How Maple Leafs’ lines shake out without John Tavares

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins Lead Off to speculate on what Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock will do with the lines, with captain John Tavares out of the mix for awhile.

TORONTO – There was no set contingency plan already in place for the event of John Tavares going down to injury.

So upon learning Thursday morning, to the captain’s dismay, that it was best he not play the next two weeks (minimum) and let the broken finger on his right hand heal, everyone in the Maple Leafs’ front office and on the coaching staff with a say in these matters offered their lineup suggestions to head coach Mike Babcock.

The suggestions came attached with explanations and theories.

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What was intended to be a club day off, before buckling down and preparing to face the Boston Bruins for the first time since another miserable Game 7 at TD Garden, became a day of forward-line Jenga.

The brain trust took all of Thursday, Babcock says, to scramble through and debate their options. And even then, the coach warns, he’ll be quick to adjust if his Tavares-free dozen isn’t executing.

"Nothing’s set in stone," Babcock said, after unveiling the Leafs’ new look during Friday’s practice. "But this is for warmup for sure."

Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander
Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Marner
Moore-Spezza-Kapanen
Timashov-Shore-Gauthier

The red-hot Auston Matthews line remains intact, with the expectation that the club’s leading goal-scorer will be handed some of the stiffer defensive assignments normally shouldered by Tavares.

So, too, does the Frederik Gauthier-led fourth line, which sees almost exclusively defensive-zone starts. Babcock noted that this is the most comfortable he’s felt with his fourth unit since he drove his Ford F-150 from Detroit to Toronto four years ago.

"We didn’t want to screw around with that," Babcock said.

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It’s the middle six that got chucked in the blender, with third-line centre Alexander Kerfoot seeing a hard-earned promotion to the 2C spot alongside the dynamic Mitchell Marner. Ironically, it’s a role that last year would’ve been a no-brainer fill for Nazem Kadri, who was traded away to acquire Kerfoot (and defenceman Tyson Barrie).

"Kerfoot is a way better player than we expected," Babcock said. "He’s way grittier and got more grease to him. We think he’s going to make way more plays; he’s just got to continue to work on his defensive side so he has the puck more."

Each game night, when Kerfoot is handed a stat sheet post-game, his eyes search for his face-off results. Though he played centre in college, Colorado primarily used him on the wing. Taking draws at the NHL level has been a challenge — he’ll enter Saturday’s game at 44.9 per cent — and Tavares had been on a tear of late.

The challenge will be for Kerfoot to help get Marner the type of puck possession he needs to work his magic.

"Marns is one of the best players in the league, so when you get the opportunity to play with him, you know there’s more responsibility and you have to do a good job," said Kerfoot, the recipient of a brief one-on-one chat with Babcock prior to practice. "I don’t think anyone is going to replace J.T., so I think you’ve got to do it as a collective group."

The biggest adjustment here falls on Marner, who will be matched with two new linemates. He stresses finding quick chemistry will be essential with his new centre.

"He’s feisty. He’s got a lot of fight in him," Marner said of Kerfoot. "It should be fun playing with him."

The collective tasked with pitching in for Tavares includes Jason Spezza, as the veteran climbs down from the press box to centre a fresh-look third line that features speedy checkers Trevor Moore and Kasperi Kapanen, the latter returning to his natural right wing.

Spezza will also see shifts on the second power-play unit, while William Nylander assumes Tavares’s bumper spot on that fearsome PP1.

"I just think getting in the lineup is good," said Spezza, naturally disappointed and humbled by how his free-agency decision has turned out thus far.

Were it not for Tavares accidentally absorbing a Morgan Rielly shot with his finger Wednesday night, there is a chance Spezza might have already skated his last game in a Leafs sweater, considering the cap money that will have to be moved out when the healing Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman come off long-term injured reserve.

With Babcock pumped on his fourth line, this gives Spezza a window to show he belongs, to make that decision more difficult on the lineup architects when the time comes.

"Good teams always have to go through injuries, and this will give us a chance for us to prove we can keep playing games without Johnny. It’s important time for us, with a couple games against Boston coming up," said Spezza, who should finally see some offensive-zone starts.

"It puts pressure on different guys to take more of a focal point and then when Johnny inevitably comes back, guys gain confidence from that."

Adversity, change, the unexpected — these aren’t necessarily bad things.

Especially for hungry athletes, like Spezza and Kerfoot, suddenly gifted with a shot to flex a little more offensive flair.

"You gotta get in there and get after it," Babcock said. "When you’re a good player on teams, you want to be the guy. Here’s an opportunity."

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