Maple Leafs shake up top line, giving an old idea another shot

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe reflected on why Auston Matthews and William Nylander are being separated, despite both players finding their games individually as of late.

This idea didn’t work out last time, but Sheldon Keefe is giving it another shot.

On Monday at an off-day practice, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach shook up his No. 1 line, tabbing Nick Ritchie, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner as the top trio.

“Obviously Ritchie, Auston and Mitch was what we had started with [earlier this season], and it didn’t go well,” Keefe told reporters on Monday, after practice. The “didn’t go well” part is one fans know quite well.

“I think that all three players, frankly, are in a different place right now with their game than where they were, so we wanted to give it another run,” Keefe continued.

That second run comes Tuesday night, when the Leafs, winners of three straight, take on the Predators.

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There’s a natural bit of head-scratching about having Ritchie back on to the top line. The 25-year-old has two assists in 16 games this season, and no goals on 24 shots on net. His linemates, Matthews and Marner, have a combined 26 points this season — that’s how many Ritchie put up himself in 56 games last year with the Boston Bruins.

It’s a question if the local boy (Ritchie is from nearby Orangeville, Ont., and played his minor hockey in Toronto) and former first-rounder can make good on his second shot on that top trio.

And Marner, another local boy, has another chance to play with Matthews, who’d been playing alongside William Nylander of late. Nylander is now on a line with John Tavares and Alexander Kerfoot.

“It’s been interesting because I do think the individual players have played well,” Keefe said, of Matthews and Nylander, who spent 10 games together on the top line. “And when I went through and I looked at the chances that Auston’s generated and the chances that Will’s generated, they haven’t necessarily involved each other. And it just speaks to how great individually that they are. But the connection hasn’t been there.”

Keefe said it doesn’t mean the duo won’t be revisited or called upon at different points in a game, but pointed out the Matthews-Marner connection last season was a good one “that we think can really help us.”

“We wanted to try some different things as a team, that’s what you do throughout the season is try and get the right mix and make sure you’re utilizing different ideas,” Keefe told reporters. “I think it’s a good opportunity now to reset things.”


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