With the fan base’s faith in the team at a critical low following back-to-back losses in which the team conceded 12 goals, the Maple Leafs will face their toughest test of the season so far against the 4-0-0 Carolina Hurricanes (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
It’s only fitting that a remarkably awful early-season weekend for the Maple Leafs would be followed up by a Monday night contest against an undefeated team. To pile onto the disappointment, Leafs fans have been reminded early and often about Zach Hyman’s production in Edmonton as well as the fact that tonight’s starter for the Hurricanes, Frederik Andersen, has started all four of Carolina’s wins this season (4-0-0).
While he has a reputation as a slow starter, Andersen actually posted a cumulative 14-6-0 record when combining the first five games of his last four seasons in Toronto. However, there was usually a particularly rough four-plus goal against game mixed into his otherwise solid early-season results. Call me a hopeless optimist, but maybe tonight is that night.
Following up on the line blending that he performed during the Leafs 7-1 loss to a shorthanded Penguins team on Saturday, Sheldon Keefe will go with another new look tonight.
The coach’s shakeup will have Mitch Marner and William Nylander swapping places at five-on-five for the first time since before last year’s shortened season — Nylander will move back to Matthews’ wing and Marner back to Tavares’.
Of course, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander have, for some time, seen shifts together after a penalty kill, but there has been little intermingling outside of that in recent months. In last year’s 56 games, Nylander only played 51 minutes with Matthews at five-on-five compared to 563 minutes with Tavares. Similarly, Marner only played 122 minutes with Tavares last season and almost 750 with Matthews.
Ultimately, there are real arguments to be made for the legitimacy of either combination. There was an element of balance among the cemented pairings of last year — the team’s best passer (Marner) played with the team’s best shooter and goal scorer (Matthews), leaving the more dual-threat winger (Nylander) to play with the team’s defacto second-line center (Tavares). However, those pairings were flipped for most of Keefe’s successful initial run after taking over for Mike Babcock in November of 2019.
Perhaps the primary benefit of the switch is ultimately a simple one: get Matthews rolling by playing him with the team’s best offensive player through six games in Nylander.
Remaining in the top-six will be Michael Bunting, who now joins Matthews and Nylander, while Alex Kerfoot will move off of David Kampf’s line and join Tavares and Marner. Outside of that, Engvall will slot in with the Czechs David Kampf and Ondrej Kase, while the pointless Nick Ritchie moves down to join Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza.
Additionally, Travis Dermott will slot back into the lineup, replacing Timothy Liljegren.
There has, rightfully so, been a lot of talk about Nick Ritchie and his lack of contributions thus far. The fact remains, however, that Ritchie has played a lot of his most successful minutes at the NHL level alongside skilled offensive players, acting as a physical presence and net-front finisher who can make competent decisions in his limited touches of the puck. It remains to be seen how he’ll do against much easier competition, but it’s not a good sign that Ritchie has already been taken off Matthews’ wing, where he received ample offensive-zone deployment, and put onto the bottom line just six games into the season.
As mentioned, Frederik Andersen will make his fifth straight start for the Hurricanes as he looks to improve on an undefeated start and a .944 save percentage this season. For Toronto, while Petr Mrazek is traveling with the team, he isn’t close to a return just yet, meaning Jack Campbell will continue to carry the load for the time being. After a rare pull in Pittsburgh, Campbell is 2-1-1 on the season with a .916 save percentage.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the decision to change up the line combinations:
I just think, with where we’re at as a team, we need a different look just to change the chemistry a little bit.
Keefe on his view of the 7-1 loss and how the team has performed thus far:
We’re certainly below [expectations], but I think that the nature of the game the other night, with the blowout that it was and how it got away from us, you tend to overblow things. We’ve done a lot of good things as a team. The puck hasn’t gone in for us throughout the season as we would like.
Our game in Pittsburgh was unacceptable, especially from the time of their second goal [onwards]. Even if you go back to the San Jose game, there are some things we don’t like about the game, but ultimately we lose by a goal, and the scoring chances were 21-5.
We did some good things in our two home games the first week of the season, so we’ve played some good hockey here and it’s important that we don’t overblow what happened the other night. We’re aware of it, we know it’s unacceptable, and we’re expecting a response tonight. Yet, at the same time, I don’t think it’s indicative of where we are as a team.
Keefe on the Hurricanes’ success so far this season:
I think they’re continuing on what they’ve been doing over the last number of years. They’ve had a good thing going here — most of their team is intact [from last season]. They’ve added guys and made some changes along the way, but it’s a team that we know very well.
Of course, Dean Chynoweth is involved with our team now and is coming over here after the time he’s spent in Carolina helping build what they have here. We know they’re going to be structured and play very hard — they’re very aggressive in terms of how they play, and they have really good special teams, so everything about their team is looking good right now.
Keefe on Matthews’ progression since his return:
Again, last game is a bit of a throwaway for me in terms of assessing Auston because no one was really good in the final two periods of that game. From a conditioning standpoint, he says he’s feeling better. Obviously, in his first game, we thought was really good against New York, but he hasn’t been as good since.
Keefe on a tough few nights for the Muzzin-Holl pair:
Just two guys that haven’t played at the level that we’ve come to expect from them. Those guys take on a lot of tough assignments and it is difficult for them, but we’ve come to expect them to thrive in that position, and it hasn’t happened here yet.
They have a difficult job to do and when our team doesn’t have the structure that we require or that the league requires, it makes it a lot tougher on the defense and goaltenders. With everyone, we’re looking at [the team]. We’re not focusing on any individuals.
Auston Matthews on his relationship with Frederik Andersen:
There’s a lot. He’s a great guy. We’ve got a lot in common. Spending time with each other, we’re both pretty mellow, so it was nice to catch up with him yesterday. It’s going to be funny but also a lot of fun facing them tonight. It’s weird to see him in red colours instead of blue. Hopefully, he lets me sneak one or two past him.
He’s big, he takes up a lot of room in that net, and it’s not easy to get goals past him. Obviously, he’s gotten off to a really good start. With the way they play, they play with a lot of structure and a lot of pace, so we need to make sure we’re really focused tonight.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#20 Nick Ritchie – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Michael Amadio, Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek
Carolina Hurricanes Projected Lines
#80 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #20 Sebastian Aho – #86 Teuvo Teravainen
#37 Andrei Svechnikov – #16 Vincent Trocheck – #88 Martin Necas
#21 Nino Niederreiter – #11 Jordan Staal – #71 Jesper Fast
#48 Jordan Martinook – #18 Derek Stepan – #78 Steven Lorentz
#74 Jaccob Slavin – #77 Tony DeAngelo
#76 Brady Skjei – #22 Brett Pesce
#28 Ian Cole – #25 Ethan Bear
Starter: #31 Frederik Andersen
#32 Antti Raanta
Extras: Seth Jarvis, Brendan Smith