In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’d like to focus on the impact of some of the recent line changes that the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff has made over the past few games. Specifically, during the game against the Detroit Red Wings, I’d like to look at how players have responded.
First, in yesterday’s post, I looked at the Red Wings as a team and where they were this season compared to last. I also speculated that the team was a much-improved squad over last season’s team. Based on what I saw last night, I don’t think I was wrong.
Steve Yzerman came home to Detroit in April 2019 as the team’s general manager and in just over two years he’s improved this team a great deal. The team is young and fast and can score. Over the next few seasons, both the Red Wings and I also think the Ottawa Senators will emerge as strong teams within the Atlantic Conference. With the exception of their goalie play – neither team’s goalie played that well in last night’s game – the Red Wings put up a strong fight in the second game of a back-to-back.
Item One: John Tavares Thriving With New Linemates
I hate to show my age, but last night John Tavares reminded me of a campy old two-and-a-half-minute radio comedy series and Batman take off titled “Chickenman,” which was broadcast widely on US Armed Forces radio when I was younger during the 1960s. As part of the series, Chickenman was “everywhere, he’s everywhere.”
Last night Tavares put up three points in the 5-4 win over the Red Wings simply because he was everywhere on the ice. He first assisted on Jake Muzzin’s goal at the end of the first period; then he had another assist on Alex Kerfoot’s goal at the start of the third period. He then scored his own goal later during the third period.
For Tavares, it was his first multiple-point game of the season and resurrected some of the past chemistry that Tavares and Marner have shown. As noted earlier in the post, this line is a new creation of Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe. Keefe had put his top-six into a bit of a blender recently and the newly created trio of Tavares, Kerfoot, and Marner was born.
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It worked both offensively and defensively and gave the Maple Leafs a bit of offensive jump that they had been missing over the first eight games of the season. As it stands right now, Tavares has scored three goals and four assists (for seven points) on the season and leads the team in points. In short, new linemates equals more success.
Item Two: Mitch Marnew Finally Scores
Coach Keefe’s line shuffle also helped ignite right-winger Mitch Marner. Marner was rightfully rewarded for his relentless play, both offensively and defensively, with an unassisted and game-winning goal in the third period. It was not only Marner’s first goal of the season but his first goal in 17 games going back into last season.
The season has to be frustrating for Marner, who finished fourth in NHL scoring last season. Not only has Marner visited the dentist recently, but he’s off to a slow start with only three points in his first nine games of the season. Unless you’re the kind of Maple Leafs’ “fan” who dislikes Marner enough to hope the team fails just to prove your point, you have to hope that this line combination will pay dividends for the team. Based on last night’s play, Keefe would have to be crazy to make a change.
Perhaps it spells Marner’s break out of his scoring slump. He’s now had a point in his last two games and was a plus-three against the Red Wings. If the Tavares’ line can keep up this pace and if Auston Matthews can start to score soon, it might spell a turnaround for the team.
By the way, from my perspective, this was the hardest the team – from top to bottom – has worked all season. Had Petr Mrazek been more on his game in goal, the score might have been something like 5-2 rather than as close as it turned out to be.
Item Three: Jake Muzzin Has the Best Game of His Season
Jake Muzzin played better than I’ve seen him play all season. He scored his first goal of the season and added an assist as well. That gives him now three points during his nine games for the season. In a recent post, I wondered in writing if he were injured. I still don’t know, but it was good to see him play once again like he was one of the team’s top three defenders.
Given coach Keefe’s deployment of Muzzin, he’s no longer likely to put up a 40-point season. However, he has shown he can provide secondary offense from the blueline. It will be good to see if he can once again become one of the team’s best plus/minus players.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
It doesn’t get easier for the Maple Leafs this week. Maybe the team will surprise us and will sweep the last four games of their homestand against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Boston Bruins, and the Los Angeles Kings.
Such a sweep would be a surprise; however, imagine the complete turnaround in both the season and the mood of the fans if that were the case. On the other hand, …
Not going there.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf