Maple Leafs Need to Throw Their Top 6 Into the Line Blender

We are four games into the start of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season, and if you judged their performance based on the reaction of social media alone, you would probably guess that the Leafs started the season 0-4-0. In reality, the Maple Leafs went 2-1-1 in their first four games, and while they didn’t come out guns blazing, they’ve had some good performances, especially in the last two games.

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The only real area of concern to start the season is that the three most expensive contracts on the team haven’t contributed much offense. I will give Auston Matthews a pass here because he only made his season debut on Monday night against the New York Rangers. But on the other hand, Mitch Marner and John Tavares have been relatively quiet to start the season.

Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting is off to a hot start with the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

I think, for the most part, fans can agree that four games into the season, it’s far too early to hit the panic button. While some of the issues this team has had, such as not starting on time, trickle back to last season, that’s not what this piece is about and they still have 78 games to figure that out. However, I would like to see the Maple Leafs experiment with a new-look top-six forwards. Not just because some players haven’t been producing, but also to reward the ones who have.

Maple Leafs’ Bunting and Nylander Deserve a Promotion

Let’s assess the positives before the negatives. Without beating around the bush, when Zach Hyman joined the Edmonton Oilers in free agency, it hurt. He had grown into a fan favorite over the years for his resilience and consistent drive night in and night out. He was a staple on that top line with Matthews and would always be the first one into the corners and create space for Matthews and Marner. And when he developed an offensive side to his game, it made it that much easier to love him.

With Hyman out of the picture, somebody had to attempt to do his job. And so far, Michael Bunting is doing everything he can to soften the blow of losing Hyman. A staple alongside Tavares to start the season, the Scarborough native has two goals and three points to start the season and even received the seal of approval from Darcy Tucker, who famously played a style of game that Bunting is trying to play himself. He had some interesting potential coming from his situation in Arizona, and albeit only four games in, he’s looking very good.

In terms of William Nylander, where do I even start? The Canadian-born Swede has come a long way since holding out of his contract talks in 2018-19. And since then, he’s essentially squashed any negative criticism about his game. He responded to claims calling him inconsistent by producing at near a point-per-game pace in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

He was one of the only players to show up every night in the playoffs against Montreal, leading the team with eight points in seven games in Round 1. And along with the fact that he has four points in four games to kick off the 2021-22 season, he’s even started taking reps on the penalty kill, a wrench in the argument from critics that he’s not good defensively.

Because of the performance of these two players, I would like to see the Maple Leafs test out a top line of Bunting-Matthews-Nylander. It’s still super early on in the season, and while the Leafs’ start hasn’t necessarily been bad, it also hasn’t been good enough to the point where you shouldn’t tinker with anything. And if anything, it would be nice to see these two players get rewarded for their play to start the season.

Maple Leafs’ Ritchie and Marner Should See Temporary Demotion

There really wasn’t any way to word that heading without making it sound like I was ripping on these two. But Nick Ritchie hasn’t really been a great fit on the top line to start the season, and while Marner’s play has steadily improved throughout these first four games, the offense still isn’t there. For a player who finished top-five in NHL scoring last season, one assist in four games to start the season isn’t a concern, but certainly not something you’d want to see become a trend.

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The issue with Marner is that between his contract, his lack of performance in last year’s playoffs when the team needed it the most, and the constant pressure from the media and himself, he seems to be in his own head. And yet, whenever this has been an issue, he’s never seen any sort of demotion or been given an opportunity to try and pick himself up with fewer eyes on him.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

And for those who will say, “he shouldn’t have to be in that position when he’s making $10.6 million”, star players go through cold streaks all the time. Phil Kessel didn’t score a single goal in his first 10 games of the season in 2012-13 but wound up finishing the season with 20 goals. Sometimes, all a player needs is a change in routine to snap out of a funk. Don’t get me wrong, he’s been getting his chances and has looked better in each game, but the bounces haven’t been going his way.

As for Ritchie, I think he should be getting some reps on the third line. He hasn’t seen any production on the first line, and now that Matthews is back, I wouldn’t want him on the second line either. With everything Tavares has to offer as a player, his foot speed isn’t one of them, and I wouldn’t want to have two players with that issue on the second line.

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Marner and Tavares played with each other consistently until Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach and let the former play with Matthews, so it’s not like he’s never had chemistry with Tavares. Giving him some reps on the second line against lesser competition could be all he needs to briefly step out of the spotlight and earn some of that confidence back. In watching Marner play, you can easily tell that his demons are entirely self-inflicted, and switching things up for him could prove to be beneficial.

Who Takes the Left Wing Spot on the Maple Leafs’ Second Line?

With my top line set and Tavares and Marner on the second line, there remains a spot open on the left side of the second line. While this spot was initially anticipated to belong to Ilya Mikheyev to start the season, his stream of bad luck continued when he injured his thumb in a pre-season game that required surgery.

So, with an opening on the second line, there are options. And when I went over all of them, I kept circling back to Alex Kerfoot. Ondrej Kase would be an intriguing option as well, but both he and Marner play right wing pretty exclusively. Kerfoot, meanwhile, was essentially glued to the second line in last year’s playoffs and tallied five points in seven games. He also somewhat assumed the role of a pest.

Kerfoot isn’t exactly an offensive dynamo, but if anything, he’s proven that he can at the very least keep the line moving with his motor and chip in offense every now and then. And who knows? I don’t think we’ve seen Kerfoot on a line with Tavares and Marner yet, so maybe there’s potential for some chemistry there.

Maple Leafs Shouldn’t Wait To Make Changes If Needed

To be clear, I do recognize that it’s an 82-game season and there are still 78 games left to play, so it’s not like it’s a do-or-die situation if the Maple Leafs don’t address their top six. But the beauty of the team as it stands is that they have options, and if something isn’t working at 100%, there’s certainly no harm in trying out new combinations, especially seeing where they’re at in the season.

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All you have to do is look at the Toronto Blue Jays as a reminder that, while yes, it is a long season, every game does matter. Different sport, I know, but the message remains the same. And there’s nothing worse than losing games that are (or should have been) easily winnable. By promoting Bunting and Nylander and letting Tavares and Marner work out their slow start, there’s potential for new combinations to pay off for both the individual players involved and the team. And if it doesn’t work, it was worth a shot.

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