Maple Leafs Sophomore Class: Mid-Season Review

Last year, 9 rookies wore the Maple Leafs logo in an NHL game. They met expectations and then some. Despite their lack of experience, the youngsters delayed their summer vacation a few months by qualifying for the NHL playoffs. It was just the 2nd time since 2004 the Leafs had done so.

After having what was surely the off-season of their lives, 6 of those 9 rookies (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman & Nikita Zaitsev) have played an important role in the 1st half of this season. Here’s a look at which of the Leafs’ super-sophomores have stepped their game up in year 2 and who have taken a step back.

Auston Matthews (Improving)

Matthews had 40 goals and 29 assists in 82 games last year. In 30 games this season, he has 17 goals and 14 assists. Per game, those numbers are a slight improvement which coincides with his ice-time per game increasing from 17:38 to 18:35.

In terms of his advanced stats, Matthews’ Corsi and Fenwick are both down mildly, though neither could be considered significant dips.

The number the Leafs don’t like, naturally, is the 10 games Matthews was unable to suit up for this year. Also concerning was the nature of his injury, which Maple Leafs officials have now intricately described as a “Physical Human Body Injury”. Matthews alluded to having suffered a concussion, however, which is pretty much as close to confirmation as hockey fans will get these days.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
Hyman played the majority of his time with Matthews and Nylander in 2016-17. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Mitch Marner (Suspected Slump)

Earlier this week, we took a look at the puzzling case of Mitch Marner. Scoring only 3 goals in his first 37 games would have any team worried about a young 20-year-old player in his sophomore season. What makes his case different, however, is his advanced stats indicate that he is playing better than most assume.

Young Mitchell has scored 2 goals in his last 3 games, but before that, it was as if the net was a nightclub and the bouncer didn’t believe Marner’s fake ID. Otherwise, his stats are decent. In fact, his advanced stats indicate that he is improving.

Marner’s Corsi % is up from 50.8 last year to 54.3 this year and his Fenwick is up from 49.2 to 52.4. In both categories, Marner has the 2nd highest rating on the team. His 24 assists should not be overlooked either. The category which has really impacted his performance, however, is his shot percentage. Marner is taking the same number of shots as before, they just aren’t going in as much. His shot percentage is down from 10.8% last year to 6% this year.

Marner’s ice-time per game is also down from 16:49 to 15:39 this year.

William Nylander (Slight Regression)

William Nylander, 21-years-old, might be showing mild signs of regression. Nylander is 1 of 3 Leaf sophomores to see an increase in ice-time per game this season along with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman. All other Leaf super-sophomores have seen slightly less ice time to make room for the veterans brought in during the off-season.

William Nylander Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dec. 12, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Everything about Nylander’s production has dipped slightly this year, though not significantly so. In 81 games last year, Nylander tallied 22 goals and 39 assists. In 40 games this year, he’s scored 8 goals and 20 assists.

Nylander’s advanced stats also show a slight decrease. His Corsi is down from 53.2% to 51% this year and his Fenwick has dropped from 53% to 47.8%.

Critics of advanced statistics will state Nylander passes the “eye test” better than most. The Calgary-born son of Swedish star, Michael Nylander, sometimes looks as though he could stick-handle through Toronto rush hour traffic without getting a scratch on him.

Connor Brown (Same Pace/Slight Regression)

Connor Brown, 24-years-old, scored 20 goals along with 16 assists in his rookie season. He’s settling into roughly the same pace with 10 goals and 5 assists in 40 games this season.

Brown’s advanced stats show a slight decline from 50% to 47% for his Corsi and 48.6% to 47.1% for his Fenwick. Brown’s average ice time is down from 16:12 a game last year to 15:25 and his +/- has dropped from plus-3 to a minus-7 this year. A change in regular linemates most likely explains Brown’s drop in ice time, advanced stats, and +/-. There seems to be nothing alarming nor exciting about Brown’s year-over-year stats.

Zach Hyman (Improving)

The only other Maple Leaf super-sophomore not named Auston Matthews to show definite signs of improvement this season is Zach Hyman. The 25-year-old has seen his ice-time increase by a minute per game and most of his other stats show signs of improvement as well.

Hyman tallied 10 goals and 8 assists in 82 games last year but is already at 7 goals and 14 assists this year. His +/- has jumped from plus-2 to plus-13 and his shooting % is up from 6.4% to 9.9%.

Where Hyman’s numbers dip slightly are in his advanced stats. Hyman’s Corsi and Fenwick have both dipped mildly from 51.6% to 49.9% and 50.9% to 48.6% respectively. On the whole, however, it looks as though Hyman is improving.

Auston Matthews, NHL, Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews will command a pretty penny when he’s up for a new contract in two years time. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Nikita Zaitsev (Same Pace)

At 26-years-old, Zaitzev is an older super-sophomore but also an important one on the Leafs’ blue line.

In 34 games this year, Zaitzev has done nothing to show he isn’t the same player he was last year. His ice-time per game is up slightly though he has missed a few games due to injury. Zaitsev has been dealing with a “Lower Physical Human Anatomy Body Injury” since December and missed a few games in September as well.

In terms of Zaitsev’s stats, the defencemen’s +/- has improved drastically since last year, from a minus-22 to a plus-8. Unfortunately, his advanced stats arguably cancel out his +/- improvement. Zaitsev’s Corsi has dropped from 49.4% to 46.6% and his Fenwick is down from 48.7% to 44.9%.

Super-Sophomore 2018 Outlook

Of the entire Leafs sophomore class, only Marner has shown any cause for concern. A closer look at Marner’s play, however, especially of late, alleviates much anxiety surrounding his future, however. Fans probably hope to see Nylander’s numbers improve a little in the 2nd half of the season, but otherwise, the future looks bright as these youngsters move into 2018.