With Knies out and the Leafs’ backs against the wall, lineup changes are coming

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
There is nothing like adding a little injury to the insult and with the Leafs down two games in the series the last thing they need to deal with is having their promising young power forward who has immediately established himself in the top nine go missing for any length of time. Based on the comments from Sheldon Keefe, that seems to be the case for Matthew Knies.
If we are going to look at the silver lining, and in a series where the Leafs are down two at home, we better start with the silver lining, Toronto and Florida have an extra day off in between games. Where Knies might have been a bit iffy for Saturday, maybe the extra day has him ready for Sunday. That would be nice, but without having any idea of what the extent of the injury is at this point I’ll admit this is reaching for optimism and Plan Bs are going to be considered for what Toronto can do without Knies.
Even before fully factoring in the absence of Knies, I am wondering if we see the return of Ryan O’Reilly to the top six next game. I am operating on the premise that overloading skill in the top six might be the best path to beating Bobrovsky and either Bunting or Jarnkrok can pull third line duty with Acciari and either Kerfoot or Kampf. Even if Knies is healthy I’d admit to having this as a thought worth considering and if not something the Leafs start with, something that might need to be considered if Bobrovsky’s heater continues. It’s not that the Leafs haven’t had offensive chances, it’s just some tinkering might be required to turn chances into goals.
Now to the actual replacement of Knies and there isn’t a great option out there, so we’ll start with the least inspired one. The Leafs simply put Zach Aston-Reese in the lineup and Toronto runs a fourth line of ZAR, Kampf, and Lafferty. That’s a pretty underwhelming response and reuniting a fourth line that has been bad and out matched in the playoffs isn’t overly inspiring. As much as I feel this is the way things will go, that isn’t ideal.
There is the Wayne Simmonds option as well. This doesn’t vary significantly from putting Zach Aston-Reese in, but Simmonds being sent in to get the pound of flesh for the Leafs might be motivating in some way even if it’s not going to do much from a roster perspective. If it is something that leads Sheldon Keefe to not regularly roll out the fourth line and instead limit the number of shifts (i.e. not play them in the final minutes of the game where Toronto is down by one) that could be another feature to this move.
The other option that we are going to hear about a lot is a return to the 11F/7D format. This is additionally going to be supported by the incredibly rough playoffs experienced by Mark Giordano and the desire to either sit him or limit him usage a bit. Bringing in Erik Gustafsson helps with that, but there is also something to giving Justin Holl another go. Holl’s numbers were better against Florida than Tampa this season and is at least worth a look. And while I’m suggesting absolutely everyone, if the Leafs want to bring in Gustafsson-Holl as the third pairing for Giordano and Liljegren, there is also the option of doing that swap and bringing in Conor Timmins as the 7D, especially since he could take some forward shifts as needed as well. (The Leafs are down by 2, everything should be on the table.)
My favourite option remains looking to the Marlies and Pontus Holmberg as a potential option as well. He’s having a nice little AHL playoff season and is a former SHL Playoff MVP. When someone is showing they can rise to the occasion, give them the opportunity.
As I said above, what I expect to see is just that we get the return of Zach Aston-Reese or maybe Erik Gustafsson comes in to help lighten Mark Giordano’s workload. The Leafs haven’t played bad in the first couple of games it’s just the results aren’t there and while there is a sense of urgency that Toronto really hasn’t felt yet in the playoffs this year, reinventing the wheel with a radical new lineup card might be an overreaction. Knies absence does force some drastic consideration as the drop off in performance from Knies to either Kerfoot or Kampf who will be seeing more work is significant and then simply backfilling that role with depth is downgrading a roster that is already down two games and heading out on the road. It will be interesting to see how Sheldon Keefe responds.

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