Babcock Needs to Juggle Leafs Lines

The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a few really bad games so far this season. There was the series of games where the Leafs lost a four-goal lead and ended up losing; most notably in the game against the Winnipeg Jets. Then there was the embarrassing 7-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Leafs have played well at times, but those games really cemented the point that this is a young team that will need to learn through experience.

The 7-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings was thoroughly embarrassing, more so than the Tampa Bay game. The only positive takeaway from that game was that it showed it’s time to change the Leafs’ lines.

Time for a Change

The Leafs have run the same forward lines for awhile now. The only exception has been Ben Smith and Peter Holland alternating as the fourth line center and Nikita Soshnikov and Seth Griffith alternating as the winger. The lines remained unchanged heading into the game against the Kings, which made sense because the Leafs were on a three-game win-streak.

The Leafs were totally outmatched in every aspect. The Kings forced the Leafs to the outside and never gave them a chance to cut into the middle of the ice and get a clear shot on net. The Leafs only had 19 shots to show for it while the Kings were able to get 43 shots. Tyler Bozak’s line has been a defensive liability for awhile, but it really showed against the Kings. And Smith looked lost at times in the defensive zone.

This was the wakeup call that the Leafs needed, but coach Mike Babcock seems to be ignoring the fact that the Leafs need to change their lines.

Babcock did juggle the lines during the game against the Kings, but only to send a message to William Nylander. Babcock relegated Nylander to the fourth line after he took an unnecessary holding penalty.

Finding the Problem

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Auston Matthews (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

The first change that needs to happen is either splitting up Auston Matthews and Nylander or moving Zach Hyman off that line. That line has been the Leafs’ best line so far, but other teams have wised up and now send out their top defenders against them. It’s now been seven games since Matthews and Nylander have scored a goal. The last time they scored was against Tampa Bay on Oct. 25.

Bozak’s line also needs to be split up because they have the highest goals against of any of the forwards. The average amount of goals scored against them over 60 minutes (GA60) is above five for all three of them.  Ideally, Bozak is moved off that line and replaced by Nazem Kadri.

The other defensive problem is the fourth line, specifically Smith. Smith has the highest Corsi Against per 60 minutes (CA60) on the Leafs with 68.99 CA60. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Smith also has the worst total Corsi percentage on the team with 37.02 CF%. What this all means is that Smith is basically a defensive void and a liability every time he steps on the ice.

Ben Smith
(Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs can drastically improve their chances every game if they change up Matthews’ and Nylander’s line to get them both scoring again. Bozak’s line has scored during Matthews and Nylander’s scoring slump, but Bozak’s line has also been on the ice for just as many goals against.

Those two lines need to be changed, and Smith should ride the pine until his game improves. Holland had done a serviceable job centering the fourth line. So it’s confusing as to why Smith would be given the role over Holland.

Hopefully Babcock realizes that something needs to be done to revitalize the Leafs’ lines and minimize the defensive breakdowns before they have another blowout loss.