Did Auston Matthews’ lack of ice-time have more to do with the player than the coach?

Did Auston Matthews’ lack of ice-time have more to do with the player than the coach?

Why didn’t Mike Babcock use Auston Matthews more, especially in Games 6 and 7 and especially when trailing in the 3rd period? It’s a question every Maple Leafs fan has been asking since their team got bounced in the first round by the Boston Bruins, yet again. A lot has been made of Matthews ice-time, or lack of it, compared to other Leafs forwards. But here’s the thing, Babcock put Matthews over the boards more than any other Leafs forward in those two elimination games – Matthews just didn’t stay out there as long as some of his teammates.

Babcock called Matthews’ number 49 times, at even-strength, in the final two games of the series, the most of any of his forwards.

Matthews played 24 even-strength shifts in Game 6, tied with Mitch Marner for most among Leafs forwards, and 25 EV shifts in Game 7, tied with John Tavares for tops on the team. Yet, Matthews ranked 4th in even-strength ice-time. As the Tavares and Nylander lines extended their shifts late in the series, Matthews’ line saw a a drop in their average shift length, with no drop more drastic than Matthews’ himself.

Matthews went from averaging 47 seconds per even-strength shift in the first 5 games of the series, by far the most of any Leafs forward, to 40 seconds in Games 6 & 7. So, is it really the coaches fault that Matthews didn’t hit the ice-time totals one might expect in a pair of elimination games or did Matthews run out of gas?

In Toronto’s Game 1 win, Matthews racked up a ton of ice at even-strength, leading all Leafs forwards by almost two and a half minutes.

In that game, Matthews led all Toronto forwards, averaging a staggering 56 seconds of ice, per even-strength shift. By comparison, Tavares and Marner averaged 42 and 40 seconds on their shifts, respectively. Fast forward to Game 7 and despite Babcock using Matthews as much as Tavares (25 even-strength shifts each) and more than any other forward, the Leafs leading goal scorer’s average of 40 seconds per shift was significantly less than his elite offensive teammates – 14 seconds per shift shorter than Marner and 20 seconds per shift shorter than Tavares.

Babcock didn’t play Matthews less in the last two games of the series, Matthews just played less.

So, my question isn’t so much ‘Why didn’t Babcock let his horse run’, as it is, ‘Why didn’t his horse have more left in the tank late in the series?’ The coach controls deployment and, overall, Babcock sent Matthews over the boards as much as his other top guys.

Looking at Matthews’ 3rd period deployment in Game 7, with the Leafs season on the line, it is curious that Matthews only had a total of 7 even-strength shifts. Tavares, Marner, Zach Hyman and William Nylander all had more. But, maybe Babcock knew what the numbers above suggest, which is Matthews didn’t have enough left, for whatever reason, to be double shifted repeatedly at that point in the game and the series. Nobody has a better feel for his bench than the head coach and it’s not like Matthews was buzzing in the ice-time he did get late in that game. Matthews had one shot on goal in the 3rd period and none in the final 14 minutes. The matter was also complicated by the fact that Nazem Kadri was out of the line-up, limiting Babcock’s ability to shuffle players around, namely William Nylander who took over Kadri’s 3rd line center role. Babcock spoke about just that after Game 7, saying, “It was unfortunate, the incident with Naz – he wasn’t available, was like an injured player in the playoffs. We thought that was going to give us some depth and would have allowed us to move Willie around a bit, which we were never allowed to do.”

By no means am I looking to absolve Babcock of all blame for his teams failures – there were definitely adjustments that could have been made (see Patrick Marleau’s usage) – but the more I look at Matthews deployment and ice-time, the more I get the feeling there’s more to this particular story than meets the eye.

Maybe we’ll find out more at the Maple Leafs end of season press conference this afternoon.

(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)