Toronto Star ePaper

Top duo split after ice-cold stretch

Matthews admits he and Marner are not playing at a level ‘that we believe we’re capable of’


Pick a position and you can identify a problem in Leafland.

The goaltending looks wobblier than you’d like. The banged-up defence is so threadbare that on Monday even Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving, the same guy who insisted the blue line was “underrated” before the season began, had to acknowledge it’s simply undermanned. And now Toronto’s allstar forwards are being red-flagged.

That tells you how quickly the sands can shift. It was only a little more than three weeks ago that Toronto’s Core Four forwards were being lauded for carrying around more than their share of the scoring load.

Twelve games into the season, Auston Matthews was on an 88goal pace and the quartet of Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares, the guys who famously earn 50 per cent of the cap money on Toronto’s topheavy roster, were scoring a whopping 70 per cent of the goals.

In the seven games since … well, at least Nylander has been producing. And the good news is Toronto’s depth scoring has arrived. The likes of Tyler Bertuzzi, Matthew Knies and Nick Robertson have scored three goals apiece.

But Matthews? Over those seven games, he has scored just once. And Marner? He has no goals and three points over that stretch.

So on Monday, head coach Sheldon Keefe got to tinkering, swapping Marner from his usual place alongside Matthews to the second line with Tavares and Tyler Bertuzzi while moving Nylander to the first-line wing to play with Matthews and Knies. Variations of these combinations aren’t historically unfamiliar, of course. But if the groupings hold, they’ll be unveiled for the first time this season in Tuesday’s home game against the Florida Panthers.

While Keefe said he was loathe to disrupt Nylander, who leads the team in scoring with 27 points, 10th in the league heading into Monday, he said Nylander’s pointless work in a pair of losses to Chicago and Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday opened the door to change.

“The timing was right,” Keefe said. “You don’t want to affect guys who are rolling and feeling good to boost other groups, but the time’s right for Willie himself. Since he got back from Sweden, I don’t think it’s gone as well for him.”

Said Matthews of the line juggling: “Sometimes a little change can help everybody. I just think with the way the weekend went, mixing things up isn’t the worst thing.”

Matthews acknowledged that the moments of on-ice magic he has previously created alongside Marner have lately come in lamentably scarce spurts. He identified the problem as occasional “disconnectivity.”

“Throughout games, it’s just too many highs and lows. It’s just the consistency of putting together shift after shift hasn’t been there as much as we want it,” Matthews said. “There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement. I don’t think we’ve quite reached the level of play, night after night, that we believe we’re capable of.”

Nobody would debate that last sentiment. With Game 20 on slate for Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers, the Leafs have an underwhelming five regulation-time wins to their name. Perhaps more alarmingly, they are 22nd in the league in goals-against per game. They’ve pieced together a decent record thanks in part to seven comeback wins, the second-highest total in the league, but they’re a long way from being a finely tuned machine playing lockdown hockey.

"To me, we've been hit and miss. There has been some inconsistency in our game, which is a little concerning,” said Treliving, who acknowledged his intention to improve the defensive corps on the trade market. “Through the first quarter, that would probably be my overwhelming feeling, is we’ve just got to become more consistent as a group."

Still, as veteran defenceman Mark Giordano was pointing out on Monday, we’ve seen a version of this movie before. Toronto is only a point off the pace they were setting last season at the 19-game mark. And the Leafs finished with 111 points last season.

“It doesn’t feel like we’ve gotten into a real groove yet … Four lines rolling, six (defencemen) playing, goalies playing well, everyone feeling that rhythm,” Giordano said. “We got into it around this time last year, so hopefully we can replicate that. We’ve had moments where we’ve been really good, and moments where we’ve been bad. But we haven’t had a sustained stretch where we can say, ‘We’re playing really well and we’re winning games,’ or ‘We’re playing really well but we’re not getting results.’ That’s what we have to focus on.”

One of the keys, Giordano said, is to stay positive.

“You can get in these modes where you start dwelling on negative things,” Giordano said. “We know we can be better. We know we’re not where we want to be. But we also still have to remember that, 20 games into the year, we’re not in a great spot but we’re in a pretty good spot. When we really took off last year is when we started bearing down, playing really tight defensively.”

To that end, Keefe said he sees the tide turning. Since Max Domi was moved to third-line centre eight games ago, Keefe pointed out that the club has looked more like it’s supposed to look. The underlying numbers at five-on-five have been better over those eight games. The Leafs are seventh in the league in scoring-chance percentage, up from 24th. They’re 15th in expected goals percentage, up from 23rd in the opening dozen games.

For all that, they’re a dismal 27th in save percentage over that stretch. They’ve been playing better defensively and too often not getting a save. Pick a position and you can identify a problem. Luckily for the Leafs, there’s plenty of season left to find the rhythm.





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