It may sound like a problem worth having in hockey, but the reality is that the type of talent available throughout the Toronto Maple Leafs can make it difficult to decide who fits where within their lineup. Specifically, when it comes to balancing the top-six. However, when the strategy in place is working, there is no reason to revise it. Why, then, does Sheldon Keefe think that reuniting Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner is an idea worth exploring at this time?
As the team prepared to host the Nashville Predators on Wednesday, reports of some seemingly unnecessary experimenting began to surface during Monday’s practice. Among the changes was a top-line that included Marner and Matthews, together again.
Sure, pairing a creative playmaker with a prolific sniper seems like a perfect game plan. Let alone the fact these 24 years olds are progressing through the prime of their careers, looking to skyrocket into new realms of success. All of which should mean they are that much more dangerous when given a chance to collaborate. Yet, that’s not the story their metrics tell.
In fact, trying to force synergy between Marner and Matthews has already proven to be a less than effective approach this season.
Toronto Finally Streaking the Right Way
Following a slower than ideal start to 2021-22, which included losing five of their first seven, the Maple Leafs bounced back and now sit at 10-5-1. Good for second in the Atlantic Division. Obviously, whatever they’ve been doing of late seems to be working.
Toronto has won eight of their last nine and are riding a three-game winning streak. Coaches dream of finding such momentum, while Keefe is apparently ready to throw all he’s gained to the wayside.
16 games into their campaign, there’s been enough of a sample size to establish some noticeable patterns. While justifiable to re-structure the areas of their game that require it, affecting what’s worked is not a risk worth taking.
Maple Leafs Should Avoid Unnecessary Change
On Oct. 23, the Pittsburgh Penguins embarrassed the Maple Leafs by a score of 7-1. Not only is that currently Toronto’s most lopsided loss of the season, but it’s was also the last time Keefe started a contest with a top-line that included both Marner and Matthews.
A couple of nights later, Keefe wisely chose to separate the two. Since then, the club has gone 8-2-0. In no way should that be construed as a coincidence, as the underlying numbers don’t lie.
To arbitrarily decide that it’s time for Toronto to revert back to a plan that already proved ineffective, seems beyond illogical. With the team succeeding as-is, Keefe seems to be tempting fate by forcing irrational change.
Keefe Needs to Let the Numbers Decide
Of the 236 offensive combinations that have played at least one second together for Toronto to this point, the two most productive include Marner and Matthews. On separate lines, mind you.
So far this season, Michael Bunting and William Nylander have shared the ice with Matthews for 106:22 of 5-on-5 time, while Alexander Kerfoot and John Tavares have accounted for 83:35 with Marner to their right.
Beyond ranking first and third in minute totals, these specific lines have achieved better than the rest. They’ve combined for over 34 percent of the team’s even strength goals to date. Each also owns an advantageous Corsi for percentage (CF%), to boot.
Bunting-Matthews-Nylander has collected three goals and set a 57.5 CF%, while Kerfoot-Tavares-Marner has earned eight markers with a 52.3 CF%.
Factoring in the Maple Leafs’ lineup juggling against the Buffalo Sabres, which saw Ondřej Kaše promoted to the top line, it’s relevant to note that Marner and Matthews were still tasked with leading separate groups en route to Toronto’s 5-4 victory.
Marner & Matthews Aren’t Effective Together
The fact that Marner and Matthews have experienced success apart this season doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t be able to find it together. Besides, it’s worked in the past.
However, having already logged 77:33 alongside one another in 2021-22, a different type of picture is being painted when they’re both out on the ice at even strength.
Regardless of the others who have been deployed beside them throughout those minutes, the lines that Marner and Matthews have shared have only accounted for two goals and a 49.0 CF%.
If you’re thinking that consistency can help, let’s explore a more familiar setup. Reunited linemate Nick Ritchie has been the most common left winger for Marner and Matthews, as the trio has already accumulated 26:26 together through 2021-22. However, that hasn’t encouraged production, as the line has yet to score a single goal and has been on the ice for two against.
Stick To What’s Worked, Toronto
Not only is Toronto’s record better when Marner and Matthews are split up, but so are the individual performances that contribute to their collective. Similar to trends seen in recent seasons, Nylander’s most common pairing this year is Matthews and Tavares’ is Marner. Interestingly, both Tavares and Nylander currently lead the Maple Leafs with 15 points apiece.
The fact is, as the numbers illustrate, the Maple Leafs are more dangerous when the skill sets that Matthews and Marner possess are spread throughout the lineup. It’s better for them individually, their linemates, and the organization as a whole.
It’s one thing to experiment with line combinations in practice, especially if the team is desperate to extract a better effort. However, with the run of success that Toronto is currently experiencing, there’s nothing wrong with relying on the status quo.
As the old adage goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Freelance thinker, paying too much attention to digital aesthetic. Oxford comma enthusiast. Spider-Man supporter. Sports fan, with two favourite hockey teams. If the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs ever meet in the Stanley Cup Final, you can find me wherever they’re playing that night.
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