Why Keefe is switching up the Maple Leafs’ top nine

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) celebrates after scoring on Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner (90) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP Photo)

TORONTO – Knock on wood, the Toronto Maple Leafs will finally have a full complement of healthy forwards for Wednesday’s homecoming against the Anaheim Ducks.

More surprising than needing to wait until Game 39 of the season to dress their best healthy 12 for the first time is the way head coach Sheldon Keefe has realigned his forward units:

Bunting-Matthews-Kase
Mikheyev-Tavares-Marner
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“It’s about having [Auston] Matthews, [Mitch] Marner and [William] Nylander on three separate lines,” Keefe explained.

“How does the opposition contend with that?”

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Matthews is once again contending for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Marner has been buzzing since his return from a forced COVID-19 quarantine, producing in all situations. And Nylander is hunting down a career year, ranking second among Leafs in goals, assists and points while contributing more than ever on the defensive side.

“It’s a good way to spread out the guys on the team,” said Nylander, who has no intention of altering his approach alongside shutdown centre David Kämpf. “[Keefe] just said he wanted to see us get a new look, and it’s his job to keep the minutes the same.”

Rivals routinely roll into town wary of the one-two offensive punch Matthews and Tavares can deliver. But what if, Keefe wondered, that punch was a one-two-three?

Forget a top six with some checking support stuffed down the bench. What about a true and balanced top nine?

The idea has been percolating in the coach’s brain since training camp, and Keefe had planned to unveil it after Christmas. But then Marner entered protocol. Then Ondrej Kase.

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With everyone healthy and established lines clicking, Keefe made a point to speak with all the major players involved in the shakeup.

On the surface, it may appear the staff is fixing something that isn’t broken. Yet this is a fine time to experiment and force forwards to develop chemistry with multiple teammates, to find out if there’s a more optimal (or at least an alternate) lineup for the playoffs.

And if the deployment re-jolts Tavares and Nylander, whose offence has sagged lately, all the better.

“It shows the continuity of the group, the chemistry, the ability to kind of move things around and guys to have the comfort level playing with one another and the impact each line can make,” said Tavares, whose best statistical campaign was his first in Toronto, when Marner was affixed to his wing.

“One of the smartest players in the game. Obviously, he’s exceptional at delivering the puck to the right player at the right time. His ability to read the play and manipulate the opponent is as good as any winger in the game.

“As a linemate, you’re always trying to get open, knowing that he’s got eyes everywhere and he’s gonna find you if you’re open.”

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The only reason Keefe has the conviction to test this triple threat is because of Toronto’s improved depth: Ilya Mikheyev is pumping pucks in the net; Kase is found money; Alex Kerfoot is playing his best hockey as a Leaf and has struck up some mojo with Nylander; and Michael Bunting is drawing penalties and complementing Matthews like the best Discount Hyman a GM could ask for.

“That gives me the confidence to be able to look at different things like this,” Keefe said.

“A lot goes into our game talking about ‘top six’ and ‘bottom six.’ Really, it’s about minutes and how much guys play. I don’t see anything changing there at all.”

How does a coach make sure Nylander, in particular, doesn’t see the new look as a negative?

“I just like the ability to have lots of options. It’s on me to manage the minutes, and that was my message to Will,” Keefe said. “There’s no demotion here for anybody. This is about spreading out our lineup, and [it’s] something we haven’t really done in my time here very much.

“With Willie playing as well as he has through this season, and then having threats on two other lines in addition to that — I see that as some challenges for the opposition. I’m curious to see how that plays out.”

So are we.

One-Timers: Jake Muzzin (concussion) was feeling well enough to return to practice. He participated in about 35 minutes of drills Monday wearing a red, no-contact sweater. That said, the defenceman is likely to miss a third consecutive game Wednesday against Anaheim…. It appears a COVID-free Justin Holl will partner with Rasmus Sandin on the second pair, while rookie Timothy Liljegren drops down to the right of Travis Dermott on the third pair…. The Ducks welcomed back all-star game invitee Troy Terry and minutes leader Cam Fowler from COVID protocol Monday, so they should dress a stronger lineup for their eastern swing…. Leafs captain John Tavares is taking ownership of his slipping production. “I know I can be a lot better with my game and helping out my linemates and doing a better job. So, I take that onus and responsibility on myself to go out there and execute at a higher level,” said Tavares, who has just two points in his past six games.

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