Since Sheldon Keefe took over in late November of 2019, he showed his cards quite early to the fans and most importantly to the the other 30 NHL head coaches at the time. The hand Keefe played is quite simple on the surface and frankly, it was desperately requested by almost the entire fanbase. Put your two highest paid, and most talented young stars together on one line. Something the former Head Coach, Mike Babcock famously refused to even try. Immediately, Matthews and Marner became the alpha dogs for Keefe. If you were going to shutdown the Toronto Maple Leafs, it would be because you put every resource you had into stopping that top line with 34 and 16 on it.
As we know all too well as fans, the shutdown performances against the Leafs top line has been the primary reason they failed to win a series against two clubs who were quite inferior to them. Both against Columbus and Montreal, Keefe seemed to back himself in a corner and although the duo’s success in the regular season was exceptional, it seemed that Keefe left himself no flexible options to turn to in terms of alternate line combinations. It was almost like he felt Matthews and Marner were too talented to fail together each game and that hopefully they would break through. A strategy that has been haunting Leafs fans for far too long… Matthews and Marner had 2 and 1 assists respectively in the last 4 games where the Leafs have had an opportunity to clinch a series win. It is simply not good enough, considering that they spent almost all of these 4 games on a line together.
With all this being said, we have finally seen Sheldon Keefe start to prepare with the long view in mind. It is clear with the most recent lineup changes that Sheldon is trying to add to his book of options that he can turn to in a situation that will most likely come up in the playoffs. The new forward lines look like this:
It has become quite clear that the other division rivals, like Florida and Tampa who are also jockeying for position in the standings have no problem spreading the wealth on their top 3 forward lines. The Panthers in particular, are not shy to having Sam Reinhart (who they paid a 2022 1st Rd Pick and a top goalie prospect who has been one of the best goalies in NCAA D1 hockey and was just named to Team Canada for the Beijing Olympics) drop down to their “third” line and feast on oppositions bottom-six. Now thats not to say they don’t give Reinhart time with the top lines… in fact, according to Left Wing Lock, Reinhart has spent almost just as much time with their 1C-Barkov as he has with their 3C-Lundell. The point is, that when fully healthy, Florida has put together different combinations that their coach can now reference down the line knowing they worked out before. For example, Florida is one of the highest scoring teams in the league and they are rolling out these 4 lines at the moment:
By taking a look at how a lineup like Florida’s will stack up against Toronto’s new lines (if this is something Keefe will go back to in a playoff series), we can see where the key matchups will be. Matthews vs Barkov, Tavares vs Bennett, Huberdeau vs Marner or Nylander. The thing is, these new lines aren’t really shifting responsibility coming from these key matchups to anyone new.
I don’t view this as a demotion for Nylander, it has been proven that elite skill players can produce at the same rate if not better… even with new line-mates. Something that we should all keep an eye out for is the time-on-ice when Keefe rolls out these lines. I fully expect Nylander to jump up onto 34’s wing or even back to 91’s line at multiple points during the game. It just needs to be driven home that the Leafs aren’t the only ones who “spread the wealth”, and they actually might leave themselves no choice but to use these lines if the previous iterations of Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander line combinations run stale at critical points in the spring.