The good news is that John Tavares is resting at home and seems to be out of danger after the scary hit he took in Thursday evening’s game. After spending a night in the hospital, today Tavares released a statement and also contacted his teammates to tell them that he was OK. I’m sure he also wished them well in their game on Saturday evening against the Montreal Canadiens.
With Tavares Out, Now What for the Maple Leafs?
The question for the Maple Leafs is “What now?” How does the team replace their captain and almost a-point-a-game player over the regular season? There’s no choice but to see. The team will certainly miss Tavares, but they have good depth and will engage in some lineup changes to cover for their teammate.
The Maple Leafs have to accept continuing to play without their captain. Here are the changes (as well as the non-changes) that head coach Sheldon Keefe is looking to make for Saturday’s game.
Lineup Change #1: Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall Will Draw into the Game
In Saturday’s Game 2, Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall will enter the lineup for Tavares (who’s out indefinitely) and newcome Riley Nash will sit.
Lineup Change #2: Nick Foligno Moves to Center on the Second Line
It was a bit of a surprise move, but Keefe has moved Nick Foligno from the wing to play center between Galchenyuk and William Nylander. Foligno volunteered to play center after Tavares left Thursday’s game. Although he’s a natural winger, Foligno actually played at center during this season with the Columbus Blue Jackets after his former team traded Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets.
Keefe explained today that, “We don’t have an abundance of options. Nick has played a lot of centre. He played a lot of centre in Columbus before he came here this season. Even when he plays left wing, Nick ends up spending a lot of time playing low in the defensive zone. He is usually high in the offensive zone. He is usually the first guy back. He is very comfortable playing down low in our own end. It is a natural fit.”
The second line will be interesting. It allows Nylander to carry the puck and shoot at will. Galchenyuk is a strong forechecker who’ll likely get a bit ramped up to play his old organization. And, Foligno is an all-round solid player. As Jason Spezza noted, “it’s a “good strong forechecking line, for sure, and then Willy’s got the touch.”
Lineup Change #3: Pierre Engvall Joins Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev on the Third Line
At Friday’s practice, Pierre Engvall skated on the third line with center Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. Kerfoot noted that Engvall “brings a lot of energy, a lot of speed. He’s a hard guy to play against just with how long he is (6-foot-5) and how fast he is. I’ve played with him a lot this year and like playing with him. I think the three of us can do a good job.”
The Engvall, Kerfoot, and Mikheyev line actually played together a fair bit during the regular season. It’s analytics matched up positively against opponents in shot attempts (52 per cent) and expected goals (53 per cent). That’s pretty good for what’s supposed to be a defensive line that starts almost all their shifts in their own defensive zone.
Lineup Non-Change #1: The First Line Stays Put
With Keefe making the moves to the second line, that lets him leave Auston Matthews in the center position with Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner on the wings. This first line dominated play, but just didn’t score.
Lineup Non-Change #2: The “Silver Stick Trio” Stays Together
The lineup tweaks that Keefe has made also leaves what’s Chris Johnston called the Silver Stick Trio (silver sticks are given to those players who’ve played more than 1000 NHL hockey games) together. That line is Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, and Joe Thornton. They’ll likely get 10-12 minutes of ice time and play some special teams.
Can This Lineup Work?
Interestingly, the last Maple Leafs’ team to go on an extended playoff journey was during 2002; and, that team also did it without its captain (and also its leading scorer) Mats Sundin. Sundin fractured his wrist in Game 1 of the first round and didn’t return until the Eastern Conference Final.
We know this team can do it!
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