Ever since the Matthews-Nylander-Hyman line was broken up, I’ve been seeing the same routine on Twitter before every Leafs game. It goes something like this:
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 7, 2016
Followed by stuff like this:
time to get @wmnylander off that 4th line. He needs more ice and better players to play with. IMO
— BobbyRenaud ?? (@BobbyRenaud28) December 7, 2016
I initially thought Nylander was just on the 4th line b/c he was recovering from an injury, but this is getting ridiculous.
— Draglikepull (@draglikepull) December 7, 2016
Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with these sentiments. Nylander should be getting top ice time right now, and with much better linemates than Matt Martin and Ben Smith. It’s hard to see these lines before every game and not be angry about Babcock sticking Nylander with scrubs after playing so well with Matthews.
But if we actually look at the ice time, you can see that maybe this anger is a bit misplaced. While Nylander is skating with Martin and Smith in most practices and pre-games, it’s a different story during the actual games. For example, in the December 7th game against the Wild, Nylander only played 20.59% of the game with Martin and Smith (data from Left Wing Lock).
If we look into the Leafs ice time using the excellent graphs provided by HockeyViz, we can see that despite the shifting of the lines after his injury, Nylander’s ice time (light pink line) has actually remained pretty constant. Even though he may be practicing and starting the game on a line with Smith and Martin, he’s still getting 16-17 minutes of ice time per night, which is great.
This chart actually shows some very promising trends for the Leafs forwards. While Ben Smith’s ice time should ideally be zero, both him and Matt Martin have received less and less time as the season has progressed. Meanwhile, the rest of the Leafs lines are getting a very even distribution of ice time – there are eight guys all hovering between 16-18 minutes per night lately, and Connor Brown sitting just below 15. While he may not be making the most of his 4th line, Babcock is doing a great job of spreading out the minutes among his top 9 forwards and getting all of his talented rookies some quality ice time.
The graph below demonstrates how top-heavy teams like Chicago pile the minutes on their top guys, while leaving the scraps for the bottom of their roster. Babcock’s approach suggests that he’s much more keen on distributing ice time and rolling multiple quality lines. We’ll see how this method works as the seasons plays out and the roster changes, but my bets are on this style working out for the Leafs in the long run.
In summary, it may be disgruntling to see Nylander’s name show up on the 4th line every game day, but don’t let it bother you too much. He’s still getting plenty of ice time, and most of it is with good linemates. He’s a fantastic hockey player and the Leafs are well aware of it – he’ll get the chances he deserves.