Sheldon Keefe cannot be held responsible for the lack of physicality in the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup . In fact, it's commendable how he's managed such a challenging team.
Despite the team's seemingly positive record, the Toronto Maple Leafs don't stand as a formidable hockey unit and are likely to be eliminated in the first round unless significant changes are made.
After much speculation, the team eventually opted to shuffle their lines. Pontus Holmberg was elevated to the first line, Nick Robertson found himself in the top six, Mitch Marner was placed on the third line, and Matthew Knies was demoted to the fourth line.
The decision to place Marner on the third line was surprising, but the rationale behind it is understandable. For years, I advocated for having John Tavares, Marner, Matthews, or Nylander on three separate lines.
While I don't particularly love the line combinations Keefe implemented, I can appreciate the strategy. Personally, I would have arranged the lines as follows:
The Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Is Not The Problem
- Pontus Holmberg – Auston Matthews – Calle Jarnkrok
- Nick Robertson - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
- Matthew Knies - Max Domi - William Nylander
- Tyler Bertuzzi - David Kampf - Noah Gregor
I would prefer to see Matthews lead a line independently, generating offense for two lesser players in Jankrok and Holmberg. Marner, being the proven playmaker on the team, could unlock Robertson and assist Tavares on the second line.
Though it's challenging to place a player on pace for 45 goals and 115 points on the third line, prioritizing team success over individual stats is crucial. Nylander, the second-best player on the Leafs this season, could showcase offensive prowess for Domi and Knies, who have been struggling offensively.
Concerning the fourth line, pairing the hard-nosed playing styles of Gregor and Bertuzzi with the defensive center Kampf could offer a balanced lineup.
However, when considering Keefe's role, it's important to recognize he's limited by the players at his disposal. Despite a commendable offensive performance, the defensive lineup is lacking. Two of his six defensemen, Simon Benoit and Connor Timmins, are AHL players, while the starting goaltender began the season in the AHL.
Although Martin Jones has performed well and Benoit and Timmins have exceeded expectations, this defensive core and goaltending setup doesn't align with Stanley Cup contention. At best, it could be considered the 20th best defensive core in the league, if we're being generous.
While this might be Keefe's toughest season as head coach, boasting a .610 winning percentage is impressive given the defensive core and goaltender challenges. Instead of pointing fingers at Keefe, blame should be directed at GM Brad Treliving for providing Keefe with subpar players. Keefe's potential dismissal in the offseason should be carefully considered in light of these challenges.