Center Breakdown Series: Toronto Maple Leafs

Led by Auston Matthews, the Leafs clinched the playoffs and gave the Capitals a tough run for their money, before finally being eliminated in round 1 of the 2016/17 playoffs. Matthews, the Calder Trophy winner, was dominant offensively, scoring 40 goals and chipping in another 29 helpers. But was his overall game just as sound? How did the rest of the Leafs’ center group fare? We explore.

***Note: For detailed methodology and other deep dives, feel free to access our home page here.

We evaluate centers along 3 criteria:

1. Ability to drive possession and make his teammates better

2. Ability to drive offense and generate goals for his team

3. Ability to be defensively responsible and play a 200 ft game

In addition, we consider the quality of competition, both offensive and defensive QoC, that each player faces as this is important context when drawing comparisons.

Quality of Competition and Assignment Overview

21JUL2017 -- leafs QoC.JPG

We included newest Leaf pivot, Dominic Moore as well. No real surprises here. The Y-Axis (Offense QoC) references the quality of forwards that each center faced. Kadri, as the 3rd line shutdown center, faced the toughest assignment among the group. The X-Axis (Defense QoC) highlights the quality of defensemen that opposing teams sent out against each center. Matthews and Bozak, who center the 1A and 1B lines, faced the toughest opponents in this area.

As we go through the analyses, we’ll observe how dominant Kadri was across the board in 2016/17. This becomes even more impressive when you consider his assignments. While he faced 2nd/3rd pairing defensemen, he matched the opponents’ top forwards and started more shifts in the defensive zone than any Leafs’ center (38% vs 23% in the O-Zone). By comparison, Matthews started 41% of shifts in the offensive zone vs just 24% in the defensive one.

Consider some of the names in the top 10 (by ice time 5v5) that Kadri faced against: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, Max Pacioretty. Some good company.

Defensive Ability

21JUL2017 -- Leafs defensive.JPG

The Y-Axis (offense QoC) should match the previous chart as it highlights the quality of opposing forwards each player faced. The X-Axis (previously defense QoC) is now a measure of scoring chance suppression. This highlights a player’s ability to minimize scoring chances from the opposition (and adjusts accordingly for zone starts, teammate strength, team overall defensive strength, etc.).

Although no one stood out as elite, Kadri was quite impressive with a SCS score of ~-0.03 despite facing the toughest QoC among forwards. Moore and Boyle (SCS of +1.77 and +2.39) were both strong defensively, although they also faced 3rd/4th line opposition.

While Matthews was a bit below average in this category, it’s important to remember that:

A) He still faced solid offensive QoC

B) He was a rookie and will only continue to improve defensively

C) He made up for it (and then some) with his offensive dominance

Offensive Ability

21JUL2017 -- Leafs offensive v2.JPG

Here the QoC is the defense QoC (previously the X-Axis on the QoC chart. When comparing their offensive ability, both offense and defense QoC are important (although defense QoC is more indicative of matchups so we include that here for contextual purposes).

Some rapid fire observations:

+ Nazem Kadri was dominant offensively in 2016/17. While he faced weaker defense pairs, he played against top forwards and took on tough assignments in the defensive zone. He still was among the best at driving possession and elevating the play of his teammates (possession driving factor PDF +10.8) and generating strong scoring chances (SCG +2.59). It’s not unreasonable to consider Kadri among the best 3rd line centers in the league. He would be a #2 (or even #1) center on many teams around the league.

+ Matthews’ dominance offensively is apparent with his strong scoring chance generation marker SCG of +2.07, despite facing the toughest defensemen on opposing teams. Consider some of the top names Matthews faced 5v5: Weber, Karlsson, Slavvin, McDonagh. Expect Matthews to continue to dominate offensively in 2017/18 (his G/60 at 5v5 of 1.5 is among best in the league), and improve his 200 ft. game (e.g., defensive and possession driving).

+ Bozak excelled as a possession driver (PDF +7.3) despite facing strong QoC. This highlights his ability to play a 200 ft. game and elevate the play of his teammates. That said, Bozak’s offensive upside is likely limited. His SCG of +0.02 was not overly impressive (especially considering he started most shifts in the offensive zone (38%). With Kadri (26) and Matthews (19) leading the way, it won’t be surprising to see the Leafs let Bozak walk as a UFA after next season.

+ Dominic Moore is a slight downgrade from Brian Boyle. His ability to drive possession (+1.5) and generate scoring chances (-0.97) are both below average and a worse numbers than Boyle. That said, his primary responsibility will be defensive and in that regard the difference from Boyle is negligible.


The Leafs strength offensively stems from their depth and skill down the middle. Being able to have Kadri center your third line is a luxury very few teams can afford. Coupled with some young, talented wingers, expect the Leafs to be even better offensively next season. Defense and goaltending will likely determine whether they can improve on their 2016/17 outcome.

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