Maple Leafs’ Best Choice Is O’Reilly at Third-Line Center

The addition of Ryan O’Reilly to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup adds a player who can be a difference-maker when push comes to shove. He’s a rare commodity in the NHL, a player whose career point production is higher in the playoffs (0.875 points per game) than it is in the regular season (0.706 per game).

O’Reilly and Acciari Have Had No Practice With the Team

It’s been a whirlwind few days for O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, who came to Toronto with him. Upon the completion of the deal late Friday, the two players had to gather their equipment, fly to Toronto for the game Saturday night, and then fly to Chicago right after that game with the rest of the team for an early Sunday evening game.  

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The two players have played two games for their new teams without setting foot on the ice for a single practice. The results for those two games have been a bit of a mixed bag. 

Head coach Sheldon Keefe decided to have O’Reilly play on a line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the last two games. O’Reilly has one assist in the two games, but that was as part of the second power-play unit. The assist came seconds after the expiry of a Montreal Canadiens penalty on Saturday night. Over the two games, playing as a unit, all three of O’Reilly, Marner, and Tavares are each minus-2.

Acciari has fit in great on a line with Alex Kerfoot and Zach Aston-Reese, as he scored a big grinder-type goal in the Chicago Blackhawks game. The fourth line has been dynamite in the two games they have been together. 

The Maple Leafs Schedule Will Help Acclimate the Two Newcomers

The Maple Leafs only play two games over the next six days, which will give Keefe time to get to know both O’Reilly and Acciari. At the same time, it will give both players time to acclimate themselves to Keefe’s systems. 

There are questions that need to be answered as to where the two players will fit in. It appears that Acciari plays the type of game where he will fit in wherever Keefe plays him in the bottom-six, so his deployment should take care of itself.

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But determining the best fit for O’Reilly might be a bit more difficult. There are two main choices: load up the top-six unit, or move him to the third-line center spot.

One Choice Would Be Leaving O’Reilly in the Top-Six

If Keefe decided to load up the top-six unit, he could keep O’Reilly alongside Tavares and Marner. That’s been the choice thus far, or Keefe could switch out Bunting and put a more experienced playoff performer alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander. 

On the plus side, keeping O’Reilly in the top-six makes those two lines much improved. It would also give the Maple Leafs two lines that would be considered number one lines on almost any other team in the league. 

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On the negative side, keeping O’Reilly in the top-six leaves the bottom-six at pretty much status quo. Unless Acciari proves his first goal is no fluke and will become a regular occurrence, the bottom-six will see no real gain in offensive firepower. Acciari makes the bottom-six better, but he’s more the type of player they already have in there. 

A Second Choice Would Be Spreading the Offense Over Three Lines

Another choice would be to give O’Reilly his own line. He’s a natural center and brings those skills. That move would spread the offense over three lines. Keefe would then re-promote Calle Janrkrok back to the top-six. It’s a role he’s played quite well, scoring eight goals and adding 12 assists for a total of 20 points in the 26 games, and Jarnkrok seems to add value alongside Tavares and Marner.

Mitch Marner John Tavares Timothy Liljegren Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Timothy Liljegren celebrate a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Giving O’Reilly his own line would also leave the Matthews, Nylander, and Bunting line intact. Bunting might be the tipping point in that decision. He’s played much better on the top line than earlier in the season when coach Keefe moved him around, including placing him in the bottom-six. 

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If O’Reilly centered a line with Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall, it would spread the scoring potential over three lines, and Engvall might up his game under the leadership/mentorship of the experienced newcomer. 

Additionally, O’Reilly isn’t slow, but he’s not the speediest player either. Engvall has the speed, and Kerfoot has the smarts to balance that line quite nicely. That newly-created third line of O’Reilly, Kerfoot, and Engvall would also become a very defensively responsible unit. 

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Either the first or the second choice works because it leaves what has proven to be a solid fourth line of David Kampf, Acciari, and Zach Aston-Reese working together, so it makes sense to keep them together.

There Are a Number of Right Ways to Deploy O’Reilly

If we were to vote, it would be to spread the offense over three lines. That said, there are a number of right ways to deploy O’Reilly within the lineup. It will be interesting to see what line combinations Keefe ultimately decides on over the next week or so. 

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One thing we know: nothing needs to be a forever decision. Keefe can and often does change on the fly should he choose. O’Reilly offers that option. But for now, it might be time for the Maple Leafs to use O’Reilly to balance the offense over three offensively functional lines.

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The week coming finishes with the Maple Leafs heading out on a west coast road trip, a situation that could help to bind the team for the stretch run. Good timing, all things considered.

[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.]

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