With John Tavares out for at least two weeks, and Zach Hyman not available yet, the Toronto Maple Leafs have to make a roster that will work right out of the gate against the Boston Bruins. After the Bruins on Saturday, the Leafs face the tight-checking Columbus Blue Jackets, and then, and this hardly seems fair, the Bruins again. Oh, and those two games are back-to-back. After that is San Jose and Montreal, followed by Washington.
All of those teams have some very tough top lines. Glances at Montreal. Relatively speaking, at any rate. And that means the choice of which line to play the toughest competition without Tavares available to do that is the single most important part of reworking the lineup.
The quality of competition a player faces usually evens out over the course of a season. Usually. But game-by-game, it’s almost as important as which linemates a player is on the ice with. This is why playing Alexander Kerfoot up the lineup is the right call.
#Leafs lines at practice:— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 18, 2019
There were calls to bring Jason Spezza way up the lineup from the press box to the top line because, the argument seemed to me, he used to be good. The contributions of Kerfoot to the Leafs were written off as those of a third liner. Spezza meanwhile... well, he used to be great, even, but he hasn’t been this season.
Let’s look at Kerfoot a little more closely to see what this third-liner has been up to on the Leafs.
What does this mean?
Pay attention to the top section which is quality of forward teammates on the left and quality of competition on the right. In eight games played, there hasn’t been enough time to wash out the competition to a perfectly even split, and Mike Babcock sometimes makes sure that never happens. For Kerfoot, so far, he’s played more first and second line opponents than average, and he’s done it all with wingers very low on the depth chart for the Leafs.
And this is what I mean about Babcock getting his own way via line matching. I realize there’s a zeitgeist right now around the idea that linematching is bad because anything Babcock does is bad. (Just say no to Just For Men in Saskatchewan Sunset Auburn, because if Babcock dyes his hair, it must be wrong.)
Nazem Kadri was not the checking line centre last year that Kerfoot has been this year. He was supposed to be chipping in with some offence, and the Corsi was great, the shot rates were fine, and his line’s success rate was dismal.
This year’s Leafs are a whole new team, and Kerfoot, with a Russian rookie and the chugga-chugga hard work of Trevor Moore, has faced a lot of tough competition and come up with a Corsi % of 55 and a middling (for the Leafs) rate of shots against.
Now he’ll be doing that with Mitch Marner, who is at 56% Corsi and a better shots against rate.
This is so crucial because the high-octane, wildly successful opening to this season for the Leafs (everywhere but in net) has been led by the Auston Matthews line, and messing it up right now would be a very bad idea. They’ve been successful, in part, because of a slight break in how hard they have to work to get in the offensive zone.
If Kerfoot with Marner and the red-hot Mikheyev can do more-or-less what he’s already been doing with Moore or Kasperi Kapanen on his wing, plus get some more quality shooting happening, this might all work out.
Meanwhile Jason Spezza is the right guy to slot in for Kerfoot and try to at least partly replicate what he’s been doing. This is the weakest link however, and even with Moore and Kapanen to help him grind it out against some of the toughest defensive players on the Bruins, the Blue Jackets and the Capitals, he’s going to have to bring his A game in a way he really hasn’t so far this year.
Calling for Spezza to take the Tavares line was absurd, and the only possible reason to do it was because it was obviously never going to happen. I smell a setup. The Leafs are in tough without their best player, and the best way to stir up some trouble is to declare the solution to be the one thing they won’t do. If it all goes to hell, well, you said they shoulda gone with the guy who last played meaningful minutes three years ago. If they’d only listened.
Will this work perfectly? Likely not, but it sure beats the hell out of Frederik Gauthier as the 3C.
Meanwhile the choices for the power play, with condolences to Tyson Barrie, are also interesting:
Spezza takes Nylander’s spot on the right flank of the 2nd unit— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 18, 2019
Kerfoot - Petan^ - Spezza
^ Moore working with PK
I noted yesterday, that at the end of the loss to the Capitals, Mike Babcock was leaning pretty heavily on William Nylander at five-on-five. With Kerfoot taking on some work there, the power play job opening has fallen to Nylander.
Nylander has been taking the bulk of the shots on the second unit so far this season, and without him, it basically becomes an exercise in Tyson Barrie passing the puck around to forwards who can’t shoot very well. If they get significant minutes at all, look for Kerfoot and Spezza to try to do what Nylander used to do. Set your expectations low there.
For the first unit, Nylander moves the puck really well, but I’m not sure if he’s played that spot very much, if at all. I’m not going to be surprised if Matthews and Nylander end up switched.
The heat is on for both Kerfoot and Nylander, and they are the players who should be stepping up, with an additional emphasis on Matthews and Marner, who need to be dialled in all the time. Spezza is a good gamble to be better than the dull, yet effective, Nick Shore and the faceoff specialist, Gauthier. But I won’t be surprised if Nylander slides into some extra minutes as an occasional centre on the third line.
We’ll see how this all works out Saturday night.