By Stan Smith
There’s been a Toronto Maple Leafs’ debate about how to deploy the “Big Four” to get the best results. Thus far this season, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has favoured playing Auston Matthews mostly with William Nylander. Previously, for example, last season, he’d kept Matthews with Mitch Marner.
So what’s the right answer? How should Matthews be deployed? Is it better if he plays with Nylander or Marner? The answer is – we think – that the Maple Leafs should play Matthews with both Nylander and Marner.
The Beginning of the Change This Season
In the Maple Leafs’ 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins just a week ago (on January 14), head coach Sheldon Keefe shook up the lines in the third period, reuniting Auston Matthews with Mitch Marner, and William Nylander with John Tavares. It didn’t take long to return a dividend as Matthews scored to tie the game up at three at 3:17 of the period with assists from Marner and Michael Bunting.
He’s been using that same strategy since – well, off and on.
The move has re-started a debate as to whether or not Keefe should keep Marner with Matthews and Nylander with Tavares or go back to the Matthews/Nylander and Tavares/Marner pairings.
Our answer to that question is a resounding………….. Yes (to both).
Reasons Why Coach Keefe Should Play Matthews & Marner Together Sometimes
Keefe should do both. For several reasons.
#1: It is the sport’s nature that things go sour after a while if left stagnant. Line combinations run hot and cold. Changing things up keeps things fresh.
#2 It makes it harder to defend against. No two players play the game exactly the same. Each of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander has his own style of play, his own strengths, and weaknesses. Switching the combinations up, be it often or not, makes it more difficult for the opposing coaches to come up with a game plan to counteract them.
#3 Matthews and Marner are the top two players on this team. Putting them together puts the two best eggs in the same basket. Splitting them up spreads the talent out over two lines. One option gives the Maple Leafs a concentrated attack, and the other a more balanced attack.
#4 It gives each player more of a chance to play with the other three and to get used to their nuances, and style of play.
Reasons Why Coach Keefe Should Play Matthews with Nylander (Too)
So yes, Keefe should play Marner, at times, with both Matthews and Tavares. The same with Nylander.
Taking that one step further there are times during the game when Keefe should load his lines up more. There are occasions when he does that, at the very end of a period or coming off of successful penalty kills. Keefe should do it every chance he gets.
Teams know when the advertisement timeouts are coming up. We should see Mattews on the ice with Tavares and Marner or Nylander with Marner just before those timeouts even if it means changing on the fly.
Seeing as Marner kills penalties, we should see Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander on the ice following every penalty kill.
Getting back to the idea of making it difficult for the opposing team to defend, if Keefe were to start a game with Marner with Tavares, and then at some point switch Marner to Matthews’ line, and then maybe switch them back again, it is bound to create some havoc with the opposing coaches game plan.
There aren’t many teams in the NHL that have four players that score at a point-a-game pace or higher. The Maple Leafs are one of them. They need to take advantage of that.