It's Smart for the Toronto Maple Leafs To Split Up Their Stars

The recent line-shuffling by head coach Sheldon Keefe could be a potential boon for the Leafs, but Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander all need to sacrifice something for the betterment of the team.
Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils / Elsa/GettyImages

Mitch Marner's return to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup last weekend marked an opportunity to get a sneak peek at what head coach Sheldon Keefe had in mind for his forward units, with the playoffs just around the corner.

Keefe decided to spread out his scoring by putting Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander on different lines. The new combinations had a successful debut as each line contributed to a second period outburst during the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

The same units stayed together for last night's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Keefe and the rest of his coaching staff are looking to make it difficult for their opponents to match lines against the Leafs star forwards. For it to work, each of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will have to make an individual sacrifice for the benefit of the team.

It's Smart for the Toronto Maple Leafs To Split Up Their Stars

Matthews has to proceed without Marner's exceptional passing and vision. The two have developed a sixth-sense chemistry during their time with the Leafs. The team's best scorer and passer together makes for a lethal combination.

During numerous playoff appearances, however, there is a perception that they have too often been neutralized by the tight-checking of the Leafs opposition. While hot goaltending and advanced stats might make an argument against that narrative, the fact is the Leafs haven't ever been able to carry their offensive ways of the regular season into the playoffs, so new ideas should be explored.

Matthews put together a ten game points-streak playing with Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi during Marner's absence, accumulating 18 points during that time. While Matthews is a play-driving superstar that could play with anyone, it does make sense for the Leafs - who have multiple superstars - to take advantage of the fact that superstars in the NHL can turn regular players like Domi, Bunting or Hyman and have them performing like stars.

For Marner, he doesn't have Matthews to feed during 5 vs 5 play, but John Tavares is a more than capable, proven goal scorer. Plus, he will still play with the Leafs top sniper during the power play. The real advantage though comes from Matthew and Marner elevating four players instead of just one.

Of the three Leafs stars, Nylander is giving up the most. Despite Keefe's proclamation that Nylander's line "could be the first line", that sounds like a coach trying to soothe his player's ego. Anyone looking at the Leafs depth chart, knows that this unit is the third line, no matter how Keefe spins it. However it much helps the team, the third line is still the third line.

Pontus Holmberg, now Nylander's center, is a reliable defender, but a major step down offensively from the Leafs top two centers. Matthew Knies, for all of his promise and potential, is a rookie suffering through some inconsistencies and growing pains of his first full NHL season, but if Nylander can elevate their games by having some of his incredible talent rub off on them, it's only going to make the Leafs better and make the sacrifice of playing lower in the lineup worthwhile.

To their credit, each of the Leafs star players have publicly supported the changes, and after seven years of playoff failure, each player is likely. happy to put aside their ego for the sake of the team if that's what it takes to win.

Matthews, Marner, and Nylander all have the ability to drive the play for their respective lines. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, that is the best case scenario.


The potential difficulty it causes for the Leafs opponents is worth an extended look, but Matthews, Marner, and Nylander each need to give up something individually for the greater of the team.