Auston Matthews’ return is the news the Toronto Maple Leafs were thirsting for. After losing in embarrassing fashion to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, the Leafs needed something to feel good about. The team was able to go 5-3-2 during Matthews’ recent absence, but how did the team as a whole perform without their No. 1 centre?
Prior to Matthews’ latest injury, the Maple Leafs sat tied for third with the New York Islanders in goals for. The Leafs were averaging 3.22 goals per game before the man they call “Papi” exited the Leafs lineup a month ago. Since then, the Maple Leafs have actually averaged 3.60 goals per game. Why? One glaring, three-letter reason: JVR. In the 10 games Matthews has missed, James van Riemsdyk has tallied eight goals, including seven in the past four games.
Nazem Kadri has also filled in offensively for Matthews, posting seven goals while the phenom forward was away. Kadri and Mitch Marner have established a strong rapport on the Leafs’ top unit with Marner recording 14 points while serving on Kadri’s right side.
Where those three — along with Tyler Bozak and Morgan Rielly — have really done damage is on the power play. On the season, Toronto’s power play is sitting at 23.1 percent. But in the last 10 games, it’s been clicking at an otherworldly 46.2 percent. When Matthews was in the lineup, there was a pretty even split in ice time for the two power play units. But with Matthews sidelined Mike Babcock has been riding the hot hand of the first unit, resulting in a drop in PP time for players like Jake Gardiner, William Nylander and Patrick Marleau. It’ll be interesting to see how the coach handles the power-play workload with the team’s deadliest player back in the fold.
Unsurprisingly, where the team really struggled was with defensive matchups. Before Matthews’ vacancy from the lineup the Maple Leafs were only allowing 2.7 goals a game, which has since shot up to 3.2 with him in the press box. Although Kadri has been instrumental with the man advantage, he’s struggled to be the main cog up the middle in the defensive zone.
The Leafs’ shutdown centre has earned a reputation as an annoying player to play against — just ask Alex Ovechkin. But without Matthews ahead of him, Kadri’s been playing an extra minute per game at even strength while also trying to pick up the slack offensively. It’s a lot to ask, and as a result Kadri’s been one of the worst forwards in shot differential (-1.69 relative to his team) and, for what it’s worth, plus-minus (-6). In fairness he’s not much worse off than he was before the Matthews injury, it’s just a little more noticeable without No. 34 in the lineup — especially with Tomas Plekanec showing he’s not really capable of picking up some of those top-six minutes.
As for the ice time distribution, the biggest beneficiary of the available minutes has been Marner. The shifty winger has seen his even strength ice time rocket up a two whole minutes per game in the 10 games Matthews has been out compared to the 10 games before he went down. The fact he’s been playing out of his mind has made it an easy decision for Babcock. Other players have also had to assume more responsibility, but none more than Marner.
All in all, the Maple Leafs were what their 5-3-2 record said they were, slightly above average. When Auston Matthews returns to the lineup in Nashville against the best team in the NHL, it should restore the balance on a Leafs team that had gone 12-2-0 before his injury.