Toronto Maple Leafs @ Carolina Hurricanes: Game #7
7:00pm at PNC Arena
TV/Streaming: Sportsnet Ontario, East, Pacific
Opponent’s Site: Canes Country

Following back-to-back comedy nights over the weekend, Sheldon Keefe has finally made some changes to his lines. To everyone watching the scramble for new line combos on Friday and Saturday won’t be surprised to see these, but it always felt a little premature to believe the Leafs saw it too. Now, they’re here:

The Forwards

Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Alex Kerfoot - John Tavares - Mitchell Marner
Pierre Engvall - David Kämpf - Ondřej Kaše
Nick Ritchie - Jason Spezza - Wayne Simmonds

Let’s go through these lines one by one and see what they mean.

First line: Bunting-Matthews-Nylander

This is without a doubt the three best players at each position the Leafs have on their roster right now. Nylander has been Leafs best player after six games (and going back to last season), Matthews is the Leafs best player, and Bunting has been the best left wing out of the generally mediocre group that is available.

Nylander and Bunting have been producing this season and Matthews has looked good despite his previous linemates. If players lower in the lineup are struggling to get their stuff together, it’s critical the first line is working and scoring so this team can start winning games again.

Keefe has telegraphed this line over the past couple games and either needed convincing or a day off to finally implement it full-time. Not to psychologize, but I have to wonder if it was difficult to let Marner go from this line.

Second line: Kerfoot-Tavares-Marner

Tavares has been unlucky to start the season so the best thing for him to do is to work harder. That’s how he’s always gotten out of slumps and the pucks do eventually go in. Whether it’s internal pressure, external pressure, the spotlight, or just a lack of chemistry with his old linemates, Mitch Marner needed a change. With Tavares, he’ll have to play more direct and focus less on getting other players open for shots. Just get the puck to the net and figure it out there.

We always knew Kerfoot was the “break glass in case of emergency second line winger” and after watching Ritchie’s start to the season, they needed to make the change. He’ll be a good transition player for Marner and Tavares to get passes from. This is a safe line to me, one that won’t be brilliant with Kerfoot, but should do the right things and work well enough.

Third line: Engvall-Kämpf-Kaše

Even your defensive-only lines need someone who knows what to do with the puck and sadly Kaše won’t get a chance in the top six because the Leafs need him to drive a third line. Engvall is the natural choice to put alongside them as he’s been there a lot this year. Have fun against Seb Aho tonight, boys.

Fourth line: Ritchie-Spezza-Simmonds

Ritchie likes to hit big and play slow, so welcome to Simmonds, Spezza, and Sons. Go find that game again and then maybe we can talk about playing higher in the lineup.

At some point we have to ask about Ritchie’s contract, but I’m going to keep my powder dry on that front for the time being. I’ll just say $2.5 million on a multi-year deal for a fourth liner is bringing back some orange and blue memories I don’t want to think about.

The Defense

Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin - Travis Dermott

The defense remains unchanged, apart from Dermott coming back in place of Timothy Liljegren. I don’t expect to see any changes to this group this season unless there is an addition at the deadline. And yes, I hear you screaming trade Rielly, but we’ve talked about this for years and they’re not going to do it. Despite your complaints and bar graphs, he’s winning his 5v5 minutes on a team with a losing record while playing 25 minutes a night in all situations. Dermott plays half that, by comparison.

The problem so far has been the form of Jake Muzzin and his sock puppet Justin Holl. Muzzin has had a slow start to the season, so his results will either turn themselves around or his decline will have come much earlier than we had thought. Either way, direct your energy to that line or just be patient as the Leafs are and trust the process that their defensemen will figure it out. I’m personally much less worried about them than I am about the money invested up front.

The Goalies

Jack Campbell - starter
Michael Hutchinson

No surprises here.

The Hurricanes

Lines via Walt Ruff

Jesperi Kotkaniemi - Sebastian Aho - Teuvo Teräväinen
Andrei Svechnikov - Vincent Trocheck - Martin Necas
Nino Niederreiter - Jordan Staal - Jesper Fast
Jordan Martinook - Derek Stepan - Steven Lorentz

Jaccob Slavin - Ethan Bear
Brady Skjei - Brett Pesce
Ian Cole - Anthony DeAngelo

Frederik Andersen
Antti Raanta

The Canes have a healthy lineup (except for Jake Gardiner) and they are confidently three-lines deep. Freddy Andersen is in net, but you knew that.