Maple Leafs continue to shuffle lineup in search for best game

Toronto Maple Leafs' Nic Petan controls the pucks as Los Angeles Kings defenceman Ben Hutton (15) moves towards him. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO -- We’re almost 20 per cent through the shortened NHL season and tryouts are still ongoing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nic Petan will dress for Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, becoming the 18th different forward to play for the Leafs already. He bypassed the taxi squad entirely by getting recalled from the American Hockey League earlier this week and will be slotted on the revolving fourth line with Jason Spezza and Travis Boyd.

The shuffling is only partly due to ongoing injuries to Joe Thornton (fractured rib) and Nick Robertson (knee). That created cap room for extra roster maneuvering with both players landing on long-term injured reserve, but head coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged that he’s also looking for something in his bottom six.

“There will come a time where we have to settle on the people that we think are our absolute best lineup each day,” said Keefe. “We don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’re inching closer towards that I believe and we’re just going to continue to watch.”

Consider it a quirk of this unusual season that Keefe believes his most effective fourth line was Boyd, Pierre Engvall and Joey Anderson during the Jan. 26 game at Calgary. They held their own territorially that night and got a 5-on-5 goal from Boyd and were promptly broken up for the next game.

Still, they’ve established the standard for how everyone else will be measured as the coach works different players through the bottom of his lineup.

“We just looked at how that line skated, how they made plays, how they defended when it was time to defend. How structured they were,” said Keefe. “The quickness, the speed, they got on to the puck. So those are all things that we think Nic can bring. He has a very high skillset.

“I’ve coached him in the NHL, I’ve coached him with the Marlies, I’ve seen it firsthand. So he’s got to find a way to be himself but do so in a very structured and competitive manner.”

Petan is a former second-round draft pick who has been unable to grab a full-time job at the NHL level. He’s appeared in 21 games for the Leafs over two seasons -- the last coming all the way back on Dec. 12, 2019.

Robertson and Thornton both did skills work at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday morning and are working their way back to full health. They’re eligible to be activated Feb. 9 and Feb. 13, respectively.

With a full complement of forwards, Keefe will likely only be able to dress two of Spezza, Robertson, Boyd, Petan, Engvall, Anderson, Adam Brooks and Alexander Barabanov on any given night.

Wayne Simmonds began the season on Toronto’s fourth line and now finds himself beside John Tavares and William Tavares on the No. 2 trio. Tavares and Nylander have struggled to break through at 5-on-5 and Keefe is hoping Simmonds can carry over his strong play from last week’s “standout” performance on the Western Canada road trip, where he scored in three straight games.

“Their talent level is through the roof,” Simmonds said of his new linemates. “So for me I’ve got to get in there, loosen pucks up and give them the puck and get to the net. I’m going to try not to change my game too much here.

“Just try to be an up-and-down type of winger, physical presence and hopefully put some pucks in the back of the net here.”

Despite a 7-2-1 start to the season, the Leafs are still searching for their best game. They had three days to tinker this week and spent a lot of practice time focused on ways to generate more offensively at even strength.

“We’ve got to get from our zone down to the offensive zone a lot quicker, a lot more efficiently, with a lot more speed and purpose,” said Keefe. “And if we do that there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for our best players to do what they do.”

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