I was a bit hard pressed for content for this week’s article, so I decided to take to Twitter to take suggestions. I ended up breaking the rule of “most likes in a reply wins”, but the commenter (who is also my managing editor) said I didn’t have to write about werewolves, and I got this suggestion instead.
Is it being too harsh to think John Tavares should be able to better drive a line consisting of Nylander + any other winger?
We would expect Matthews to do it, who is clearly better. But is it too much to expect more dominance from our captain who earns 11m cap hit?
— UK_Leaf (@uk_leaf) February 14, 2021
So, I think to start off, I’ll simply answer the question: I don’t think it’s too harsh to expect John Tavares to drive a line, especially with William Nylander on his wing. The two of them should be able to have anyone on their wing and be able to drive play.
And for the most part, they have. When the two of them are on the ice together at even strength, they have 55.13% of the shot attempts, and 53.19% of the expected goals. Generally, the two of them have gotten the job done at a respectable rate.
While you would hope that they can carry play regardless of the third linemate, sometimes you get a third linemate that just does not click and messes up the chemistry of the whole line. Think back to the 2018-19 season, when Babcock tried Patrick Marleau with Auston Matthews. While you would expect Matthews and Kapanen/Nylander to drive play with Marleau on their wing, it just never really worked, at least at the elite rate that you would hope a top line would drive play. Below are Matthews’ most common lines last year, and their success at generating expected goals, and as you can see, the lines with Marleau didn’t fair well.
We’re seeing the same thing happen so far this season with Tavares and Nylander. It should be noted that we’re dealing with much smaller sample sizes than the Marleau example, so we should be treading cautiously with analyzing this too, too much, but the pair has heavily struggled when paired with Ilya Mikheyev.
Every linemate that they’ve played at least five minutes with has seen them drive play well, except for when Mikheyev is with them. I’m not sure if this is just that Mikheyev is bad, having a bad year, or just has not fit in with Tavares and Nylander, but up to this point, it has not worked. Even when they play with Vesey, who has recieved a lot of criticism this year from fans, they’ve managed to drive play well, but not with Mikheyev.
Some good news is that Wayne Simmonds actually faired really well on that line, so he can be an option there when he returns, but that won’t be for another five weeks at this point. Also, with Thornton returning, it looks like Hyman will be slotting alongside Tavares and Nylander, another combo that looked good in it’s limited time.
So, for the most part, Tavares has been able to dominate and carry a line at even strength, but sometimes you get a player who just doesn’t click, and that was the case with Mikheyev this season.
There are a couple of other factors with Tavares as well though that should be considered with his expectations of carrying a line. For starters, he’s now 30 years old, so he’s starting to reach the point where he’s past his prime years and might be not be able to fully drive a line on his own.
That’s actually a bit more noticeable in the numbers this year so far, as Nylander’s underlying numbers have actually been better than Tavares’ this season. So far, Nylander’s faired better in both shot attempts (55.35% to Tavares’ 53.35%) and in expected goals (53.03% to Tavares’ 51.93%). It’s not a massive difference, but considering the fact that they’ve spent 81.63% of their ice time together, the fact there is a difference as big as 2% means something. That’s because without Tavares, Nylander has had a 57.58% 5v5 CF% and a 53.43% 5v5 xGF%, while Tavares’ numbers away from Nylander are a 42.11% 5v5 CF% and a 41.99% 5v5 xGF%.
This is also noticeable when you look at Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) that takes a player’s stats and removes factors out of their control like linemates, competition, rink bias, etc. to figure out their isolated impact on the ice. It should be noted that this early in the season doesn’t always provide the most accurate data, as it’s a bit harder to isolate impact with a smaller sample to work with, but so far, Nylander has faired better in this department than Tavares as well.
Age also plays a role with how we expect Matthews to dominate with anyone versus Tavares. Tavares is on the back half of his prime, while Matthews is just starting to enter it. Not just that, but Matthews is a whole other beast compared to even prime Tavares, as his play at both ends of the ice is already starting to reach a level that we hadn’t really seen with Tavares at any point of his career.
Of course, Tavares is being paid $11 million, so you would hope that he would be able to do it himself, but it should be noted that this was expected when he signed the contract. Most fans knew that the back half of that deal would become more and more of a problem as he got older, and while he would never become a bad player, he wouldn’t be worth his $11 million cap hit. So, while we should expect him to perform to that level, his contract isn’t so much a byproduct of his play, but instead his worth on the market, especially in a UFA market trying to outbid for a star player.
So, to conclude, I think it is certainly fair to expect Tavares to be a dominant player and carry a line regardless of the linemates, but it’s important to remember two big things with this expectation. First, not every linemate is going to click with Tavares and Nylander, as we’re seeing with Mikheyev this season, and second, as Tavares gets more and more into his thirties, we should probably start to expect less and less of this dominance as the game starts to pass him by. In a perfect world, he’s amazing for all seven years, but time is always undefeated.
All statistics come courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.
All with or without you stats come courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.