It has been over two months since the Leafs were eliminated in the qualifying round by the Blue Jackets, and the time since has sparked an array of ideas trying to determine what went wrong and how the team can solve it. These range from signing a noted defenceman on the Blues, all the way to ludicrous armchair trades that involve moving the stars for grit.
I’m no stranger to this line of thinking (look no further than my post on Frederik Andersen’s future) and it is something we will all experience as sports fans on numerous occasions. But there are times where you come up with a potential solution that seems so ludicrous in theory that it may just work if done in practice. The kind of idea that makes you look like a conspiracy theorist as you attempt to explain your rationale. Those schemes that only a person with too much free time on their hands would dare to think up in their heads.
I recently had one of those ideas come to me during a conversation with a friend and I believe that it might just be crazy enough to work in reality. The title suggests it involves Mitch Marner and a line change, and you might be thinking to yourself “Well, what is it? Stop wasting time and get to the point.”
I won’t beat around the bush any further: the Leafs should try and move Marner down to the third line.
Why this might just work comes down to a few points: (a) it balances out the scoring as it creates three solid forward lines, (b) Marner gets to dominate weaker competition while racking up points, and (c) he has proven in the past to lift up his linemates to greater heights offensively. All three are interconnected in some ways but they are the obvious benefits that the move could give the Leafs if they were to go through with it.
If you look back to some of the Stanley Cup winners from the last 10 years, one thing that each of those teams usually had was a balanced offensive attack. They were able to send waves of talented players spread out across multiple lines that made life miserable for each opponent faced. Think about the Pittsburgh Penguins (the HBK line as an example) and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Toronto has that same luxury and they just don’t realize it because it is not utilized correctly in my eyes. We’ve seen Marner find success when slotted beside Auston Matthews and John Tavares on separate lines, which has resulted in some of the most talented top units the Leafs have ever had. While it may be a great strategy during the regular season, the playoffs present a monumental challenge for top-heavy rosters attempting to have one line carry them to the promised land.
The Leafs are blessed with a forward core most teams would kill to have which includes some of the biggest stars in the game today. To reach that next level of their potential of trying to progress further in the playoffs, they will need to find a way to get the most out of their players and make life difficult for opposing teams to solve. While it’s easy to put all of the Leafs’ best athletes on the same line and hope they can lead the charge, you run the risk of the other lines being less talented and pressuring them to carry the load should the top guys not produce.
It was one of the side effects of the Nazem Kadri trade and it resulted in Toronto heavily relying on the big four to put up points. There was some success in the regular season using this method, but the lack of reliable scoring from their bottom-six was a partial reason why the Leafs struggled to score on Columbus.
By putting Marner on the third line, you suddenly have a more balanced forward unit with each line having the ability to get points on the board. He should be able to take full advantage against weaker competition and become a major threat on offence, which could also do wonders for his linemates (ie: Alexander Kerfoot) benefiting from skating alongside a gifted playmaker. Easing the load on the main guys and spreading them out on different lines makes your team much tougher to play against due to the majority of the forwards being bigger threats to score.
I’m sure you are aware of the Tavares effect dating back to his time with the New York Islanders, where he made guys like Matt Moulson and PA Parenteau look like legitimate all-stars. Marner did benefit from a full season on Tavares’ line, but he also has this same effect on his linemates which he demonstrated during his first two years in the league. He was primarily slotted alongside James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak during his rookie campaign and both players went on to have career years. Part of why Patrick Marleau did well during his first season in Toronto was due to sharing a line with Marner for a good chunk of the season. Kadri was also on that line and he also had one of his best point totals that year. And when Matthews missed time due to numerous injuries, William Nylander got to share a line with Marner at times and played well during the brief stints.
I bring all of this up as proof that Marner’s playmaker play style helped get much more out of the aforementioned players and they benefited from it big time. JVR and Bozak likely wouldn’t have been given such pricey contracts had they not spent time with Marner for two seasons. Marleau is nearing the end of his career and his numbers have only dropped further since his strong 2017-18 campaign. And Kadri’s play helped raise his value substantially which was able to net a return of Kerfoot and Tyson Barrie in that infamous trade we will not discuss any further. Meanwhile, Nylander continues to be one of the most important members of the team while the uncles of the GTA continue to scheme up ways to pack his bags.
As I alluded to earlier, I believe that Marner will be able to have a similar effect on Kerfoot and can help get him to be a more efficient player offensively. There’s also a strong possibility that Nicholas Robertson will be in the Leafs starting lineup and could find himself on the third line to start his career. What better way to adjust to life in the NHL than to get passes from Marner and put up a ton of goals night after night.
With all of that in mind, here is how I think the Leafs might adjust their forward lines with my idea implemented:
That looks like a lethal forward core on paper which would rank as one of the best in the league. And that is without any external editions made, given that Dubas mentioned his desire to make the Leafs harder to play against. If that is what Toronto wants to do, then why not make their forward core nearly impossible to defend?
So to recap: placing Marner on the third line could help balance out the offence while putting him and his linemates in a position to produce a ton of points due to his history of elevating those he shared the ice with. It would help make the Leafs forwards tougher to slow down and make life a bit easier on the top guns to do their jobs.
Do I think this will actually happen? Probably not because I’m not sure if Marner would even agree to it given that he’s spent a lot of time the past two seasons playing beside either Matthews or Tavares. I imagine Sheldon Keefe is more concerned about trying to run it back for the new season and see what he’s got with some of the new arrivals.
Even still, the idea of placing Marner on the third line is very tempting and who knows if they actually decide to give it a try.