With just 17 games remaining and how tight the Atlantic division standings are, I find myself at another point of reflection on this Maple Leafs squad. The Maple Leafs will play 6 of their next 17 games against the other top Atlantic division teams. All are potential playoff opponents, and only one of those games, the regular season finale, will be played at Scotiabank Arena.
This next month will most definitely dictate the overall confidence the fanbase has in the team going into the playoffs even though we should all expect the Leafs to be playing against a very good team either way. With that being said, I do think that Sheldon Keefe has some very tough decisions to make over this next month and it will most definitely affect the way he is viewed come the off-season.
For today, I’d like to focus only on the forwards and go through some quick thoughts on how I think each option will stack up against each of the 4 possible playoff opponents in Florida, Tampa Bay, Boston, and Carolina.
Option #1: Status Quo Top-9 and 4th Line Makeover
This configuration of the Leafs lineup has generally been their most consistent lineup throughout the year. That top line is one of the very best in hockey, the second line has struggled to say the least, and the third line is one of the very best shutdown lines in the NHL. The fourth line here would normally be some combination of Spezza, Simmonds and the rotational 12th guy, which has also struggled mightily lately. This is why the addition of a Blackwell and healthy Kase is so vital to this team as it clearly makes the 4th line a-lot more serviceable with each member of the line also being a part of special teams.
On paper this lineup can work, especially at home. The lack of defensive prowess on that second line can be mitigated by matching up the third line against oppositions top six lines. You can shelter that Tavares line and hopefully capture that Kerfoot-Nylander chemistry from last year’s playoffs and have them feast against weaker competition. The fourth line here provides a little bit of everything and can hopefully go toe-to-toe with opposing fourth lines.
The real question here is the reliance on that first and third lines. If Keefe is okay with trotting out two lines that have struggled long enough for it to not be considered a blip, then all eyes will point to the Matthews and Kämpf lines to handily win their minutes against the likes of Barkov, Huberdeau, Giroux, Point, Kucherov, Stamkos, Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, Aho, Teravainen, and Svechnikov. As good as both lines have been, that is a truly tall task to ask of your players and we haven’t even talked about the exposure this lineup will leave the Leafs with on the road.
Personally, I think the risk of getting two of your four lines exploited and hoping for your elite lines to not just win their minutes but dominate them against some of other best lines in the NHL is a suboptimal plan for Sheldon Keefe to go with.
Option #2: Switch Kase and Kerfoot
This change provides that second line with a more stable defensive presence while also giving the fourth line a bit of an offensive spark.
Although these lines would provide a more unique look to what we have seen so far this year, I can’t see myself getting all too excited about this option as it doesn’t really eliminate any more reliance on the first and third lines than what are currently experiencing in option 1. Furthermore, with Kase battling another concussion… the Leafs can’t be that confident in his ability to stay in the lineup for an entire playoff run so they might opt to limit his minutes when he is healthy and you simply can’t do that for him in a top six role.
Option #3: Shake Up The Top 6
Let’s get crazy here! I am sorry to have to break up the “3M Line”TM but I believe this should be an option the Leafs consider. Mitch Marner is quite literally the key to unlocking John Tavares’ offensive game. We know that duo works together and to be completely honest, I think if Keefe trusted Nylander a little bit more defensively… he would have made this switch a long time ago. That Matthews line has succeeded in 5v5 minutes earlier this year and so has that Tavares line and if it spreads the wealth a bit more, why not give this configuration more of a run?
There is a little bit of everything on each line with this option and that is something that can be very dangerous in the playoffs. Especially on the road when the Leafs can hopefully dictate the pace of the game and instead of chasing the matchups, the Leafs can force the other team to be the ones chasing.
Overall, I think it is very unlikely that we see Matthews and Marner split up unless they’re not successful down the stretch. However, I do think it is necessary to have two offensively potent lines rolling into the playoffs and the best chance to get that out of this Leafs club is mixing it up in the top six.
In my opinion, the Leafs have about 18 forwards (assuming Matthew Knies signs with the team after his NCAA season is finished) that can give them NHL minutes. Within those 6 extras: Robertson, Clifford, Simmonds, Abruzzese, Knies, and Anderson… there is a variety of talent that can be added to the top 12 as a spark plug. So in general, I really am excited to see where these Leafs lines can take us not only down the stretch but into the future… but I do think it will take some imagination and courage from Sheldon Keefe to make some decisions that might not be as popular amongst the fanbase and even more importantly amongst the players themselves.