Maple Leafs Must Stick With New Top-6 Line Combinations

When the Toronto Maple Leafs used their top-5 picks to draft Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and then used their first major free agency splash to land hometown boy John Tavares, it became apparent what kind of identity upper management planned to shape their team around. Contrary to the belief that you need a defensive-minded team full of bruisers to win a Stanley Cup, teams who were offense-heavy have won it all in the past. Just look at the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins, whose top pairing for the majority of the playoffs was Olli Maatta and Ron Hainsey. 

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Having said that, one of the main drawbacks that come with investing the majority of your budget into high-octane star forwards is the risk of said forwards not carrying their weight. We’ve seen it in the past. Although the Maple Leafs’ team defense is light years ahead of where it once was, they are not a team that will win games by shutting down their opponents with pure grit. So, when the offense goes dry, they don’t have much of an identity to speak of. 

Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner Celebrate a Goal (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

One way the Maple Leafs have been able to solve this issue in the past, specifically at the start of the season when the team was still finding their legs, was by splitting up Matthews and Marner. They did it in 2021-22 to help Marner get going, and they did it again this season. So far, the swap of Marner and William Nylander in the top six has helped the team find some consistent offense, and they should continue to run with these lines until things start to falter. 

The Pros and Cons of Matthews-Marner 

When Matthews and Marner are playing together and both on top of their games, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better duo in the NHL. Of course, this is to be expected when you pair a 60-goal scorer with a winger who routinely finds himself on pace for over 90 points. Not only are the two players capable of doing damage on the scoresheet, but they do it with swagger as well. You can see the confidence radiating off of their bodies as they set each other up for plays, and they have a level of chemistry that’s hard to achieve. 

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Having said that, the downside to this is that when Matthews and Marner aren’t connecting, that takes a massive chunk out of the team’s offense. And following an offseason where the Maple Leafs focused more on defensive-minded, forecheck-heavy players to round out their bottom six, it hurts the team more when those two players aren’t getting things done. And truth be told, for a team that’s struggled to produce at 5v5 all season so far, splitting these two up should have been done long before Nov. 12’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. 

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The good thing about splitting up Matthews and Marner is that the former’s consolation prize is a 30-goal, 80-point player in William Nylander, and the latter’s is a player with the same credentials in Tavares. And the pairings of Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner work, too, given that was what we saw most of the time between 2018 and 2019 when Mike Babcock was at the helm. And when these pairings eventually hit a dry spell, which they likely will at some point this season, you can always go back to what you had before.

New Pairings Working for the Maple Leafs (So Far) 

The Maple Leafs initially switched their forward lines up during the game against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 5, a game that resulted in a win. The next day, they went back to Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander against the Carolina Hurricanes, which also ended up as a win. They proceeded to lose their next two games against the Vegas Golden Knights and Pittsburgh Penguins, before going back to Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner against the Canucks on Nov. 12. They’ve been running those lines ever since that game, and have yet to lose in regulation with them (3-0-1) since.

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More than anyone, the switch seems to be benefitting Michael Bunting, who has two goals and four points in those four games, all at even strength. He had only six points in 15 games heading into that game against the Canucks, which is below standards for a guy who scored 23 goals and tallied 63 points last season. Nylander is right there with Bunting with four even strength points in four games, they’re followed by Matthews and Tavares with three apiece, and Marner rounds it out with one even-strength point. 

If you include power play points, all five of the players I listed are producing as they should be. Matthews, Nylander, and Tavares are in a three-way tie for six points over those four games, meanwhile, Marner has five, and Bunting’s total remains unchanged seeing that all of his points came at even strength. The switch seems to be helping spread out the offense in the top six, and considering the Maple Leafs have been winning games in this time, although it’s a small sample size, they shouldn’t mess with these lines until things start to falter. 

Although they did go back to Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander for part of Saturday’s (Nov. 19) game, head coach Sheldon Keefe said that was an in-game adjustment to keep Tage Thompson and Buffalo’s top line off of the scoresheet. It’s unknown whether or not that switch is going to carry over into Monday’s (Nov. 21) game, but if I were Keefe, I wouldn’t change these lines until there’s a reason to. 

Maple Leafs Need Flexibility in Their Top-6 

It’s funny, because when I look back to when Babcock was fired and Keefe took over in November 2019, I remember one of the main reasons people wanted him fired was his stubbornness and unwillingness to change up the lines when things weren’t working. Except, last time around, it was the opposite. Babcock was hellbent on keeping Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner together, and wouldn’t change it no matter the circumstance. Then, when Keefe took over, one of the first changes he made was putting Matthews and Marner together.

Now, scroll across any Maple Leafs’ social media forum, and the vast majority of fans have been clamouring to reunite Matthews with Nylander and Tavares with Marner. Does this mean Babcock was right all along? No. What it means is that the Maple Leafs need to display a little more flexibility and a willingness to change things up when the offense runs dry. They’re notoriously slow starters, and their lacklustre month of October was due in large part to their lack of even-strength scoring. They ranked fifth-last in the league in that regard, with only 17 even-strength goals in 10 games. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Sure, maybe swapping Marner and Nylander sometime in October wouldn’t have been an instant fix. But it’s something that Keefe and the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff should be a little more willing to try when things aren’t going well, as opposed to waiting until the team can’t string together more than two wins at a time to make the move. And if the team starts to slide again with the new lines losing effectiveness, then go back to Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander. But right now, things are working and they shouldn’t be changed until further notice. 

Maple Leafs Still Have a Need to Address in Top-6 

I wrote a piece about a week ago on potential replacements for Jake Muzzin on the back end, and while I still believe the need for a Muzzin replacement is a big one, the Maple Leafs should be directing their attention to adding a top-six left wing down the road. Alex Kerfoot has been largely ineffective on the second line, with only one goal and six points in 19 games, and while Nick Robertson has added a jolt to that line on occasion, his play away from the puck hasn’t been good enough to justify keeping him on the second line every night. 

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This type of trade likely won’t happen until later in the season, but it’s one that I think they need to spend big on. Their team defense, outside of the odd giveaway or mental lapse, has generally been good this year, especially considering the lack of a fully healthy defensive corps throughout the first 19 games of the season. And in these last few playoffs especially, their biggest need has proven to be one or two extra goals in the games that matter most. Especially with the losses of Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, and Jason Spezza up front, their secondary scoring will need a boost, and it starts on that second line. But, for the time being, Marner and Tavares seem to be working fine even with a black hole on the left side. 

As I said, I can’t see a trade like that happening right now, so for the time being, the team should stick with the pairings that work best for them, and it doesn’t seem like Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner should be split anytime soon.

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