We’ll have to wait and see how long it lasts, but Monday night’s loss to Colorado appears to have spurred Mike Babcock’s line blender into action – at least on the road.
#Tmltalk lineup at practice
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander
Marleau – Kadri – MARNER
JVR – Bozak – Brown
KOMAROV – MOORE – KAPANEN
Gardiner – Hainsey
Dermott – Carrick
Borgman – Polak
— Dave McCarthy (@DaveAMcCarthy) January 23, 2018
Babcock said he's only separating Komarov and Kadri on the road; they'll be back together at home: "I’m looking to have more balance and more attack, especially on the road when I don’t have last change."
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 23, 2018
Tuesday’s news of Kasperi Kapanen’s recall and a line shakeup came the morning after Babcock was clearly perturbed that his team lost a winnable game despite a great effort from its top six. Auston Matthews’ line was simply dominant, while the shutdown line did a bang-up job on one of the best lines in the NHL, forcing Nathan MacKinnon to play on defence for significant portions of the game and outscoring them 1-0 in that matchup. The bottom end of the lineup – up front and on the blue line – didn’t pull its weight, though, and the Avs ultimately won despite getting outplayed thanks to some depth contributions from Nail Yakupov, Gabriel Borque, Alex Kerfoot, JT Compher and Blake Comeau.
We’re trying to get quicker with a lot more depth, obviously. That’s what you’re trying to do. Any time you’re not winning as much as you’d like to win… Like I said, last night I think we played well. We did lots of good things. But as I looked through the tape, we weren’t dangerous enough in the offensive zone. We had the puck all the time, but we weren’t dangerous enough. We just look at what we can do. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, so it’s not like it’s a spur of a moment thing.
It’s just for the road. He’ll be right back at home. Leo played great last night. That line was really good for us. I like Leo there because he gives Naz a tightening about 10 times a game just to keep him in line. We’ll see how it goes in Chicago, but at home, they’re going to play together anyway. But I’m looking to have more balance and attack, especially on the road, where I don’t have last change. We’ve got to try something new. We’ve changed our lines a ton because of injuries when Matty was hurt, but we haven’t changed them since Matty came back that often.
– Mike Babcock after practice on Tuesday
What Babcock is talking about above is something that’s been apparent for the better part of the last two months as the team’s scoring rates have steadily declined. Earlier in the season and throughout much of last year, the team was highly dangerous inside the offensive zone – creating something out of nothing, constantly buzzing, putting pucks on and crashing the net, typically with three lines going offensively (and later four with Brian Boyle added and Kapanen recalled). There is no denying team has lost some of its edge and creativity offensively in the last month especially. They’ve come to rely more heavily on the Matthews unit for even-strength offense, in addition to the issues with their declining power play.
While it remains to be seen how long they last, the new line combinations come as a breath of fresh air for a team that’s collected just nine points in nine games in January while scoring just 18 goals (27th in the NHL).
Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner on the ice together isn’t something we’ve seen much of – just 33 5v5 minutes total this season — but it’s an interesting match on paper. Kadri will go from playing next to a left-handed winger playing his off wing in Komarov — who has played better recently but has largely struggled offensively this season — to a natural right-winger and skilled creator in Marner, who plays the game at a similar pace.
In general, it has been long overdue to have Marner play inside the team’s top nine away from JVR and Bozak. When it comes to Marner’s development, his placement on that line has not been ideal when it comes to habit-forming defensively, and the offense also just hasn’t been the same as last year. Marner has had more than his fair share of iffy moments defensively this season, and hasn’t taken care of the puck as well as he should at times, but he will be insulated next to a pair of veterans who are strong over 200 feet in Kadri and Marleau.
Next to Marner and Marleau, Kadri, who has just two points in his last 20 games, will be flanked by the most offensive skill he’s had on his wings in a long time. It’s important that the Leafs get him going again down the stretch – Kadri’s on pace for 43 points in 79 games this season, which is actually a slower points-per-pace than his output in his snake-bitten 2015-16 season.
Kadri has done a good job in the matchup role in the big picture, but heavy defensive zone starts, tough competition and the same linemates — one of which is largely just a grinder at this stage — can become stale over time. It’s easy to slip into a scoring coma in those circumstances.
Calling Kapanen up into the NHL lineup next to Moore and Komarov is a long overdue move that, at least on paper, takes the Leafs from having a poor fourth line to one of the better-looking ones in the league just with a flip of the switch. The big surprise teams of the 2017-18 season so far, the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights (who both beat the Leafs recently), are good examples of the value of speed up and down the lineup and the lack of drop-off from lines one through four – they just keep coming in waves. Kasperi Kapanen is an asset toward that end, and the Leafs have no excuse not to be doing the same kind of thing with the depth at their disposal up front, particularly in an upcoming back-to-back situation.
Bozak, JVR and Brown has not been a perfect match from what we’ve seen of it so far – in 168 5v5 minutes together over the past two seasons, they’ve controlled 56% of the shot attempts but have been outscored 10-7. But Brown does help JVR and Bozak out by providing a defensive conscience and work ethic on that line, at the very least.
Of course, we’ll have to see for how long these lines hold tomorrow in Chicago and then into Dallas on Thursday. It’s very possible that Leo Komarov will return to his usual spot at the first sign of trouble; Babcock has already suggested that he’ll return to his familiar shutdown line back at home. We’ll also have to see how long Matt Martin remains a healthy scratch, if he does indeed sit on this road trip.
But for a team that has been punching well below its weight offensively going on two months now, these kinds of new ideas were long overdue.