After a few underwhelming nights with the Auston Matthews line overall, the Toronto Maple Leafs may have found the perfect solution to fix it.
For the first two games of the 2018-19 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs had Auston Matthews lined up alongside Patrick Marleau and Tyler Ennis. The early returns have been disappointing at best and hasn’t really worked the way Mike Babcock had envisioned it.
During Sunday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Babcock decided to make a change by swapping out Ennis for Kasperi Kapanen, who began the season on the fourth line. The results were both immediate and impressive as the new-look line proved to be an effective one en route to a 7-6 (!) win.
Although the sample size has been small, this line has the potential to be an effective and speedy line that can be dangerous offensively. Should the Leafs keep Kapanen on this line going forward, he could help elevate Matthews and Marleau’s game and make the absence of William Nylander more bearable.
Night and day difference
Let’s take a look at why Kapanen should remain on the first line.
With Nylander out of the lineup due to the ongoing contract dispute between him and the Leafs, Babcock decided to slot in Ennis on the Matthews line for the time being. During the preseason, the early showings were promising that combination might work.
But while the preseason stats were OK, they did not translate over the first three games of the regular season.
It was obvious that the line wasn’t working and a change was needed to spark Matthews. As mentioned earlier, it was Kapanen who became the new addition to the line and a drastic change was seen.
They have only played together for one game, but Kapanen’s presence elevated the line considerably as per Natural Stat Trick. A 53.13% Corsi-for, 61.14% of the shots and 55.56% of the scoring chances compared to the opponents, and 3 HDCF with only 2 against.
The eye test backs up these numbers as the line was firing on all cylinders against the Blackhawks and was critical to the team’s success on Sunday. The goals from Kapanen and Matthews’ goal demonstrated the strong chemistry the line has, which should only improve with more time and experience.
This isn’t to say the line was completely flawless since it was on the ice for some of the Chicago goals, but the overall body of work was a breath of fresh air. Once they are able to tighten up defensively and build more confidence in each other, that line can be lethal.
A long-term fit
For the time being, it appears Kapanen will be slotted alongside Matthews and Marleau, which worked well on Sunday. So what happens when Nylander comes back once he signs his contract? I think the solution is simple:the Leafs should bump Marleau off of that line and move Kapanen to the left wing.
For the past two seasons, it was well-documented that the Matthews-Nylander duo was a deadly pairing that lit up the lamp many times over. The usual third guy was Zach Hyman, who was great at tracking down the puck and being a more defensive forward, but scoring wasn’t really his calling card.
Kapanen, by comparison, has good defensive instincts with a much better offensive touch. Combine this with his blistering speed that few NHL skaters can boast, it would seem logical that he could be a perfect complement to the Matthews-Nylander pairing and give them a reliable third option in the attacking end.
This line combination has yet to be tried by Babcock and the coaching staff, but it’s something they should consider once Nylander rejoins the roster. It may become an effective top-line that could make opponents fear to defend against.
So while it may be too early, Kapanen seems to have shown he can be an effective first-line player alongside Matthews and Marleau and should remain there even when Nylander puts the pen to paper.
Thanks for reading!
All stats unless otherwise noted are from Natural Stat Trick.