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Give it five games: Maple Leafs lineup experiments

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
For the past few games the Leafs have pretty much been running out whatever lines they can, typically relying on who has any history of playing together or who can potentially take on centre responsibilities. In that sense, not rocking the boat too much has been fair.
It’s also fair that normally by this time the Leafs have cemented a spot in the playoffs and the second half of the season can be used for experimenting with line combinations a bit more. Not that Sheldon Keefe has been one to do much of that, but the option has existed. This year it’s more about what he thinks is best and tinkering for fun isn’t a luxury.
On the flipside of that, you could say that what Keefe has been doing this year could clearly be going better and the introduction of chaos into the lineup is an opportunity to embrace radical lineup changes, but like most things in hockey, it’s a choose your own narrative situation. (Around the 7-1 stage of the game against the Ducks, Keefe seemed to embrace the line blender.)
My narrative is that I’d like to see the Leafs try a few different things and here are five of my suggestions to Sheldon Keefe, just asking him to give it five games.

1. Max Domi to the top line left wing spot

The previous few seasons have seen Auston Matthews benefit from an undersized pesty winger on his left side. The assumption was with the departure of Michael Bunting, it was Tyler Bertuzzi who would best fill that spot. When that hasn’t worked, Matthew Knies has been adequate in the role but as he is still adjusting to the NHL and still figuring out how to be a consistent performer, I’d suggest a change.
The change is going with the Leafs current undersized pesty player, Max Domi. Domi’s pestiness isn’t exactly the same as Bunting’s, but he has no problem trying to get under the skin of his opponents and wouldn’t hesitate to step in to defend Matthews, Marner, Nylander, whichever teammate is on the ice as well.
Throw in the fact that Domi has top line level playmaking skills, he has something to offer Matthews and Marner offensively, while they have the ability to offset his defensive shortcomings, helping the Leafs get more icetime out of Domi and giving Matthews a consistent option on the left side.
The drawback is that Domi moving to the wing is that both Kampf and Holmberg will be needed at centre in the bottom six and one of them will need to establish themselves as the 3C. Given that Domi didn’t fully have the trust of Sheldon Keefe to play big minutes in that role and there hasn’t been much offence out of the bottom six anyway, it seems like a low risk move.

2. Tyler Bertuzzi to the third line

The top six just isn’t working for Bertuzzi on the Leafs and it’s time to let him try to drive his own line in a slightly different role. Bertuzzi’s on-ice numbers show that he can adapt to the increased defensive responsibilities and while he isn’t particularly speedy, he’s been a capable puck mover and can increase the controlled zone exits and entries in the bottom six.
When Jarnrkok returns, a Bertuzzi/Jarnkrok wing pairing will give the Leafs a line capable of some secondary offence and while neither Kampf or Holmberg are the offensively driven centres that Bertuzzi has been used to, odds are the goals scored are going to be greasy anyway and don’t require telegraphed passes and perfectly placed shots. This situation lets Bert be Bert, and somewhat mirrors the time Bertuzzi spent playing with Trent Frederic in Boston before he started clicking offensively there.

3. Give Alex Steeves a look

Steeves finally landed a game with the Leafs this season. He played 10 minutes and landed 6 hits and had one takeaway. Hitting and takeaways aren’t the hallmark of Steeves’ game in the AHL but the fact that he’s already showing that he’ll do what it takes to hold down an NHL job is encouraging and certainly seems like it is worth an extended look.
When you look at what the Leafs are presently getting out of Noah Gregor and Ryan Reaves, it seems like a no brainer to chase the potential upside of Alex Steeves whose 40 points in 39 AHL games also hints that he can be part of the solution when it comes to secondary scoring as well.

4. Spread the “Core 4” around

This isn’t anything new but there needs to be an attempt of putting Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares across three lines. What the best way of doing that is, I don’t know and I’m fairly certain I’d probably like to see Calle Jarnkrok back in the lineup before giving it a go. I’d also say it would be a hard one to implement in conjunction with some of the other suggestions on this list but not impossible. The Leafs are the addition of one centre away from making it a more realistic undertaking.
Domi and Marner has looked promising and might be the path forward, as is looking for an opportunity to fully utilize Nick Robertson. The biggest question might be where Tyler Bertuzzi fits in, but if you want to really be greedy about it, Bertuzzi being a talented fourth line option gets Toronto one step closer to comfortably running four lines, which seems like the goal come playoff time.
The reluctance to spread offence around has been confusing, especially when it would be very simple to shorten the bench and revert to top loaded, power play style combinations when needed.

5. Old Flames reunited

While the Leafs wait to see what Brad Treliving will do on the defensive addition front, one of the options that might be worth exploring in the short term is putting Mark Giordano with TJ Brodie to see if they can be a useful pairing down the stretch.
There would be a need to wait until Rielly’s suspension is over and Mark Giordano is presently on bereavement leave, but the option allows for the Leafs to explore the idea that Giordano and Brodie together could be a useful 5v5 pairing and if they can be a slower but still effective version of what they were in their prime together in Calgary.
With both players having their contracts up at the end of the season this is far more of a “nice to see” than a yield the best results move, but while Toronto’s blueline is in disarray it’s a chance to try something new (old) and see what a Rielly-Liljegren pairing can do at the same time.
This post was written before the Maple Leafs thoroughly destroyed the Ducks and that has likely decreased the sense of urgency about trying something new but at the same time the game also showcased my point that giving players different roles and a chance to standout, better results can be achieved. Bertuzzi looked at home on the top powerplay unit, Bobby McMann made his case for not playing with Kampf and Reaves, and Liljegren is getting more and more comfortable with top four minutes. Giving players some limited runs in different opportunities might prove the Leafs don’t need as much as people thought they did at the trade deadline.

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