Which Maple Leafs could replace Joe Thornton on the top line?

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to discuss the possibility of the Maple Leafs being down two-thirds of their top line for their revenge game against the Oilers, and how coach Keefe would deal without Thornton and possibly Matthews.

The early returns on the Joe Thornton-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner top line in Toronto were all positive in five games.

Each of the three are at or above a 60 per cent corsi rating at 5-on-5. Marner is tied with John Tavares for the team points lead at six, while Matthews is working at a point-per-game rate even though he's only scored on two of his league-leading 27 shots -- a 7.4 percentage that's well below a 15.5 per cent career average.

In Wednesday's defensive snoozer (which was actually positive in some way for both teams) the Thornton-Matthews-Marner line controlled 75 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots they were on the ice for.

It was Toronto's best line.

And now it's time for a shakeup.

Thornton left Wednesday's game with an injury that Sheldon Keefe described as "not a day-to-day thing." The team awaits the results of an MRI later Thursday for full details, but it's clear Toronto will have to move on without its Jumbo centre-turned-winger for a while.

The question, naturally, becomes: who replaces him on the top line?

And it might not even be quite that simple.

Adding a little more intrigue to the mix is the fact Auston Matthews departed Thursday's practice early, leaving some question as to whether or not he'll be in the lineup for Round 2 against Edmonton Friday.

"He just wasn't feeling great today coming off the game yesterday, so just going to take the rest of the day to see how he is tomorrow. We'll have an update in the morning," Keefe said.

If Matthews is out, then John Tavares' line becomes the new "No. 1" and, really, all sorts of possibilities for line changes enter the mix. But with Matthews, at least, it seems a little more fluid and even if he doesn't go on Friday his absence may only be short term.

The Thornton loss will have the longer-term impact, so who could replace him on the top line with Matthews and Marner?

Nick Robertson would have been perfect, but a knee injury has already forced him out for four weeks. Now Toronto's bottom six will be stretched thinner and, perhaps, more work is coming for Tavares and William Nylander, who both are averaging just over 17 minutes of ice per game -- or about six minutes less than Matthews, and seven less than Marner.

With Matthews in the lineup next to Marner, here are some possibilities to play on the left side.

Jimmy Vesey
Well, let's start with the practice lines from Thursday, when Matthews was absent.

Adam Brooks would be filling in for Matthews here, and if this is what is put forth Friday, Vesey would arrive here from Tavares' line and Zach Hyman would get a bump up from the third (more on him in a bit).

You could say the jury is still out on Vesey. He wasn't great Wednesday, but arguably had his best performance the game before. He's getting PK time, but feels more like bottom-six player than star support. Still, he's getting the minutes and was practicing in this place Thursday. If that comes to pass it shouldn't be a surprise.

But there's this: in Toronto's five early games they've been outscored 9-7 at 5-on-5. If Vesey doesn't help boost either the offence or the defence in some way, and this scoring hole widens, Keefe could mix his lines up again. He's nothing if not flexible with his set up, depending on the situation.

Zach Hyman

This would be my pick. Hyman is the worker bee who wins key corner puck battles and has supported Toronto's stars to great success in the past.

On the third line to start the season, Hyman has been the driver -- Toronto has controlled 55 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots when he's on the ice and he's the only bottom-sixer who has a positive goal differential at 5-on-5. In Monday's game against Winnipeg, he recorded 10 shots on net.

After Thornton left the Oilers game, Hyman's even-strength shifts were spent with Matthews and Marner. According to Natural Stat Trick, they played 6:16 at 5-on-5 together Wednesday and were 3-3 with the opposition in shots on goal. They were also the only Toronto line to score a goal Wednesday, which began on a Hyman drive, and finished (with a little luck) after Matthews won a puck battle.

The way the lines were arranged Thursday, though, suggests Hyman will instead start with Tavares and Nylander.

There is a potential risk to moving Hyman up now, especially if Matthews is out. The bottom six is stretching and Hyman has arguably been the most important piece in that section of the lineup. Promoting him would certainly be worthy, but you have to wonder in what state that leaves the depth. As mentioned before, an uptick in minutes for Tavares' line could help that situation to some degree.

Ilya Mikheyev

Whether or not you think Mikheyev is a long-term fit in the top six, he's clearly someone who could slot there in a pinch. And the upside is intriguing. He had 23 points in 39 games last season before a gruesome wrist injury removed him from the lineup until the play-in round. He has the one assist in five games this season.

However, if Mikheyev gets a bump up it may come with Tavares first instead. Mikheyev played more often with Toronto's captain at 5-on-5 last season (138:45 minutes) and the underlying numbers for both players were better when they were together.

When Justin Bourne built his ideal Leafs lines out before Thornton's injury, this is what his top six looked like, which would seem to bolder Hyman's candidacy to join Marner and Matthews:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner
Mikheyev-Tavares-Nylander

Then you wonder, if it gets to a point where both Hyman and Mikheyev need to be in the top six and the Maple Leafs are still struggling to produce or find consistency, would Keefe reunite the Marner-Tavares-Hyman line that was so successful two years ago there is now value keeping them spread apart?

That, then, would conceivably leave Matthews with Nylander and either Mikheyev or Vesey.

John Tavares

If you see this one, something terrible has probably gone wrong.

Here is the emergency switch, the nuclear option. What if Toronto starts a spiral or goes a stretch where the scoring dries up? Could you see this attempted?

More likely this trip would get put together in a specific game situation, like trailing by a goal or more late when an offensive spark is needed. It's been done before.

But putting the three of them on the same line for a full game, multiple games in a row, puts maximum stress on the rest of the forward units. Still, it'd be fun to see.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.
close