Ryan O’Reilly is a hit on Maple Leafs’ second line, but more tweaking is likely to come from Sheldon Keefe

Photo credit:Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Barden
1 year ago
Meet the Maple Leafs’ new second line centre, Ryan O’Reilly. For now.
The acquisition of the 32-year-old offered up a number of options for Toronto at forward, whether that be a second line left-winger, a second line centre, or even centring the third line.
But before Tuesday’s game, it seemed as though we received clarity on where O’Reilly will play for the near future.
“This is something that isn’t going to be a one-off or anything like that,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said to reporters on Tuesday morning, “we’re going to stay with it for a little bit and give it some time to come together.”
Less than 12 hours later — after a 6-3 win in Buffalo and a 13-point night from the second line of O’Reilly, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner — Keefe gave us yet another glimpse into the future regarding that specific line.
“I still feel, at the end of the day, we’re going to have [John] back at centre,” Keefe said to reporters Tuesday night. “But you want to build chemistry and you want to build confidence so that if and when you go to it that that’s what it’s capable of.”
Now why did Keefe, at the beginning of Tuesday, tease that Tavares would get a lengthy opportunity at left wing and then spoil Toronto’s plans post-game?
After all, this is what the Maple Leafs wanted to see out of this second line. Did they expect the trio to play as well as they did? Maybe not. But when you’ve got a new trade acquisition scoring a hat-trick in his third game with the team, you’ve got to be happy.
I wonder if one of the things Toronto was looking at with O’Reilly is whether he can score with Tavares and Marner. Crazy thing to say, I know, but to admit you’re going to run with something for a bit and say the opposite less than 12 hours later, it shows that they might’ve found what they’re looking for.
Which, at the end of this season, could be O’Reilly at left-wing.
Having Tavares at centre and O’Reilly at left-wing — or vice versa — really doesn’t change much, in my opinion. You’re getting two players who are the same age, same height, almost the same build, and nearly play the same style of hockey.
Both players are incredibly strong with and without the puck, in each end of the rink. Albeit they might not be the fastest players, but the two make up for it with the smarts.
They don’t need to be fast because they can still beat you with knowing where the puck is going to go and being there before their opponent. They can beat you in the corners or along the boards with their strong sticks.
To me, the only difference between Tavares and O’Reilly is this: Tavares has been a near point-per-game regular season player his entire NHL career, O’Reilly has not. But what does O’Reilly have that Tavares doesn’t? A Conn Smythe and a Stanley Cup.
Surprisingly, both also share being almost point-per-game players in the playoffs. Tavares has had 36 points (18G, 18A) in 44 postseason games, O’Reilly with 56 points (22G, 34A) in 64 playoff games.
Whoever plays on the wing, whoever plays at centre — it doesn’t really matter in my eyes. Maybe O’Reilly has a bit more foot speed and might be better on the wing than Tavares since it’s more of a stop-and-go position, whereas a centre is always moving.
The goal of this trade deadline was to get a player who can play left wing on the second line, centre that line if one of Tavares or Auston Matthews goes down, or play in the middle of Toronto’s third line.
I believe O’Reilly is clearly that guy, and he could very well be even better than advertised.
Keefe was happy with the third and fourth lines since the trade and it seems like he might continue to roll them out as they are for the time being. But, I mean, it also seemed like he was going to stick with Tavares on the wing and then he spoiled the plot.
Bottom line is, having O’Reilly on the second line, wherever that may be, works.
24 games remain in the season to see if he’ll continue to have chemistry with Tavares and Marner, but also to figure out if the 32-year-old fits anywhere else, like Toronto’s third line.
For now, though, let’s see how good the Dairy Farmers of Ontario line (the second line’s new name) can do with an extended look before switching it up anymore.

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