Maple Leafs hope line shuffling sparks ‘stale’ power play

NHL Analyst Brian Burke joined Starting Lineup to discuss why the Toronto Maple Leafs' lack of ability to play a physical game is a problem.

TORONTO – The Voltron of power-plays has been disassembled.

Yes, the much-hyped, three-centre, five-star PP1 of the Toronto Maple LeafsMorgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri — was chopped up for the first time (with all components healthy) at practice Wednesday.

And the new, more balanced deployment falls in line with coach Mike Babcock’s preferred man-advantage philosophy.

“When you’ve got a total of one group, you don’t got as much competition on your team,” Babcock explained.

“I still like when you have two and you compete to see who’s out there. We’re gonna make a change here and see how it goes, then we’ll go from there. We can always change back at any time.”

The skill dropoff between PP1 and PP2 is now a baby step, and we’d expect the gap in ice time between the two units to shrink as well.

Here’s a peek at the groups expected to be unveiled Thursday in New Jersey:

PP1: Tavares, Marner, Kadri, Rielly and Kasperi Kapanen

PP2: Matthews, Patrick Marleau, William Nylander, Andreas Johnsson and Jake Gardiner

Matthews, who spent the bulk of last season on the “second” unit as well and leads all Leafs with seven power-play goals, is the man on the move.

It’s no secret the franchise centre enjoys being on the ice with Marner — the NHL leader in primary assists — but, unprompted, Matthews let it be known that he’s cool with the shuffle.

“I have no problem with the switch,” Matthews said, well aware that opponents began to nullify the cross-seam pass Marner was using to tee him up for that wicked wrister on the left flank.

“Some things work for a couple games or one game, and you feel good. Next game, that play’s not there,” Matthews said.

“Maybe we got a bit too stale and were just bringing the same thing over and over again. So, I think it’s important to switch it up once in a while and give them something different and get them back on their heels.”

The numbers support a need for change.

Toronto has tumbled to eighth league-wide in the category (22.3 per cent), down from when it spread its weapons across two groups in 2017-18 (25 per cent) and 2016-17 (23.8 per cent). The club’s PP finished second overall in both those seasons.

Toronto’s stacked 5-on-4 formation terrorized the league in October, faded slightly in November, and has turned bone-dry of late, succeeding only once in its past 15 opportunities. The sum has become less than its parts.

The Leafs are now enduring their fourth stretch of power-play futility lasting four games or longer, and in tight, meaningful contests, special teams are often the difference.

The Predators defeated Toronto Monday, in part, because they went 1-for-2 on the PP while the Leafs went 0-for-3 and watched some missed-net plays rim out of the offensive zone.

“Especially in games like the one we were in against Nashville, those momentum swings can really change the game,” Matthews said.

The increasing ineffectiveness of the all-star quintet can be credited to opponents’ diligent pre-scouting and ramped-up effort.

“People take their penalty-killing very seriously,” Rielly noted. “Some guys, that’s their main role on the team.”

Ironically, the day the struggling Nylander drops out of the top six and off Matthews’ wing (replaced by the speedy Kapanen), he welcomes the sniper to his power-play group.

“For sure, that’ll help get something going for our unit,” Nylander said.

Adds Tavares: “It’s a good opportunity for both units to take advantage of it, knowing we’ve got two really strong groups with a great skill-set and can move the puck around and get the puck to the net.

“Whatever adjustments teams make we’d like to believe in our ability and our foundation to overcome that and find a way to get the production we need.”

Babcock believes strongly in the importance of set schemes and the complementary role they serve in his skill players’ ability to act spontaneous on the ice.

“If you’re not organized and you don’t have good structure, they can’t be creative because they don’t know what each other is supposed to do. What it’s supposed to do is give the creative players more room,” the coach said.

“You’ve got four penalty killers out there, and they get paid to work hard. And so, the other guys gotta work harder. You gotta outwork the penalty kill. If you don’t, you don’t score.”


Zach Hyman returns to the Leafs’ top line Thursday after missing eight games with an ankle injury. “His skill is being able to get to the net, get the puck back, play with good players, play heavy, penalty-kill, take right hand face-offs,” Babcock said. “Those things are important for us.”… Frederik Andersen (groin) said the Leafs are targeting his return for Saturday versus Boston… In New Jersey Thursday, Michael Hutchinson will get his fourth consecutive start; expect Kasimir Kaskisuo to be recalled as his backup…. Garret Sparks skated on his own Tuesday but has yet to be cleared for practice since suffering a concussion…. And Jake Gardiner, who played some centre in high school, held his own in a spirited face-off contest with Nazem Kadri to wrap up the skate.

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