Why Maple Leafs’ Keefe is splitting up Matthews and Marner

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares discusses why the time was right for coach Keefe to make the line switches, and getting Mitch Marner back on his line, says "we've always had good instincts playing off one another."

TORONTO — So disconnected has the oft-magical Auston MatthewsMitchell Marner duo been of late that Sheldon Keefe is willing to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Behind the scenes, the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been gnawing on the idea of splitting up his most dynamic playmaker and his most dangerous shooter for days.

But there has “just been great reluctance,” Keefe says, to disrupt his red-hot second line of Tyler Bertuzzi, John Tavares, and William Nylander when things are flowing so swimmingly with that trio.

“Willy, in particular,” Keefe explains, “has really found a nice groove. His game has been going so well that you’re reluctant to make a change to him and his situation. You don’t want to affect guys who were rolling and feeling good to boost other groups.”

And yet, coming off a weekend in which the Leafs blew multiple leads and lost to a pair of non-playoff teams in Chicago and Pittsburgh, the time is overdue to attempt a different look for the betterment of the whole.

It’s a pitch to jump-start some sleepy giants as the general manager calls out the group’s general lack of consistency and knows that includes some guys earning eight figures.

“Sometimes a little change can help everybody,” Matthews said. “The way the weekend went, mixing things up isn’t the worst thing.” 

That the Penguins, coached by savvy Mike Sullivan, used its top defensive pair of Ryan Graves and Kris Letang against the Tavares line (and not Matthews and Marner) was telling of how things have dried up for the top unit.

In 248:25 of 5-on-5 action Matthews and Marner have shared this season, they’ve been outshot 124-116 and are only outscoring the competition 14-13.

When you consider that Matthews is starting 59 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone and Marner is starting 57 per cent of his in the O-zone, that’s simply not good enough for a roster structured on top-end dominance.

Matthews hasn’t scored 5-on-5 in the past seven games. Marner hasn’t registered a point in five of the past seven. 

Marner — a Selke Trophy finalist in June and a plus-86 over his career — is sitting at a career-worst minus-3.

“He knows he needs to be better,” Keefe said. “We are going to help him through it. We have been talking with him and meeting with him. We have been working on some things on the ice that I think he has to focus on and can help him start to be the Mitch Marner that we know.”

The data and eye test align: Marner is skating slower and shooting less. His accuracy is off, and his confidence has taken a hit here.

The greatest issue?

“Just not getting the puck with a whole lot of speed with myself moving,” Marner said.

“Not really trusting my abilities out there. So, that’s something that needs to change.”

To be fair, Marner is still on pace for 86 points, and he has rebounded wonderfully from past cold spells.

“He went through stretches like this last season, too, especially in the early going,” Keefe said. “Turned out that he had an incredible season for us. I don’t expect it will be any different for him.”

While this is the first occasion Matthews and Marner have been divided this season, Keefe has leaned on the right-wing flip in past campaigns to jolt his room out of a lull.

Shoot-first Tavares and space-making Marner have a natural chemistry dating to the captain’s first season as a Leaf, and the Matthews-Nylander combo outscored the opposition 38-14 last season, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

“Getting different looks is always good,” Nylander says. “We’ve all played together before, so I don’t think it will be anything weird.” 

Nylander sounds and looks unfazed.

Bottom line: Marner is an engine on this team and he needs to get humming. No question, he plays best when he’s free and happy. There is a noticeable lack of joy in his shifts of late, and the club is trying to help him tap into that again.

“I’ve been in these spots before multiple times in my career,” Marner said. “So, for me, it’s making sure I’m relaxed, calm and steady out there, and just doing what I love.”

Marner’s approach to managing frustration?  

“Breathing, relaxing, realizing that it will come,” he says. “If you force stuff, that’s when you get more frustrated, more mad. So, just got to trust your instincts, trust your game.”

The Maple Leafs’ game — and their refreshed top six — will be tested Tuesday by a visiting Florida Panthers team that has won eight of 11 and eliminated the Leafs last time they rolled through Scotiabank Arena.

A fine night for Marner and Matthews to rediscover their stride, together but apart.

“Players of that calibre that have had so much success, have high expectations of themselves. Mitch is no different,” Keefe says.

“Sure, as things start to pile up, you want to do better. And as the team doesn’t get results, like we had in these last couple of games, you start to wear it a little bit more. That’s natural. It’s because he cares.”

One-Timers: Ryan Reaves played his first game in two weeks Friday in Chicago and scored his first as a Leaf. He was then scratched again Saturday in Pittsburgh, as Keefe dressed only 11 forwards. Reaves will return to the lineup Tuesday against the punchy Panthers…. Joseph Woll gets the start in net…. Forward Bobby McMann and defenceman William Lagesson will be scratched…. Rested Toronto will catch the visiting Panthers (13-7-1) tired on the second half of a back-to-back, as Florida shut out Ottawa 5-0 in Monday’s Tkachuk Bowl.

Maple Leafs projected lineup versus Panthers Tuesday

Knies – Matthews – Nylander 
Bertuzzi – Tavares – Marner 
Robertson – Domi – Järnkrok 
Gregor – Kämpf – Reaves 

Rielly – Brodie 
Giordano – McCabe 
Benoit – Timmins

Woll starts


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