The Toronto Maple Leafs are considered a deep team, but stats on paper don’t always show up on the ice. The rotating roster movements due to COVID protocols have exposed a rather concerning lack of effective players to utilize in the bottom six, especially on the fourth line. While Toronto continues to be one of the best teams, despite the lack of depth, this deficiency should be rectified before the playoffs.
The Maple Leafs’ fourth line has been on the ice for approximately seven minutes or less in the last four games, but all three forwards have not gotten equal ice time. In addition, there’s usually a player getting even less time than his linemates.
|Jan. 8||Colorado Avalanche||B. Seney||6:52|
|Jan. 11||Vegas Golden Knights||K. Clifford||5:35|
|Jan. 12||Arizona Coyotes||J. Anderson||6:19|
|Jan. 15||St. Louis Blues||K. Clifford||6:16|
In three of those four games, Auston Matthews has logged more ice time than all forwards, including nearly 25 minutes against Arizona. That is the more significant concern, for every minute the fourth line isn’t performing, the big guns are on the ice. While that hasn’t been a problem yet, the schedule is about to get much more condensed, and the playoff schedule is even more rigorous with a game every other day.
Maple Leafs Lack Trust in Fourth Line
Fatigue has already been a factor; after Toronto squandered a three-goal lead against the Colorado Avalanche and lost 5-4 in overtime, Sheldon Keefe said his team appeared tired later in the game. He also pointed out the bottom six, “We need to get more out of the bottom six of our bench tonight… It was hard to put them out there. Really, every time they hopped over the boards, they were looking to get MacKinnon’s line against them. So it was harder to get four of our lines into the rotation. I thought that took its toll on us as the game wore on.”
The exhaustion showed up in the penalty box in the next game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Toronto took an uncharacteristic five penalties and allowed two powerplay goals. “I didn’t like any of our penalties today at all — stuff far away from our net, careless penalties,” said Keefe. Perhaps the most straightforward piece of evidence was when Toronto took a too many men penalty while shorthanded, “I don’t remember the last time I saw a shorthanded team get called for too many men, especially when they have the puck. Those are the things that can’t happen. Those are the mental mistakes that you have to get out of your game if you want to win games and take care of games against good teams.”
Related: Maple Leafs Math is Not Adding Up
Maple Leafs Fourth Line has No Identity
Due to the alternating players, the fourth line has no consistency. That said, the role of the fourth line player has always been to do something with your limited ice time, play with energy and grit. The fourth liner is expected to do whatever it takes to make the other team uncomfortable while your star players take a much-needed breather.
In the second period of the Jan. 15 game against the Blues, the fourth line was on the ice when St. Louis came charging, three of their forwards were in the blue ice hacking at Jack Campbell, the only Leafs’ player to react was Jason Spezza, while Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds did nothing to protect their goalie. Keefe called a timeout right after that stoppage in play. I can only assume it was to give his other lines more rest, realizing the fourth line wasn’t giving him the performance he needed.
Soon the team will be back to full strength; pretty much every player has been through COVID protocol. However, this early warning to the Maple Leafs’ brass, and the depth is not there. Playoff success is all that matters, and the team that has the players to step up in the bottom six or a true energy fourth line finds success. Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs are severely lacking those players, and the team can only hope it doesn’t burn them, in the form of a significant injury to a star player, before a solution is found.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.