The idea behind the Leafs signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million dollar contract in 2018 was simple: give the team two top-caliber lines that can play well against anybody on any night. Initially, the plan was for Tavares to play with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, while Auston Matthews would play with William Nylander and Patrick Marleau at even strength, but Tavares, Matthews and Marner would all join forces on a lethal top powerplay unit. Nylander’s contract negotiations threw a wrench in the even strength plans and the Leafs would eventually lose to Boston in seven games for the second straight year.
Fast-forward to the Toronto bubble last summer: Toronto is down 3-0 to Columbus in game 4 and is on the brink of elimination. Coach Sheldon Keefe puts Tavares, Matthews and Marner together to save the game and the series. The gambit worked and the Leafs mounted a monumental comeback and ended up taking the game in overtime. For the do-or-die game five, Keefe decided to start the game with a Tavares-Matthews-Marner (TMM for the sake of brevity) top line. The Leafs weren’t so lucky this time, and would get shutout 3-0 to lose the series. Fast-forward again to February 22 of this season, with Keefe trying the TMM line to start the game against Calgary. And what do you know? Leafs get shutout 3-0 (AGAIN!!!!). The line may work in spurts when the team is desperate for a goal or three, but is not built for regular deployment.
When John Tavares is regularly skating on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the previously mentioned advantage of having two top lines is effectively erased. If you look at most NHL teams, their forward deployments share a lot of similarities; a top line that can score almost every game, a second line that can chip in most games, and two bottom lines that coaches pray can get some production once in a while. Despite the small sample size, it’s still concerning that the Leafs got shutout both times they started the TMM line.
This begs the question, “why doesn’t the TMM line work?” Could there be a psychological aspect in play? For the Leafs (specifically Tavares, Matthews and Marner), there’s tremendous pressure to score when put together and it’s as if they’re on the lookout for that home run moment instead of playing their game and being patient. You might say, “well they’re all being paid more than 10 million per season, they should figure it out!” While in an ideal world, that would be nice, but we’re in a condensed season and it doesn’t make sense to focus on a “put all your eggs in one basket” scenario. And then there’s the other team’s point-of-view; for opposing teams, seeing those three together acts as a major challenge, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they see it as the Leafs saying, “we put our three best players together, what are you going to do about it?” Classic bulletin board material. On top of that, given the way most teams are built, it allows for some easier game-planning as you just have to worry about one dangerous line to match-up against and the trickle down effect makes the task of shutting out the other three a whole lot easier.
“What about William Nylander?” you may ask. While Nylander is extremely skilled, you’d be hard-pressed to find many experts that would say that he can carry a line, and it’s even tougher given that the Leafs have a lack of other scoring top-six forwards. I love Zach Hyman as much as the next guy, but he’s there to complement the high-end skill on the team by grinding in the corners and doing a lot of the dirty work. He doesn’t have the high-end puck skills to be a dependable top-six scoring forward. Could Nylander play with Joe Thornton and be a productive line? Maybe, but Sheldon Keefe has been sheltering Thornton from big minutes and likely wouldn’t play during all of Nylander’s even strength shifts, so this wouldn’t be an optimal solution. In any case, when Nylander has been put on a line away from centres John Tavares or Auston Matthews, he’ll usually get the puck in the offensive zone, controls the puck along the outside looking for an open pass, but nothing seems to open up. Not ideal given that second lines in the NHL have to be productive on most nights.
The Leafs have a couple of prospects in the pipeline that could help massage this issue down the road. Nick Robertson has looked pretty good to start this season down with the Marlies and could be a regular in the Leafs lineup as early as some point this season. 2020 first round pick Rodian Amirov is still a while away from even making his NHL debut. According to the rumor mill, Toronto is in the market to shore up their forward group with another left-handed top-six forward, and the name that’s been coming up is Nashville’s Mikael Granlund. Of course, this wouldn’t be an immediate answer as Granlund would have to quarantine for 14 days before being able to join his teammates. Besides the fact that none of these players offer immediate help, there’s the possibility that (however unlikely) none of the options turn out as intended and it leaves the conversation about stacking your first line moot anyways.
The key for the Leafs this season has been their balance up and down the lineup. Even on the powerplay, the Leafs have gone for the balanced approach more often than not, splitting the talent relatively evenly. Sometimes they will have a powerhouse unit featuring John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, but that’s usually saved for key situations. There’s a time and place for stacking your top line, but that’s a card that should be saved for the most desperate situations. Ever since Brendan Shanahan took over as team president in 2014, this team has been all about keeping their cards close to their chest. So why not save that extremely valuable card for the situation that absolutely demands it?