The Toronto Maple Leafs have played three straight games that have gone to overtime. In two of those games, Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov started overtime and Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner started the other. In all three games, Auston Matthews and William Nylander were the second pair of forwards on the ice and in all three games they didn’t touch the puck on that shift.
Having Matthews and Nylander in possession of the puck in overtime is obviously a good thing as the Leafs have four overtime goals this year, three of them scored by Matthews and Nylander (Marleau has the fourth). Matthews leads the team in goals (19) and points (33) and Nylander is second on the team in points (31).
Head coach Mike Babcock’s overtime strategy needs to change.
Exhibit A: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets 01/08/2018
After leading 2-0 and dominating the second and third periods, the Leafs gave up one unlucky goal and one goal off of a bad Morgan Rielly giveaway late in the third period to send the game to overtime, where the forward shifts went as follows:
- Kadri and Komarov: Have possession for most of the shift, take two shots and change once they’ve lost possession.
- Matthews and Nylander: Chase the puck on defence for about one minute. The play ends with a shot against and a stoppage but never touch the puck.
- Marleau and Marner: Win the faceoff and get a shot that’s deflected out of play on a quick shift.
- Tyler Bozak and Connor Brown: Lose the faceoff and exchange scoring chances.
- Matthews and Nylander: Nylander comes on for Brown early and sets up Bozak on a breakaway and then shows some pretty poor defensive effort on the goal against. Matthews had just jumped on the ice for Bozak and wasn’t in the play yet when the Blue Jackets scored.
While the Leafs had chances to score in overtime, they went to Bozak and Kadri, with shots from afar from Marner and Rielly. Matthews was not put in a position to succeed. The Blue Jackets started overtime with Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Seth Jones which isn’t that scary so, starting off with the shutdown pair of Kadri and Komarov is puzzling.
Exhibit B: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Vancouver Canucks 01/06/2018
The Leafs were playing from behind for most of the game against the Canucks but they scored two goals in the third period to force overtime. This one went to a shootout, so I won’t list all of the forward shifts but I will talk about the first two:
- Marleau and Marner: Win the faceoff and have a weak scoring chance but then lose possession.
- Matthews and Nylander: Again, come on the ice without the puck and have to play defence. The play ends when Brock Boeser thinks he has scored. They stay on the ice for a shift following the goal review, where they win the faceoff, control possession for a while and eventually draw a penalty.
The Leafs failed to score on the power play and the rest of overtime was fairly uneventful. The Leafs won in a shootout.
Just like the Blue Jackets game, Matthews and Nylander were forced to play defence in overtime. Fortunately, they were able to start a shift with a faceoff after a long delay and made a positive impact by drawing a penalty.
Exhibit C: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. San Jose Sharks 01/04/2018
This game was 2-2 after the second period and both goalies played well in the third period to send it to overtime. The Sharks started OT with the trio of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, so there’s a little more justification to start with a shutdown unit but it still put the Leafs in a position where their best players don’t have the puck. Here are the overtime forward shifts from that game:
- Kadri and Komarov: Lose the faceoff but eventually get a takeaway and Komarov appears to have a breakaway but is caught from behind by Thornton and loses the puck.
- Matthews and Nylander: Chase the puck on defence for about one minute before changing. Never touch the puck.
- Marleau and Marner: Pinned in the defensive zone; eventually deflect a shot out of play.
- Kadri and Komarov: On again against Pavelski, Thornton and Burns. They win the faceoff and have possession for a while but don’t really get a scoring chance and eventually lose the puck.
- Marleau and Marner: The Sharks miss the net on a shot and these two have a mediocre scoring chance and then Marner takes a penalty.
The Leafs killed the penalty and won the game in a shootout, but it’s another example of Matthews and Nylander being stuck chasing the puck on defense.
Matthews Needs to Start Overtime
Having Matthews and Nylander come onto the ice as the second shift does not work.
Matthews needs to be on the ice for the OT faceoff because, first of all, it’s worked in the past. Here is the highlight of the overtime game against the Montreal Canadiens in October in which Matthews scores on the first shift in overtime, set up by a beautiful rush by Nylander.
The second reason is faceoffs. He leads the Leafs in faceoff win percentage at 54.5%. Nylander is fourth on the team at 53.2%. Meanwhile, Kadri has the worst faceoff win percentage of the Leafs’ centres at 48.6%. The opening faceoff is key to gaining possession in three-on-three overtime.
The final reason is that starting Matthews forces the opposing coach into a decision. If the Leafs make a habit of starting overtime with Matthews and Nylander, opponents may consider leading off with their shutdown pair instead of their top scorers or they can go best-on-best. Either way, I like the Leafs’ odds with Matthews on the ice.