much chance for the team to make up all of this ground. For as much as of an upgrade as Crawford would be in net, the team in front of the goaltenders is still shaky defensively and has not exactly been an offensive powerhouse lately.

Lot of problems in Chicago right now.

Player(s) Of The Night: William Nylander and Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have some flaws but holy cow are they a fun team to watch.

They played a wildly entertaining game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night that saw their young superstars dominate early, then let a 3-0 lead slip away, then get a game-winning goal from James van Riemsdyk to help them improve to 9-2-0 in their past 11 games.

Nylander and Matthews were the big stars of the night for the Maple Leafs.

Nylander scored a pair of goals while Matthews added three assists in the win.

How far can the Maple Leafs go playing this style of hockey with that defense? That is up for a lot of debate, but with that group of forwards and Frederik Andersen playing the way he is (and he was very good once again on Monday night, even while giving up three goals) they will have a chance against anybody.

Player Of The Night Part 2: Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers offense came through in a big way on Monday night with seven goals, with five of those goals coming from Vincent Trocheck and Evgeny Dadonov.

Trocheck was the big star by recording a hat trick in the win.

Highlight Of The Night

Aaron Ekblad opens the scoring for the Florida Panthers in their win over the Edmonton Oilers with a bank shot from an impossible angle.

Factoid Of The Night

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have combined to score 12 goals for the Edmonton Oilers over the past six games.

The Edmonton Oilers record in those six games: 1-4-1.

If a team has two players combine for that many goals over that many games it seems almost statistically impossible to only get one win out of that stretch.

Scores

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Arizona Coyotes 6, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Florida Panthers 7, Edmonton Oilers 5

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

PHT on Fantasy: Power play points, ponderings

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Earlier this week, I pondered Patrick Marleau‘s scoring slump, which a) really struck a nerve with Toronto Maple Leafs fans and b) spotlighted some debatable lineup choices by Mike Babcock.

One thing that sticks out with Toronto is how they handle power-play minutes, and it got me to thinking: what are some other power play tidbits that might be interesting, particularly to fantasy hockey obsessives?

Let’s dive in.

The Maple Leafs are pretty much locked into the third spot in the Atlantic, so Babcock should use the next two months to experiment with different alignments. The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow makes a fascinating argument for why Auston Matthews isn’t used on the top power-play unit, but why not use this as a chance to test a variety of scenarios?

  • Another power-play time decision that makes me scratch my head a bit: Dougie Hamilton only ranking third among Flames defensemen (and eighth overall) with an average of 2:10 per night. Mark Giordano‘s great and T.J. Brodie is quite effective, but I’d probably want Hamilton to be either tops or 1a/1b with one of those two. If that changes, it could make Hamilton that much more effective. He’s fine with 27 points in 53 games, but more reps would open the door for greater fantasy glory.
  • Now, moving onto a sensible factoid: Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 4:20 PPTOI, and he’s making great use of that time.

Ovechkin’s fired a league-leading 83 SOG on the PP, and he’s also missed 33 additional shots. Really, his nine PPG and 20 PPP are almost modest, at least compared to other upper echelon producers. For example: Patrik Laine (52 PP SOG) and Evgeni Malkin (56 PP SOG) lead the league with 13 PPG apiece.

  • The only power play trigger in Ovechkin’s range is Tyler Seguin, who’s fired 72 SOG on the PP, along with 22 misses. Fittingly, he only has nine PPG and 16 PPP. Even if some of Ovechkin’s and Seguin’s shots might be relatively lower-quality than others, you’d think that both forwards could be even more dangerous toward the last two months of the season (if you’re looking into high-level trades).
  • Kudos to Jeff Petry for being one of the most productive defensemen on the PP. He’s likely to cool off a bit (five PPG on 26 PP SOG is a bit much for a blueliner), so just be careful. Nice to see an underrated player get some bounces, though.
  • As long as John Carlson is healthy, he should be a strong bet to be a great fantasy find, and the power play explains some of his value. He’s been a useful volume guy before, and with a lot of money on the line in a contract year, this could be really something. Carlson already has eight goals and 41 points, his second-best output (55 is his peak) with two months remaining.

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As the fantasy season goes along, sometimes you need to look for granular advantages, and sometimes it’s helpful to note players on cold streaks who have a better chance to turn things around. Power-play time should be one of those things you monitor, especially if you notice a player who’s caught his coach’s eye and is getting better and better chances.

We might revisit this later in the season, possibly taking the monthly (or at least couple month) approach.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Chicago Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Wednesday as the Chicago Blackhawks host the Toronto Maple Leafs at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

PROJECTED LINES

Blackhawks
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair
Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman
Tomas Jurco – David Kampf – Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle
Michal KempnyConnor Murphy
Erik Gustafsson – Brent Seabrook

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

[NHL on NBCSN: Struggling Maple Leafs take on slumping Blackhawks]

Maple Leafs
Zach HymanAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander
Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner
James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown
Leo KomarovDominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen

Jake GardinerRon Hainsey
Travis Dermott – Connor Carrick
Andreas BorgmanRoman Polak

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

 

Is Babcock holding the Maple Leafs back?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might not be a perfect team, but on paper, you wouldn’t expect them to go through many scoring droughts.

It’s not just Auston Matthews, and really, it’s not just sophomores Mitch Marner and William Nylander that makes this seem so dangerous. Toronto also has solid supporting scorers in the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. They added some veteran savvy to the mix with Patrick Marleau, too.

Even so, frustration is building. In the last six games, they’ve only managed 12 goals (not counting shootouts). The Maple Leafs have lost six of their last eight games and haven’t won in regulation since Dec. 28.

Dry spells are going to come, but the heat is starting to rise on Mike Babcock’s lineup decisions.

Not that he’s flustered by such criticisms, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton reports.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “So that’s kind of how I approach it … I’m just going to keep on keeping on. In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.”

This video has more from Babcock, including the veteran coach calling for the Maple Leafs to shoot more rather than trying to make the perfect play. It’s a nice supplement to more granular studies, like TSN’s Travis Yost’s deep dive on the Maple Leafs and icing (the unsavory infraction, not delicious frosting).

In the grand scheme of things, Babs should be commended for how he’s embraced this team’s young core, particularly in quickly acknowledging that Auston Matthews can do heavy lifting as far as deployment goes.

Still, people are getting frustrated with certain usage situations.

ESPN’s split stats allow you an opportunity to see who’s being used most often in January, this stretch in which Toronto’s scoring is really drying up.

Maybe you’d want Babcock to lean even more on Matthews (averaging 18:54 TOI this month, 18:38 on the season), but that’s a smaller quibble. People are most bothered by the reemergence of Roman Polak (17:02 per game in January) and Leo Komarov‘s frequent use (about a shift fewer than Matthews per game at 18:24 per night in January).

Komarov is getting two more minutes per game lately than Mitch Marner (16:16) and JVR (16:01). Combine that with low scoring, and yes, people are going to get frustrated.

With these developments in mind, the irritation is rising, as you can see in Ryan Fancey of Leafs Nation’s column: “The Leafs aren’t just boring, they’re mediocre.”

Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

It’s that “intentional” part that’s interesting.

This ultimately comes down to a fascinating conundrum. The Leafs have some nice defensemen, but could use help in that area and probably lack a truly elite one, though Morgan Rielly is coming along nicely. There are some forwards with two-way ability, but no one demanding Selke bids, either.

Babcock’s goal is to get the most out of that group, so does that mean going for a high-stakes style like that of, say, the Penguins or Devils? Maybe that was the leaning for a bit, yet the charge now is that the Maple Leafs are trying to lower the number of events in their own end, which means playing a more conservative style overall.

With a reasonably comfortable grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, maybe Babcock is merely using this window to experiment? The ideal scenario could be to find the right mix of careful play and daring offense.

At least, that’s what would happen if things fall the right way.

Can Babcock figure this out – as he’s figured out many different alignments during his impressive career – or is this a case of ego and/or stubbornness lowering a team’s ceiling? There’s still time to figure this out, but it’s an interesting story to watch.

Even if the team itself isn’t always as fun as it once was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.