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Quick Shifts: 5 reasons Auston Matthews' power-play time is just fine

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13.01.2018

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. The season before the Toronto Maple Leafs won the draft lottery, the club’s power play was as weak as green tea, the second-worst in the league (15.4 per cent).

Since Auston Matthews pulled on a blue-and-white sweater, assistant coach Jim Hiller — overseen, as all things Leafs, by head coach Mike Babcock — has operated the NHL’s third-best power play (22.8 per cent). Pretty nice jump.

Even nicer when you consider the only two teams ahead of Toronto in this category when you combine the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons: 2017 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh and 2018 Stanley Cup favourite Tampa Bay.

Guess which forward has averaged the most power-play time for the Leafs in the last season and a half. Matthews, at 2:24 per night.

Matthews’ use on the man-advantage pales only when compared league-wide to his fellow all-world snipers like Alex Ovechkin (4:08 this season), Phil Kessel (4:05), Nikita Kucherov (3:52) and Vladimir Tarasenko (3:54). Yet criticism of the future captain’s PP minutes percolated on Toronto’s airwaves this week.

Not that Babcock should be beyond reproach (cough, Polak, cough), but Matthews’ power-play time is a minor if not silly quibble to take with Toronto’s effective special teams (the Leafs’ 83.8 per cent penalty kill ranks No. 1 in the East). Even if the club’s sole All-Star Game representative might secretly desire the chance to rack up more points with a looming contract negotiation.

Saying Auston Matthews has the puck on a string gives way too many props to string. https://t.co/5rroGxmiTu

— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) January 11, 2018

Why we’re not stressing this issue:

(i.) Matthews’ 2017-18 power-play production (two goals, four assists) is fine but unspectacular. He’s tied for second among Leafs forwards in PP ice time but ranks seventh on the team in PP points.

(ii.) The first forward unit of James van Riemsdyk (who, at 2:21, only averages three more seconds on the man-advantage than AM34), Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner has simply yielded better results. JVR alone is 7-5-12 on the power play.

(iii.) Matthews is easily the Leafs’ best five-on-five player, and they rightly save his breath so he can make an impact there. At 18:36 per game, Matthews handily tops among all Toronto forwards (51 seconds more than linemate and PK man Zach Hyman, who ranks second).

(iv.) Whose PP time do you subtract? Not JVR’s. Nylander could make his own case for more ice. Kadri and Bozak have endured prolonged slumps, and you need to give them opportunities to catch fire. Marner and Connor Brown are top-six wings playing bottom-six roles; take away some of their PP time, and how do they feel? There’s a whole team to worry about here, folks.

(v.) Eighty-two games plus is a long haul. What good is forward depth if you don’t use it? Edmonton is throwing Connor McDavid over the boards every other shift, but is that a recipe for team success? Trust me, when playoff position is in doubt or the Leafs need a mid-April win, Babcock knows who needs the extra ice time. Best to keep his most dangerous weapon as fresh as possible.

2. Before flying home to Minnesota to take care of some personal business during the bye week, van Riemsdyk had himself a game to make Corsi lovers swoon.

The Leafs lost to Ottawa Wednesday, squandering JVR’s 18 shot attempts in 60 minutes. The big winger’s 11 shots on net eclipsed his previous high of nine, set way back on Oct. 27, 2011, when he was with Philadelphia.

“We were making smart plays with the puck,” van Riemsdyk explained. “We were playing fast, and the D made a good job of getting the puck up to us in stride so we could make plays coming into the zone.”

JVR chuckled when we asked if he purposely faked his patented between-the-legs shot the one time he did beat Craig Anderson that night (watch below). Yep.

“On that play I kinda expected him to be more over toward the far post than he was,” van Riemsdyk........

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