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How the Maple Leafs’ optimal forward lines finally came together

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Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
In a season full of ups and downs, arguably the biggest obstacle the Toronto Maple Leafs have had to navigate so far is how to piece together four forward lines that gel together. 
In the past, Sheldon Keefe-coached teams have been built consistently the same. Loaded top-two forward lines with two of the Core Four on each line, usually Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the first line, John Tavares and William Nylander on the second line. Keefe’s favourite way to deploy the third line was heavily checking and possession-based, typically featuring the likes of Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, and David Kampf. The fourth line? Usually a mix of vets and another analytically-friendly forward or a Marlie hopeful mixed in. 
One of Brad Treliving’s first orders of business as Leafs general manager was a revamp of the team’s secondary scoring. While players like Kerfoot and Michael Bunting moved on in the off-season, the likes of Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi replaced them on a pair of one-year deals. The logic behind these signings was supposed to come in the form of increased offence from the middle-six, and “snot” in the words of Treliving. Pair that with the addition of Ryan Reaves, who’s been slowly winning fans over again after a horrendous start to the season, and you’ve got a Leafs forward group that’s vastly different than anything Keefe was used to getting from Kyle Dubas. 
While it’s easy to pair lines on CapFriendly and organize your players based on their Elite Prospects pages and styles of game, the transition isn’t always that simple for a head coach and his new players. And the result of that was a heavy reliance on the core forwards with a hint of trial by fire when it came to everybody else. 
What started with Bertuzzi on the fourth line and Kampf centring a checking line with Domi and Matthew Knies on his wings quickly proved to be a failed experiment. Things improved a little bit when Keefe bumped Knies up to the top line and had Bertuzzi skating on the second line with Nylander and Tavares, but much of the team’s success offensively still relied on the core four producing. Considering the desire to improve secondary scoring in the offseason, it wasn’t a sustainable business model and not one the Leafs envisioned having to deal with so late in the season. 
Nevertheless, having a number-one centre who’s on a 70-goal pace, a winger pushing assists records set only by Wayne Gretzky, and another winger playing out of his mind into a 92 million-dollar contract extension helps cloud these issues and make them seem more like inconveniences in the background. But, as talented as those players are, you can’t rely on them to carry the mail like that all regular season and into the playoffs. Depth scoring is often a key proponent for Stanley Cup winners, and it shouldn’t be any different for a team like the Maple Leafs. 
It may have taken longer than anybody wanted, between the organization, the coach, and the fans, but it would appear that Keefe has finally found his optimal forward lines to use down the stretch, and it only took the absence of some of his star players to discover them. 
Let’s take things back to February 13, the Leafs’ first of their ongoing six-game winning streak, and the first game after the infamous Morgan Rielly-Ridly Greig cross-check. On top of the incoming suspension for Rielly, the sick bug that had been ravaging through the Leafs’ dressing room hit Marner and Tavares. Domi was promoted to the second line in favour of Tavares, skating with Bertuzzi and Nick Robertson. Bumped up to the third line in place of Robertson was Bobby McMann, who ripped a page out of Matthews’ playbook and scored his first hat trick en route to a 4-1 Leafs win over the Blues.
While the line of Bertuzzi, Domi, and Robertson didn’t get on the scoresheet in that first game, they clearly impressed Keefe enough to keep the line together despite the return of Tavares and Marner to the lineup. Holmberg got the bump to Tavares’ left side with Nylander, and once again, the Leafs were fuelled by a hat trick, this time coming from Matthews. The Leafs beat the Flyers 4-3 in overtime. 
The sick bug came back to bite Tavares before their game against the Anaheim Ducks on February 17. With this came the birth of the Bertuzzi-Domi-Nylander line, that wound up combining for six points in the Leafs’ 9-2 onslaught of the Ducks. Sure, it was the Ducks. But it was enough to keep Bertuzzi and Domi with Nylander for their following game against the Blues, despite a misleading lineup card. 
Consider for a second that Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander has pretty well been a staple every season since Keefe became head coach. To get him to put his captain on the third line, in the middle of a winning-streak no less, you have to seriously impress him. And, that they did. It wasn’t the same night for them on the scoresheet, but they won their fourth game in a row on the backs of the first line, a 4-2 win against the Blues. 
This brought the Leafs to their meeting with the Arizona Coyotes earlier this week, a team that’s notorious for giving them fits, and in their barn no less. Sure, the Coyotes went into that game on a ten-game losing streak, and they’re seventh place in the Central Division at the time of writing this, but take a look in the mirror and ask yourself genuinely if the Leafs are known for winning games when the odds are in their favour. 
Despite the narrative, things were different that night. In light of Matthews scoring two goals to hit the 50-goal mark in his hometown dominating the headline, the Leafs also got two goals from the McMann-Tavares-Robertson line en route to a 6-3 win over the Coyotes. With John Tavares up the middle behind Matthews and Domi, the Leafs won their fifth straight game for the first time this season. 
And, of course, the following night, that win streak was extended to six games. If you read our Knee Jerk Reaction or postgame (or simply remember watching a game that happened within the past 48 hours), you know that the Leafs defeated the reigning Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights 7-3 in their own barn. Max Domi scored twice in his new role, the fourth line contributed a pair of goals, the third line got one, and the rest of the team picked up enough slack that Matthews only had to score one himself. 
So, the Leafs are six games deep into this winning streak, staring down the barrel of a possible seventh-straight win, which would be a record in the Matthews era. Things don’t get easier with an impeding match against the Colorado Avalanche on the road, but as it stands right now, this is what they’re looking at in terms of their forwards. 
Matthew Knies – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Tyler Bertuzzi – Max Domi – William Nylander 
Bobby McMann – John Tavares – Nick Robertson 
Pontus Holmberg – David Kampf – Ryan Reaves/Noah Gregor 
The top line remains untouched. The playmaking skills of Domi pair nicely with a dual shooting and passing threat in Nylander, and a forward with nose for the front of the net in Bertuzzi completes the vision. Oh, and it would appear having a couple of “snotty” forwards on his line has inspired Nylander to up his “snot” game himself.
Slightly reduced ice time with an opportunity to face weaker competition can only be a good thing for Tavares, and he’s got a couple of young, hungry forwards in McMann and Robertson on his wing. He made his money with the New York Islanders with the likes of Matt Moulson and Josh Bailey on his wing, so it’s not like he needs a legitimate starpower threat on either side. 
The fourth line will likely remain the same, with Reaves and Gregor subbing in and out depending on the type of game they’re facing. And, when Calle Jarnkrok returns from injury, you can either slot him on the third line in McMann’s place (assuming he falls back to earth eventually) or drop him directly in place of Reaves/Gregor, which would give them the deepest fourth line in the league. 
The reality is, the Leafs themselves will come back down to earth eventually. As excellent as they’ve been playing under these new lines lately, you can probably credit some of that to the momentum they’re riding under this winning streak. But whether it’s momentum-driven or not, the Leafs are playing a brand of hockey that’s been unrecognizable compared to what they’ve managed so far this season, and if they can keep up the scoring contributions from all around the lineup, this roster plus whatever they add at the deadline will set them up nicely for a playoff run that ideally extends past two rounds.

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