Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was going to use the final quarter of the season to experiment with optimal line combinations after a hyperactive trade deadline, while the team's playoff opponent has been essentially confirmed for weeks.
There was bound to be some trial and error but when Ryan O’Reilly broke his finger on March 4, it forced Keefe into trying some new alignments quicker than expected.
Keefe’s decision to run an 11-forward/seven-defence alignment over a traditional 12-forward/six-defenceman setup has caused some consternation among sections of the fan base, but there appear to be material, trickle-down benefits for most of the core.
“We might discover through this that we just might be better at 11 and seven,” Keefe told reporters after Monday’s morning meeting. “I think it’s important that we’re not locked into 12 and six.
“We have way more depth on defence than we’ve ever had. We have more depth on forward as well, so we’ve got more guys that can take on more responsibilities. While 12 and six is the most comfortable situation, it might not be the best one. It’s important that we give it some time and be really smart with how we manage it the rest of the way.”
Here’s a deeper look into how Keefe’s recent experimentation has worked thus far.
Mitch Marner and William Nylander appear to be the focal points
Mitch Marner and William Nylander have been the Maple Leafs’ best players this season and there’s a constant expectation that they’ll drive play on any line they’re placed on. When I asked Keefe following Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Sabres about the idea that his star wingers take on added defensive responsibility in the 11-forward format, he dismissed the premise entirely, telling me I’m overthinking it.
This gave me some pause — Keefe obviously understands his team and the game of hockey overall far better than I do — but perhaps we’re disagreeing about what we’re seeing on the ice.
Toronto installed its 11F-7D alignment on Saturday night against the Oilers, where Marner and Nylander both submitted outstanding performances. Alexander Kerfoot remained on the top line with Marner and Auston Matthews and they controlled 85 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5. There has been some wariness about Kerfoot’s fit — it’s entirely possible that he’s a placeholder until Michael Bunting regains his early-season form — but he’s been excellent defensively and his world-class speed provides a different element for his two superstar linemates to work with.
Marner is playing some of the best hockey of his career. He leads the NHL in takeaways and he’s playing audaciously. Everyone saw his highlight-reel goal against the Oilers, where he picked off Ryan McLeod, then dangled Stuart Skinner out of his pads. But even when his attempts don’t result in goals, it still should scare the hell out of opponents. This lob pass over Buffalo’s towering defenceman Owen Power is one example.
Marner lobs the puck over Power to Kerfoot pic.twitter.com/RicoV0rfqU
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 13, 2023
The Marner-Matthews tandem is maybe the best two-man game in the NHL. Even when it doesn’t result in a goal, Marner’s otherworldly playmaking is allowing the reigning Hart Trophy winner to pick up his offence and continue to create chances with his speed, frame and the threat of his all-world wrist shot.
Nylander has perhaps taken on more responsibility than any forward in the 11F alignment. He’s been placed on both wings and he’s capable of playing centre, although the Maple Leafs haven’t resorted to that yet. He was asked to drive a line alongside Sam Lafferty and Calle Jarnkrok against the Devils and Oilers, before being placed alongside Bunting and John Tavares on Monday. There has to be someone getting extra minutes and uneven lines in an 11-forward format and it’s Nylander that’s subject to the most variation among his linemates, which is a testament to his all-around excellence this year.
The hallmark of a superstar is the ability to make his linemates better and like Marner, this has been evident from Nylander all season. He can score spectacular individual goals where he outmuscles Rasmus Dahlin, he’s a threat on the power play, but perhaps most importantly, he elevated Lafferty and Jarnkrok during his two-game span, with two assists in a 4-3 win against the Devils.
William Nylander makes it 4-3 with a minute left 🚨
outmuscles Dahlin pic.twitter.com/iJVTpOpxju
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 14, 2023
He accepted playing with two inferior linemates without any complaint, and he’s shown an innate knack for creating offence, no matter who he’s paired with. This will pay dividends when O’Reilly returns, allowing Nylander to primarily focus on his two-man game with Tavares.
the Tavares-Nylander connection is back pic.twitter.com/X1p2ilkUNa
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 12, 2023
Auston Matthews’ all-around dominance is coming into full effect
Last week, we explored how Matthews has improved and regressed in different facets of the game. Good news for Maple Leafs fans: the much-promised offensive explosion is coming into full effect and Matthews is rounding into top form during the final stretch of the regular season.
Matthews is an underrated playmaker and he’s outright dominant in transition. He was one of the catalysts during a second-period explosion against the Oilers, setting up John Tavares on a 2-on-1 which almost brought the house down.
We also likened Matthews to Steph Curry because of his gravity effect — the notion that he creates space for others because they’re so worried about his shot — and this played out once again Monday. On this play, Marner digs the puck out a corner and finds Jarnkrok, who is at the end of his shift. Matthews flies up the ice and the Sabres rightfully pay all their attention to him as he cuts into a prime scoring location awaiting a pass. Jarnkrok is able to beat Craig Anderson through the five-hole as his entire team is distracted by the threat Matthews poses. Even when he’s not scoring, he’s directly contributing.
And considering how good Marner has been in all facets, when the defence is preoccupied with him, Matthews can crash as a trailer and score too.
Footer really living up to his nickname 🤯👏 pic.twitter.com/SHEOsElHNn
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 14, 2023
Matthews also won 60.6 percent of his faceoffs in all situations under this new alignment. He did this while facing Connor McDavid and Tage Thompson as his primary assignments. It may be in the Maple Leafs’ best interest to go back to a 12-forward format, but it hasn’t hurt the team’s best three players.
What are the optimal defence pairings?
After a five-game stretch where Jake McCabe was paired with TJ Brodie, Brodie was reunited with Morgan Rielly on Monday. It may make sense for McCabe and Brodie to stay together — they’ve only been on the ice for one goal against at 5-on-5 and the line shuffling didn’t work well against the Sabres.
Finding a suitable partner for Rielly, who has struggled defensively, is the biggest challenge. Timothy Liljegren offers the same strengths and weaknesses as Rielly does on a lesser scale and he’s coming off his worst game of the season. Justin Holl, who played some great hockey in November and December, has once again become a liability. Erik Gustafsson essentially does all the same things Rielly does offensively, but can’t be trusted to play heavy minutes outside of the power play. It’s early, but the Rasmus Sandin trade might’ve been a bit hasty.
Mark Giordano provided a stabilizing effect to all of his partners throughout the year and he was incredible during the first half of the season. Giordano helped facilitate Liljegren’s development and Holl’s best hockey of his career. Protecting Giordano and keeping him healthy for the playoff run is the best course of action here. And this is where Luke Schenn may come into play.
Schenn has been away from the team due to the birth of his child and he may be Rielly’s optimal partner. During his stint with the Canucks, Schenn shielded Quinn Hughes and operated as a safety valve. Schenn ought to be the immediate option for Rielly upon returning to the lineup, but there are still 16 games to get it right.
Here’s what I’d suggest as the optimal pairings:
Noel Acciari continues to do all the right things for the fourth line
One of the constants of the 11F alignment is the fourth line, consisting of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kampf and Noel Acciari, who has been a godsend. Acciari scores, throws tons of hits, is an analytics wonder, suppresses shots, and has won the confidence of Keefe.
Cookie gets us started! pic.twitter.com/vs2NHkGtiq
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 12, 2023
Acciari is doing all the little things right. Here’s one example: Acciari wins the puck in the neutral zone, then powers through Power to get the puck over to Kampf. Kampf cuts to the front of the net for a dangerous scoring chance, but leaves it on the doorstep for Aston-Reese who can’t get there in time.
Acciari does a good job in the neutral zone to advance the puck pic.twitter.com/HWAGUxKXoH
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 13, 2023
There isn’t a static effect when accounting for Acciari. He’s usually the last player off the ice on his line and gets a spillover effect with Nylander and Tavares, a well-earned designation considering he could slot into the top-six with little dropoff.
Michael Bunting is on a roller coaster ride through the lineup
Bunting is the player adversely affected in this format. He had a few erratic weeks and was sent to the bottom-six, while being effectively replaced by Kerfoot on the top line. It’s not all bad for Bunting, as he was returned to a line alongside Tavares and Nylander on Monday.
“John and Bunts, they’ll have different linemates quite a bit, whether it’s them moving to other lines or others filling into that spot,” Keefe said Saturday morning. “That’s where I have the open spot here to begin, I like the other three lines and we’ll try to be as stable as we can.” .
Bunting is the still the NHL leader in penalties drawn at 5-on-5 and his ability to win pucks back will always be an asset in the top-six. It appears Bunting is playing to the level of his competition — when placed in the bottom-six against the Oilers, he had one of his worst games of the season, but when returned in a top-six role, he looked like one of the team’s best forwards.
Monday’s game was a neat microcosm of the Bunting experience in the new alignment: he almost scored off a ricochet off the glass early in the first period, he had a team-high five shots and led the team in individual expected goals. But he also missed on a 2-on-0 in the third period, set up by Tavares, who put the puck on a tee and he sent it wide.
Tavares and Bunting can't convert on the 2-on-0 pic.twitter.com/LBX5i76CB0
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 14, 2023
The goals will come soon for Bunting, but it’s interesting to see how Keefe has elected for the speedier, defensive-minded Kerfoot over the tougher and superior shot creator in Bunting.