Why long-debated split of Matthews and Marner is paying off for Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitchell Marner (16) celebrates his goal during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

TORONTO – Well known for his tinkering ways, for constant experimentation in search of the optimal lineup, Sheldon Keefe opened training camp with unequivocal, unconditional love for his top trio of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and Michael Bunting.

“We look at Matthews, Marner and Bunting as a group that is absolutely going to play together,” the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach declared on Day One.

So, while every other element of Keefe’s bench — goalies, D pairings, bottom nine — got flipped and blended, pureed and contorted during his team’s pinball start, not until recently has that top unit been busted up in a meaningful way.

An in-game flip on Nov. 6 in Carolina — placing Marner on John Tavares’s wing and slotting William Nylander alongside Matthews — helped trigger a comeback victory.

“Not a lot of things were happening for us offensively that I thought changing up the lines a bit will get the guys’ attention, change the chemistry, and it might spark something,” Keefe said postgame.

“Our players responded extremely well to the changes in the lines.”

And yet the coach reverted to status quo for the following two games. The Maple Leafs lost them both at home, to Vegas and Pittsburgh.

How’s this for a head-scratcher? Marner has yet to supply the primary assist on a Matthews even-strength goal all season. (He has just one on the power play.)

It was high time for the nuclear option, a switch that had been debated internally for some time.

Since Saturday’s right-wing toggle of placing Marner with Tavares and Nylander with Matthews, the Maple Leafs have won consecutive games over Vancouver and Pittsburgh, outscoring their foes 7-3 (with an empty-netter) at even-strength.

All five of the goals Toronto hung on the Penguins Tuesday involved a member of the Core Four.

The new look is working. The sample is small, but the promise is big.

“We think it makes sense to continue with it for a little bit here,” Keefe said.

It’s no secret that Matthews and Marner love skating together. Heck, their chemistry helped earn the latter two Rocket Richard trophies. Matthews invited both his wingers to train with him in Arizona over the summer in hopes of taking their chemistry to another level.

Surprise! An elite shooter enjoys hopping the boards with an elite setup man.

But there is also no denying that the duo has been less dynamic to this season.

Led by Bunting-Matthews-Marner, Toronto’s 5-on-5 offence was its calling card last season and could be counted on for 2.54 goals per game, second most in the NHL.

Tumbling to 1.82 goals per game at 5-on-5, the Leafs have fallen to the league’s bottom third in the category.

A jolt was necessary for the good of the group, even if it’s not one Matthews and Marner were begging for.

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Both superstars downplay any effect their new playmaking partners may have on their own approach.

“I don’t think my game necessarily changes much,” Matthews says. “I’m really comfortable with Willy.

“We have really good chemistry. Even though we don’t play a whole lot together other than the power play nowadays, I think we still kind of understand each other’s game and know where we want to be out there and how we want to play.”

“It’s not hard trying to switch between John and Matts,” Marner adds. “For me, with either one, it’s just trying to find ice for them, get them in ice where they can make plays.”

To our eye, the greatest beneficiary of the makeover is Tavares, whose most productive individual campaign (47 goals, 88 points) came riding shotgun with Marner in 2018-19. (This after GM Kyle Dubas showed 2018’s most coveted free agent a sizzle reel of Marner’s magic as part of the infamous Tavares homecoming pitch.)

Marner buzzes around, drawing in and distracting defenders. Tavares finds quiet, dangerous areas in the offensive zone, knowing Marner will locate his tape. Both thrive east-west.

“Our games do mesh well,” Tavares says. “We played that whole year together and had a lot of success and have had periods here and there since then and still play a good amount of time on the power play. Obviously, have a really good feel for his game. I think he has a good feel for my game. So, don’t need to go out there and force the issue and do too much.”

The Matthews-Nylander combo can frighten with rush speed and force opponents to pick their poison from two deadly shots from distance.

Eventually, we do see Keefe reuniting Matthews with Marner.

Still, this encouraging run of offence with a rejigged Core Four, albeit overdue, should embolden Keefe to make the switch again whenever the top six needs a wake-up call.

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