Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock has made changes. He has created a new line combination of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Patrick Marleau. Obviously, I have (as I am certain many others have as well) named it the 3M Line. On the face of it, the new line combination is a no-brainer.
My initial response, when I look at Mike Babcock’s new “3M Line,” is that I like the name. My second response is to wonder why this new combination wasn’t made earlier. I suppose the answer is simple: it wasn’t necessary.
Auston Matthews’ Early Season Explosion
Matthews was on such an early-season tear that he carried most of the Maple Leafs’ offense himself, leaving Tavares to inhabit the background pumping in a goal now and then to add to the team’s scoring prowess. It worked like a charm, as long as Matthews kept scoring.
For a while, Matthews did score. As the year started, he absolutely roared out of the gate and carried the team with him. His 15 goals in 14 games was a torrid pace. The Nov. 19 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets put the team’s record at 15-6-0. That’s a really strong start, and Maple Leaf fans were totally buying in. I know I was.
But, seasons are long and this strong start didn’t last. Still, who would have thought that, given such a rousing start to the season, things would deteriorate to the point where Babcock sees the need to juggle lines in a desperate attempt to help his young star Matthews get going. And, do know that the main reason for this new line change is just that – to re-ignite Matthews. Matthews’ play has stagnated, and the team needs something to un-glue him from his funk. As good as John Tavares is and has been playing, he cannot carry the team alone.
So, after only scoring a single goal in his last 13 games, Babcock has switched Matthews around hoping to wake up the slumbering giant. Matthews’ game has gone so far south that not only has he not scored, but he’s almost – but not quite – pulled a William Nylander. Matthews has just three assists and is minus-11 in his last seven games. I, for one, would have never thought he would struggle like this.
Don’t Forget Patrick Marleau
By building this particular 3M line combination, Babcock must be thinking that, if he puts Marner (his best assist producer) with Matthews (potentially his best goal scorer), the result will generate more offense. I don’t disagree.
However, what might be lost by concentrating on Marner and Matthews as the top two in this trio is the presence of Marleau and his 546 career goals. What this new line combination also does is to stand a good chance of pumping up Marleau as well. The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer has proven over a long career that he can score goals.
As well, the new line combination is a subtle leadership change. The success of this 3M Line hinges on the skill and leadership of Mitch Marner. And, here’s saying he’s good enough to pull it off. Certainly, from a simply hockey point of view, the new line offers Marner another viable goal-scoring option, a second partner who can redirect one of his seeing-eye passes past the opponent’s goalie.
I also wouldn’t be too quick to conclude that Marleau’s lack of production this year (he now has only 11 goals, 11 assists, and 22 points in 46 games this season) means he’s over the hill. He’s crafty enough and still a good enough skater to play off the action that a Matthews – Marner buzz can create, see a spot, and regularly sneak in for a goal. There’s a good chance he will be left alone more as opposing defenses work to clog up the youngsters’ chemistry.
With these two goal producers as “targets,” Marner now has multiple partners who can put the goal into the net. I like the change and the possibilities it portends.
The line change also suggests that Babcock is willing to listen to what his young stars want. As Sportsnet’s Luke Fox noted yesterday, Marner and Matthews have hoped to play together more. You can read that into their comments.
Marner noted, “We’re roommates on the road, so we hang out quite a bit. We’ve played together before; we’ve had chemistry out there.” He added, “I also think I’m there for support, make sure I talk to him while I’m on the ice.” You can read into this last comment the implicit fact that Marner sees himself as the line’s leader, directing Matthews’ play on the ice.
Matthews believes the off-ice chemistry of the three will translate into on-ice results. He said, “We spend a lot of time with Patty on the road, so hopefully the three of us can complement each other well, get some stuff rolling,” Matthews said. In fact, Fox noted that Marleau was their on-the-road “Dad.”
There’s Not Long to Wait
The Maple Leafs play the Washington Capitals on Wednesday in Toronto. Fans won’t have to wait long to see how the new 3M line will do, and how the totality of the line changes will impact the team’s general play.
The Maple Leafs have an advantage because the Capitals are coming off a tough 7-6 overtime loss at home Tuesday night against the San Jose Sharks. The Capitals, too, are in a skid, losing six straight games. They are road weary. Not only will their game against the Maple Leafs be their second game of a back-to-back, but the game before was energy-draining; it ended late; there’s travel, and little rest before immediately playing once again.
If the Maple Leafs tank another one when it sets up so nicely for them, we’ll learn more about the team than we had before. And, what we learn won’t be good.