Maple Leafs Need Top Line Changes

The Toronto Maple Leafs have questions that need to be answered in all three areas on the team before next season. These areas are at forward, defense, and goaltending.

Related: Maple Leafs Still Getting Their Money’s Worth From Tavares

The idea of how to improve your goaltending, while not easy to accomplish, is basically simple. Acquire the goalie(s) you think are the most talented available. Period. 

Limitations to Successful Roster Rebuilding

Regarding the other two areas, forwards and defensemen, making moves that are guaranteed to make your team better is not that easy. There are many barriers to accomplishing that goal. Specifically, there are rules in place such as the salary cap, restricted and unrestricted free agency, and waivers that all teams must follow. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander is rumored to be up for a trade by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Will he be?
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To make trades, an NHL team must also find a willing dance partner. Complicating that process is that all 31 NHL teams are trying to do exactly the same thing you are. The odds of making some kind of franchise-changing blockbuster trade are pretty slim.

If Players Can’t Be Moved, What’s Left to Do?

So what’s an NHL team left to do? In most cases, you have a foundation of core players that you are committed to. You might be able to move one or, in rare situations, two of your core players in an effort to acquire better core pieces. Other than that, it’s a matter of trying to improve your group of support players. 

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Those support players complement your core and help put the core in a better position to succeed. After that, the old phrase “move around the deck chairs” comes to mind. Sometimes, it’s a valid thought. In the NHL, that might be all a team can do.  

Moving the Maple Leafs’ Deck Chairs

The changes the Maple Leafs make to their roster will be dictated partly by the above parameters. Some existing roster players will be moved out and others brought in. But what about the existing core “deck chairs?” Is there something the Maple Leafs can do to try and get more out of them?

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Rising Trade Values, Core Four & Rubins

In this post, we’ll consider that specific question. We believe changes that could be considered that might move the Maple Leafs’ deck chairs into their best possible positions. There also might be a couple of out-of-the-box ideas that could improve the team’s play.

In this post, we’ll explore possible movements with the forwards. In a later post, we’ll look at the defense. 

Considering Changes with the Maple Leafs’ Forwards

The top two forward lines for the Maple Leafs right now are Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner/Michael Bunting and John Tavares/William Nylander/and Alex Kerfoot. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has tried moving William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot in and out of the top six attempting to get more out of that second line, with little success. 

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot can play multiple positions for the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Right now, we believe the Maple Leafs need to engage in some out-of-the-box thinking that would help them better utilize the skills of their two top lines. Specifically, talk has focused recently on John Tavares, his age, and his declining skills – especially his skating. Over the years, Tavares has worked to become a better skater. However, as he ages, he’s been losing that edge and isn’t going to get any faster.   

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There’s speculation that moving him to the wing would simplify his game and put him in a position to get the most out of his present abilities. The biggest problem is that he’s by far the best Maple Leafs’ center at winning face-offs. He won over 800 face-offs in the regular season this year and posted a career-best 60.6 percent winning percentage. Giving up that success up does not make a lot of sense. 

What to do?

Option One: Create a Hybrid Position for William Nylander

One thing we remember when Nylander played for the Marlies and when he was called up and played 22 games for the Maple Leafs at the end of the 2015-16 season was that both teams had him play kind of a hybrid center/winger role. He would take draws as a center but then shift to the wing right after the draw. He would then stay positioned as a winger in both the opposing end and in his defensive zone, returning to center only to take face-offs.  

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

This is something Tavares could do for the Maple Leafs. Both Nylander and Kerfoot are natural centers but not nearly as successful at winning draws as Tavares. Nylander has a career 51 percent record and Kerfoot a 46.6 percent record at face-offs. Tavares could take the draws and then switch on the fly with either player. 

Option Two: Move Marner to the Second Line Center

If Keefe wanted to go further out of the box, Mitch Marner was a natural center when he played junior hockey. He already plays more like a center when he’s on the ice anyway. The Edmonton Oilers worked to solve a similar “problem” by splitting up Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for most of the regular season but then playing them together during the postseason. Thus far this postseason, that’s been successful.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Marner, Spezza & Giordano

The Maple Leafs might consider something similar with Matthews and Marner. If coach Keefe wanted to experiment by splitting his two best forwards, either one of Kerfoot or Nylander could move up with Matthews. Marner could then play with Tavares, again allowing Tavares to take face-offs. He’d then switch to play center following the draw. The partnership has worked before, although not because the positions were altered.

We believe the best move coach Keefe could make would be to move Marner to the Tavares line and make him the center. Allow Tavares to continue to take the face-offs, but generally give Marner the job of carrying the line as its center.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares screens Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Marner has proven he can drive a line and make the players he plays with better. The season he played most with Tavares was also the season Tavares put up his best numbers. Matthews has his 60-goals season and there’s no need to keep him with Marner together as a way to help them achieve personal goals. 

Both Matthews and Marner have become defensively responsible 200-foot players. Just as Babcock refused to play Matthews and Marner together, Keefe has never given them an extended run apart. We would like to see what the two could do if they were playing separately. If it doesn’t work out in the long run, coach Keefe can always move them back together.  

Is it Time for Coach Keefe to Consider More Radical Changes?

Coach Keefe is not afraid to switch his players around between lines. However, thus far it seems he’s resisted moving his players around on the same line. Given the need to deploy all his players in a way that would take best advantage of their skills, might it be time to look at changing more within lines?

Related: Maple Leafs Radical Trade Rumors: Nylander, Ekblad, Nurse & Subban

Trying to make lineup changes would allow each player to contribute best given his skills would help improve the team’s play. The bottom line is that the Maple Leafs come to utilize the players they have in ways that would help the team become more difficult for opposing teams to defend.

The question is what that step might look like with Maple Leafs’ forwards.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]