Are The Maple Leafs Suffering the Sophomore Jinx?

November 3rd, 2017 No Comments

When the Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2016-17 NHL season they did so with a slew of new faces, many of which were rookies. William Nylander, Austin Matthews, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, and to a lesser extent Frederik Gauthier and Kasperi Kapanen, came with a combination of excitement and question marks, and a measure of hope.

When it comes to rookie players, most of them come with the same concerns- How will they adjust to the NHL game? Can they handle the grind of an NHL season? How will they handle their first slump? Can they play consistent defense? How will they respond to all the travel? Will they have anything left for the playoffs?

Looking back on the performance of Toronto’s key rookies in 2016-17 we can confidently say that all of them put together excellent first seasons with Austin Matthews dominating many rookie categories, culminating in his Calder Trophy win.

To say that Toronto’s rookie class of 2016-17 was “good” would be an understatement. As a team, Toronto set a franchise rookie scoring record, combining for 304 points (third highest in NHL history).

Some of the bigger rookie highlights included Marner collecting 42 assists (rookie franchise record), Matthews’ 40 goals (rookie franchise record), Nylander had nine power play goals (rookie franchise record), Hyman set a rookie franchise record for shorthanded goals (4) while Zaitsev’s 36 points were second in franchise history to legendary defenseman Borje Salming who scored 39 as a rookie in 1973-1974.

Yes, Leaf fans, we were spoiled in 2016-17. Very spoiled, indeed!

Fast forward to the 2017-18 NHL season and we are seeing some of our dominant rookies struggle. Of course, sophomore Jinx are nothing new to many NHL players, so most fans expected a drop in production for some players.

14 games into the 2017-18 NHL season and we are already reading comments like “trade Marner” from some of the Maple Leafs faithful. To that I say, slow down, it’s still very early in the season. There is plenty of time for Toronto’s sophomores to turn things around; there is little need for Leaf fans to doubt their abilities.

Want proof? Let’s take a look at the facts/stats.

Austin Matthews has been having another great season with 18 points (10G, 8A) through his first 14 games. That puts him on-pace (1.28 points per game) to exceed the 100-point mark, which would be an excellent individual season no matter how you slice it. William Nylander has 11 points (3G, 8A) through 14 games played, putting him on-pace to exceed the 60-point mark, which would be a reasonable total, but a bit of a letdown considering he hit the 61-point mark (22G, 39A) last season.

 In Matthews and Nylander you have two stud forwards that will earn their goals and points by seasons end. Verdict: Nothing to worry about with either one of those players.

But, what about the rest of the sophomore class?

Obviously, Marner has struggled the most in his sophomore season, collecting just one goal and six points through 14 games. Marner has jumped around the lineup, finding himself on the fourth line on more nights than not. As the saying goes, if you want to get a player going, he has to play. If a player is going to get bigger minutes, he has to produce. Marner is currently in nowhere land, not getting the playing time he needs to improve, while his statistics (which includes an ugly minus-10 rating) simply do not justify a promotion to the second or third line.

Will Marner turn things around? With Marner seeing more time on the fourth line than anywhere else, it is hard to imagine that he will find his way out of his slump anytime soon. The funny thing is, when you watch Marner play, you can see that he is giving the effort. His shot totals are solid, his playmaking ability is still there, his speed is still there and the desire to be a top-six forward seems to be in place.

Where Marner is struggling is in his defensive game and he hasn’t been able to adjust to teams suffocating his speed in the neutral zone and having their defensemen key in on him. For Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock, putting Marner on the fourth line was as much about promoting hard working Connor Brown as it was about trying to exploit some better matchups for Marner. Thus far, Marner has not produced the results Babcock was looking for while Brown has been a shot in the arm on the third line most nights. Verdict: Unlikely to bounce back to 2016-17 levels.

Meanwhile, Zach Hyman continues to grind out games on the first line, but his inability to finish first rate passes from Matthews and Nylander into goals has many fans yelling at their TV’s most nights. That said, Toronto’s first line of Hyman, Matthews and Nylander has been excellent combining for a plus +32 rating (Matthews +14, Nylander +11, Hyman +7). Verdict: Hyman is what he is, if he hits the 30-40 point mark, its gravy.

Meanwhile, Zaitsev just keeps accumulating huge minutes, leading the team in ice time at 22:53 per game. Statistically, Zaitsev currently sits at six points (2G, 4A) to go along with a respectable plus +5 rating- which is a huge improvement from his minus -22 rating last season. By the numbers, Zaitsev is Toronto’s go-to defenseman, leading the team in blocked shots (40), sitting second amongst defensemen with 24 hits (tied with Ron Hainsey) and playing a key role on Toronto’s penalty killing unit 

Sure, we’d all like to see Zaitsev collecting more points, but he’s currently on-pace for 35 points, which is right where he was last season (36 points).

With all this in mind, it would appear as if, with the exception of Marner (and that’s a huge hit), the key players in the Maple Leafs sophomore class (Matthews, Nylander, Hyman, Zaitsev, Brown) are actually doing fine, thank you very much!

Don’t be surprised to see the likes of Kapanen, Soshnikov, Aaltonen and others continue to make an argument that they deserve to be in the Leafs lineup, shaking up the lines and putting pressure on the likes of Brown, Marner and Hyman to give it their all, game-in, game-out.

 But for now, rest assured that Toronto’s sophomore class is trending in the right direction and looking every bit as formidable as their rookie class of 2016-17.

 

 

 

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