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Maple Leafs make sweeping changes with practice lines

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have won five of their eight games since the NHL’s restart, but head coach Sheldon Keefe sees a need to push for improved results.

With a full complement of forwards for the first time all season, Keefe re-imagined his trios in time for practice Monday, rolling out these lines for the skate.

It’s the first and third lines that stand out the most, but what Keefe is trying to accomplish with the second unit is likely the impetus behind this decision. That unit, which is of course anchored by captain John Tavares, has seen a fairly sizeable dip in performance and impact this month. Saddling the captain with two of the highest-performing forwards of late in Mitch Marner and Ilya Mikheyev as new linemates seems like a fairly sound bet to pull better results from his captain and Co.

Marner has a particularly strong influence on his linemates from both an offensive and defensive perspective historically, and can be used to accentuate certain aspects of the lineup.

That's a luxury Keefe can lean on thanks in large part to one partnership discovered while the team was shorthanded and dealing with injuries and illnesses. Ondrej Kase has impressed in sparing minutes with Auston Matthews before hitting the COVID-19 list himself, most recently riding shotgun for two particularly strong games earlier this month in Vegas and Arizona. Kase has commanded a larger role with his growth into the season.

Auston Matthews (right) has a new partner, while William Nylander finds himself on the Maple Leafs' third line. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Auston Matthews (right) has a new partner, while William Nylander finds himself on the Maple Leafs' third line. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

On the surface, the flurry of movement does seem like a slight against William Nylander, who has arguably been the Leafs’ second-best skater this entire season. He drops down into a third-line role with defensive ace David Kampf, along with Alexander Kerfoot, who hasn’t been quite as impactful of late. Nylander has stood out on the second line even when the unit’s collective impact has diminished.

Keefe risks losing his impact if he fails to find reasons to spot Nylander more situational ice time.

Re-introducing Kase into the lineup also pushes Pierre Engvall down to fourth line, while squeezing Nick Ritchie and Kyle Clifford out. The fourth line has arguably seen the sharpest dip lately, and Engvall should be able to help reverse some of those trends as one of the team's top possession forwards.

While the results have been satisfactory in recent weeks, there were signs that a shake-up was necessary — or at least the reality that it's become far less obvious, or intentional, when assessing how the Leafs are winning their games.

When rolling, Matthews is gaining an edge against whoever the opponent dares to throw out there, the Kampf-led third line is shutting down an opposing scoring unit, the fourth line is thriving in its sheltered minutes, and Tavares is feasting against lesser competition with his linemates.

These elements harmonizing with one another is truly the strength of this team.

No doubt it's harder to establish those advantages on the road, which is where the Leafs have been for the last few games, but the indicators of success are clear and still remain the same.

With these changes, it seems Keefe is aiming to uncover them again.

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