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The NHL is the show not the rehearsal

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What I learned from last night’s game.

NHL: JAN 13 Canadiens at Maple Leafs Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This season, with a largely every other day schedule format, I’m going to try to write about the game the night before on the day after. Format is subject to change, so consider this an innovation that I haven’t quite got the kinks worked out of.

One of the big questions heading into the Maple Leafs season opener was how were the altered lines going to work and how were the new players going to fit in. The reviews weren’t good in-game. And despite the overtime win, there are a lot of legitimate areas of concern.

Hockey is, in part, show business. When you’re putting on a show, opening night is not where you work out the bugs, try new innovations or experiment with new and revolutionary concepts like playing the second oldest player in the NHL on the big-minute top line.

If the Leafs looked like a training camp work in progress, that’s a fair assessment, and the responsibility for that state of affairs has to land with the coaches, not the players. Training camp was only 10 days. The pre-training camp workouts are not allowed to be run by coaching staff, and while the Leafs just had a training camp in the summer before their disastrous playoff performance, there’s been some changes since then.

Given that reality, the choice to change up every line, to experiment with new combinations that fixed even what wasn’t broken is an interesting one. The shambles on the ice on opening night was what most of us expected in many ways. It’s not like anything unforeseeable or strange happened on the way to a fairly undeserved win.

The coaches cooked up a whole bunch of clever schemes in the experimental Maple Leafs Innovation Lab so let’s run the down one by one:

1. Auston Matthews on the PK

This concept suddenly appeared in training camp and seemed to be sold heavily as “you need your best players on the ice more”. Yes, okay. Agreed. Matthews is bad at PK, looked like a deer in the headlights, terrified (rightly) of Shea Weber ending his season on the first day, and how is that what you want to see on opening night — your star looking like he’s donned the jester’s cap for the second act?

The problem they’re trying to solve is that the best forward on the PK on the Maple Leafs is Pierre Engvall. He’s tall, his stick is 10 miles long, and he has enough speed to play the aggressive style of disruptive PK the Leafs used to use, which was not in evidence last night at all. But Engvall is off in AHL limbo, not even on the Taxi Squad, where he’s busy building a deck on the doghouse he’s never getting out of until he scores like someone he isn’t and never was.

This is a repeat experiment, done for the same specious reason that total TOI on a ranked list is a status symbol to be pandered to for top players. John Tavares was bad at it, and the experiment was halted last year. Auston Matthews is bad at it, and maybe this one time, I’m with Brian Burke who said (paraphrased) tell me in two weeks how great an idea this is when Matthews is on crutches.

2. Auston Matthews comes off on a change when the mood strikes him

This is a carryover of the game management from the “after Keefe” portion of last season. The shift length for Matthews and Mitch Marner bulged out at the same time the fourth line was dropped off the rotation for large portions of the playing time. The Leafs rarely had a lead, and when they did, their goalies were fully capable of blowing it on their own. Chasing the play meant a short bench, and big minutes for the big guy.

These are young guys, and some of the best hockey players in the world right now. They understand the game better than you or I, and yet, the motivation to be the guy on the ice at all times, to know you’re “the answer” is part of what makes an elite player elite. Ego is required. But the conductor doesn’t actually let the first violin just do a solo that goes on for five minutes on a whim. Hamlet doesn’t stop prevaricating and stick in an ad lib soliloquy to get more stage time. Sometimes you do need to colour inside the lines.

Joe Thornton is not a one-minute shift man anymore, which didn’t need empirical evidence to prove.

3. Joe Thornton can totally play on the biggest minute top line in the NHL.

By the end of the game last night this experiment had not so much blown up as solidified into a grey, crumbling mess in the bottom of the beaker that was quickly thrown out before anyone noticed.

After one period, Thornton was rocking the nearly 50 second average shift length of his linemates and John Tavares, the captain of the team, was playing the same minutes as Alexander Kerfoot. After two, with all the Leafs powerplay time, Thornton — on the first unit — had huge all-situations minutes. In the third, after the Josh Anderson goal that made it 4-3, he sat on the bench except for one little scrap of a shift about five minutes later.

Oops.

I thought the concept had some merit in the first period, but the problem with it wasn’t just the age and bloated shifts problems. No one else seemed to know when or where Thornton was going to pass the puck. He’s exquisite at puck retrieval and passing, and yet, Matthews and Marner are over there creating their own plays, while he’s reading from his own script.

Thornton was good to excellent in the Swiss league centring a line of guys even I’ve never heard of. He can drive a line in that way. The real trouble with that top line experiment was that there were two drivers and they spent a lot of time near the net, but the pre-shot passing that would bring that sweet boost to the chances of a shot going in didn’t materialize. The point of the Keefe-cycle system is to get cross-crease passes, pucks out from behind the goal line, rapid movement, and somebody at the net to grab the rebounds.

You know who’s good at that? Zach Hyman, that’s who.

4. Zach Hyman on the third line

Hyman is one of the rarest things in hockey. He’s just fast enough, just good enough, more than tough enough and smart enough to play a support role with better players. So naturally, the clever scheme on opening night was to strip him of all his value by putting him with a couple of north-south players who don’t really cycle like the big boys do.

The third line folded like tissue paper against the best line on the ice all night — Tatar, Gallagher and Danault — and were actually worse against the Suzuki line. And if they do get to the net, is Hyman your scoring threat once Mikheyev’s rush fails?

I feel like the answer here is so blindingly obvious that there has to be some secret reason it’s not happening. “It” being swapping Hyman and Thornton. It sort of happened at the end of the game, but only by double shifting Hyman with both the first and third lines.

If the answer is that Thornton was promised a tour with the top line, then toss Kyle Dubas in the mix for responsibility for the failed experiments.

5. Wayne Simmonds sneaking up the lineup

Of all the innovations and experiments and plots, plans and schemes enacted on the ice instead of a game last night, this one was well played. Simmonds actually got to start on the fourth line, eased in, and only later on was he moved up occasionally. He wasn’t disrupting an established pairing, and he did fine, better as the game wore on.

6. Demoting John Tavares to the second PP unit

You know, this is some bullshit, and maybe if it was 2025 and JT was old, it would be fine. Playing older players, even great ones, a little less is to be expected as they age. He might not have it anymore the closer he gets to 40.

The game had a momentum shift that’s pretty clear from the shot charts. The Leafs were meh to bad for the first half of the game, made worse by a series of power plays to the Canadiens. When the Leafs got their turn at the man advantage, they looked like a summer beer league team. Until, that is, JT and William Nylander took back their regular spots and there was an audible click when it snapped into place. Every guy on the ice knew exactly what every other guy would do. They carried their familiar lines into the third period, and it looked like the Maple Leafs had finally taken the stage.

7. The bright side

Some of these experiments were discarded before they exploded.

The Leafs superior skill and ability to play totally gassed won out in the overtime. John Tavares showed the value of his skill at passing.

William Nylander and Tavares did actually play more than the third line in the end.

The best players played well once they were all given some minutes to do it with.

TJ Brodie was everything we could have ever hoped. He bored me with his competence all game long.

This isn’t the first opening night in the history of showbiz that looked like a rehearsal, and the game management mistakes, bad changes, bad decisions, and too much cleverness didn’t cost the team a win.

I’d bag skate the coaching staff, though, if I were JT.