The Leafs need to stick with the spread out offence going forward

Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
25 days ago
If you look back to each playoff series this team has played since head coach Sheldon Keefe took over, you’ll find one constant with the lineups he iced – Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on one line, John Tavares and William Nylander on the other. Occasionally, he would swap Marner and Nylander during the regular season, but when the going got tough and the stakes grew even higher, it would always go back to Matthews/Marner and Tavares/Nylander.
It made sense for some of those teams. Back when the Leafs’ bottom six was mostly composed of possession-driving, low-event offensive players like Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, and Pierre Engvall, loading up your top two lines ensured that the top six carried the mail offensively, the third line (often centred by David Kampf) worked in a checking role, often getting matchups against opposing teams’ top offensive threats, and the fourth line was always some mix of veterans, tough guys, and rookies. It was a lineup formation that made sense for those teams, but the issue that comes with it is that if you’re the opponent and figure out a way to shut down “the core four”, your job is essentially done. It’s why they dried up at the hands of players like Nick Foligno in 2019-20 and Phillip Danault in 2020-21. People love to point at defence and/or goaltending for reasons why the Leafs haven’t been able to find much playoff success in the Matthews era, but in reality, their main issue in recent years has been the offence drying up in elimination games.
When general manager Brad Treliving took over this past offseason, it was very clear what he was trying to do. With players like Kerfoot leaving and others like Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi serving as replacements, the Leafs were padding their forward group with players who perhaps weren’t as good defensively as the Mikheyevs and the Engvalls, but a clear step above them from an offensive standpoint. Players who had a knack for the front of the net and an ability to score greasy goals, and players who could be relied on to take some weight off of the top dogs.
For much of the season, the Leafs have stuck to the same philosophy they’ve used every year, but the injury of Marner in a game against the Boston Bruins in early March forced Keefe to get a little more creative than he expected to. It’s early, but the Marner injury may have provided a silver lining – the realization that they have the depth to get creative offensively.
Lately, the Leafs have been using Bertuzzi and Domi on Matthews’ wings, and so far, it’s been a success. We all know the pace that Matthews is playing at right now, and with ten goals and 18 points in his last ten games, it doesn’t appear he’s hurting without Marner on his wing too much. His linemates have benefitted from the extra ice time – Domi has eight points in his last ten games, and Bertuzzi has six goals and eight points of his own in the last ten, and in addition to this, both players are relentless in puck pursuits along the boards and equally happy to jump into the scrum to defend their leading goal-scorer if needed. While neither of his wingers are super physical players, they’re not afraid to mix it up in front of the net and give Matthews an extra sense of security.
With the top line remaining unchanged, Marner has slotted in alongside Tavares and Bobby McMann for the past two games, and the fit has been a good one so far. McMann has proven to be a solid secondary scoring option, with 15 goals on the year, and Marner’s defensive presence on that line allowed Keefe to give the trio a trial as the “shutdown line” against the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the line was on the ice for Pittsburgh’s tying goal, it wasn’t directly their fault and they otherwise did a good job shutting down Sidney Crosby’s line en route to a 3-2 overtime win.
To complete the new-look lines, Nylander has skated alongside Matthew Knies and Pontus Holmberg on the third line for the past few games. When people hear “Nylander” and “third line” in the same sentence, people tend to assume the worst and think he’s being wrongfully demoted, or something like that. In reality, whenever the Leafs spread their offence out a little bit and he does end up in the bottom six, he still tends to skate over 20 minutes. He doesn’t lose his power play time, and if anything, it shows Keefe’s faith that he can work with anybody in the lineup. While he’s been on a little bit of a cold streak of late, with only two points in his last five games, he assisted on Knies’ goal against Montreal on Saturday and his line contributed a goal against Pittsburgh as well.
We’ve seen that Matthews is still more than capable of producing when he has top-six capable players like Bertuzzi and Domi on his line, and by splitting up the top players, opposing teams will have to worry about shutting down Matthews, Marner, and Nylander individually, rather than “the Matthews line” and “the Tavares line”. The Leafs were finally able to win a round last season, and much of it had to do with their forward depth. Sure, they still had those four players in pairs, but even if they were able to effectively shut them down, they had to worry about Ryan O’Reilly and Knies on the third line. The more weapons available to use, the harder it’s going to be for the opposing team to form a game plan to shut them down, and it opens up opportunities for players like Matthews and Nylander to get easier matchups.
The penalty kill has started to figure it out lately, and the power play is showing signs of life despite an underwhelming month of March. If these two things stay intact, they keep getting above-average goaltending from Samsonov, and the team has three offensive weapons to work with instead of two, I’ll feel much better about the Leafs’ odds to last longer than five games against the Florida Panthers in round one.

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