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Behind The Numbers

Maple Leafs look to ride youth movement

Auston Matthews and Co. aim to follow example of 2013-14 Lightning

by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews may be getting a lot of the publicity, but he is just one of an NHL-high six rookies the Maple Leafs have included in their lineup this season. 

Through three games, Matthews, forwards Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown, and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev have combined for more than 100 minutes of ice time per game and have scored seven of Toronto's 12 goals.

Historically, employing a large number of rookies normally is a sign of a long and difficult season, but there is at least one recent case that offers the Maple Leafs some hope of great success.

Since 2005-06, NHL rookies have combined for an average of 29 minutes a game, not counting goaltenders. The modern-day record is held by the 2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning, whose rookies averaged a combined total of 98 minutes per game.

Like the Maple Leafs' top rookie line of Matthews, Nylander, and Hyman, the Lightning caught their opponents off guard with the speed and energy of the "Triplets" line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov. Palat finished second on the Lightning in scoring with 59 points (23 goals, 36 assists), and Johnson was fifth with 50 points (24 goals, 26 assists).

On defense, Zaitsev draws a parallel with Radko Gudas, now of the Philadelphia Flyers, who that season ranked third among Tampa Bay defensemen in points (22) and total ice time (19:07 per game).

Combining the contributions of all rookies, the Lightning improved from a .417 points percentage in 2012-13 to .616 in 2013-14, at the time the second-best season in their history. Tampa Bay finished second in its division for the first of three consecutive seasons, made the Stanley Cup Final in 2014-15 and the Eastern Conference Final last season. This clearly is the model the Maple Leafs hope to emulate.

On a more cautionary note, the Lightning were more the exception than the rule, judging from the 10 teams that assigned the most ice time to its rookies.

 

Season Team
Minutes, Points Pct  (Rank)

2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning
8,037:44, .616 (8th)

2005-06 Chicago Blackhawks
7,370:05, .396  (28th)

2005-06 Pittsburgh Penguins
7,186:26, .354  (29th)

2007-08 Chicago Blackhawks
6,068:39, .537  (20th)

2012-13 Ottawa Senators
5,955:13, .583  (14th)

2010-11 Edmonton Oilers
5,906:01, .378  (30th)

2009-10 Colorado Avalanche
5,806:30, .579  (12th)

2008-09 Toronto Maple Leafs
5,788:38, .494  (24th)

2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers
5,746:10, .628  (6th)

2015-16 Edmonton Oilers
5,356:36, .427  (29th)

For example, the Chicago Blackhawks are in second place on the list. Their rookies combined for 7,370 minutes in 2005-06, and finished 28th with 65 points. Chicago employed 15 rookies that season, partly because it lacked healthy and effective veterans for key roles, and partly because it chose to develop players for future seasons.

Chicago's situation is far more typical of teams that have used a lot of rookies in recent seasons. Six of the 10 teams on the list finished in the bottom third of the NHL, including the leader last season, the Edmonton Oilers, who finished 29th. Though center Connor McDavid would have earned the same ice time almost anywhere, Edmonton's other rookies got lots of ice time because the Oilers were without better options and because they already had an eye to the future.

It's too early in the season to determine in which situation the Maple Leafs will find themselves.

Matthews, Nylander and Zaitsev likely would earn a place in any NHL lineup, rookies or not. Matthews was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and proved he was ready for elite play when he represented Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. Likewise, Zaitsev represented Team Russia at the World Cup and has been one of the best defensemen in the Kontinental Hockey League for the past two seasons.

Video: TOR@OTT: Matthews bursts onto scene with four goals

Nylander was the No. 8 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and has spent parts of the past two seasons developing in the American Hockey League, where he scored 77 points (32 goals, 45 assists) in 75 games through two seasons with the Toronto Marlies. In 22 games with the Maple Leafs last season, Nylander scored 13 points (six goals, seven assists), and established himself as being ready to compete at the NHL level.

Marner was selected with the No. 4 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and scored 242 points (83 goals, 159 assists) in 120 games the past two seasons with London of the Ontario Hockey League. Though that suggests a 50-point pace at the NHL level, some of the more competitive teams might have given him one season in the AHL for development purposes.

On the other hand, it's possible Hyman and Brown would not make the cut on teams with stronger veteran options. They fall into the same category as other rookies in Toronto's system, including forwards Nikita Soshnikov, Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier, Tobias Lindberg, Brendan Leipsic, and defensemen Rinat Valiev and Viktor Loov, who all played with the Maple Leafs last season and may again this season. Those players are most likely to get ice time on a team that either lacks other options, or already is looking to the future.

Very few included Toronto on the list of contenders to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, but if their rookies continue to contribute at the same pace as the Triplets in 2013-14, the Maple Leafs could take the NHL by surprise.

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