For the first time this season, all the Toronto Maple Leafs forwards are injury-free. So what does Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe do? He reshapes his entire lineup.
The First Hint Was Yesterday’s Maple Leafs’ Practice
When the Maple Leafs’ players stepped onto the ice for practice yesterday, it was the first time all season that the full roster of forwards had been practicing at one time. During preseason, Ilya Mikheyev had broken his thumb in training camp. Just before he returned, Mitch Marner suffered a shoulder injury in a practice collision with Jake Muzzin.
Then, aside from the little nagging injuries a team always has throughout the season, COVID-19 hit the team hard. Although some players were largely asymptomatic, some were not. But all the players who tested positive were kept in isolation until they tested negative. COVID took its time working itself through the lineup.
However, that – one hopes – is behind the team now. The practice lineups were tweeted earlier yesterday by The Hockey News reporter David Alter. They are as seen below.
Key Changes in These New Maple Leafs Line Combinations
The First Line Changes to:
First, a note that these changes aren’t tweaks. All four line combinations have been changed. Key among these changes is Ondrej Kase was moved to the top line to play beside Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews. Kase will be on the right side of center Matthews, with Bunting on the left.
What an interesting development. Now it’s Matthews driving the offense with two newcomers. Really, it’s Bunting and Kase’s job to dig out the puck for Matthews, who’s been scoring from anywhere and everywhere this season.
The Second Line Changes to:
On the second line, Ilya Mikheyev is now at left-wing, with John Tavares in the center, and Mitch Marner dropping down to play with Tavares. This twosome – Tavares and Marner – have worked well before and Marner seems to elevate Tavares’ game. Mikheyev is the speed element to the line and both he and Marner are good defenders. Mikheyev moved up from the third line.
The Third Line Changes to:
But the real surprising change to me is that William Nylander now finds himself on the third line. And, given the season Nylander’s had, this is far from a demotion. The third line likely becomes the tipping point to the entire group. He’s now with Alex Kerfoot on the left, with defensive specialist David Kampf in the middle, and Nylander at the right-wing position.
That means that the third line is an interesting blend of Nylander, Kampf, and Kerfoot. Dropping Nylander to the third line offers that line an offensive jump. The only question is what happens to the concept of the third line being a shutdown line?
The Fourth Line Changes to:
On the fourth line, the speedy Pierre Engvall will be on the left-wing playing with two veterans. Jason Spezza will center the line and Wayne Simmonds will be on the right-wing. That’s an interesting blend of speed, skill, savvy, and strength.
Will These Lines Last?
Already, to my mind coach Keefe has the playoffs in mind. First, it’s an invitation for a more balanced TOI, which means resting the top lines more during the regular season. Keefe knows now that he simply can’t load up the minutes for Matthews because he has other stars on the bench who also need their time on the ice.
Furthermore, Keefe can’t load up the minutes for the top two lines and start the third line only in the defensive zone, which he’s been doing to great success. What then would happen to the Maple Leafs’ second-leading scorer Nylander? I see no way that Keefe won’t be “forced” to space out the minutes more equitably with this new lineup.
First, I’m anxious to watch the game tonight to see what happens with the play and with the TOI deployment. Second, I’m anxious to see how long these lines last? Third, if they do last, I can’t wait to see how opposing teams try to defend this new – more powerfully balanced offensive – lineup the Maple Leafs will employ.
Finally, I’m wondering if these are the line combinations coach Keefe had in his head at the start of the season. These lines sure look different than most of us thought they would. Now to see how they work.
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