All new line combinations are in store for the Maple Leafs tonight as they host the Anaheim Ducks for their first game at Scotiabank Arena since January 5th (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet 360/East/Pacific).

In attempting to establish more balance, options, and matchup headaches throughout his top nine, Sheldon Keefe is trying to learn from recent history and avoid these kinds of situations come playoff time:

  • Back in 2020, with the Leafs struggling to score, Keefe threw together a Tavares-Matthews-Marner super line and asked Nylander to center his own line — for the first time that season — in an elimination Game 5 vs. Columbus. The Leafs were shut out.
  • Against Montreal in 2021, they encountered a key injury down the middle (Tavares), Alex Kerfoot stepped into the 2C spot, and the bottom six was basically an offensive black hole, making the Leafs a two-line team whose top line was then shut down late in the series. They were shut out in Game 7 (aside from one garbage-time goal).

Now, it’s one thing to experiment; it’s another to stick with it if there are growing pains tonight. Keefe’s media address yesterday was promising in that he seemed to understand the need to stick with this configuration for an appreciable length of time if he is going to get anything meaningful out of it.

The other reason for optimism is that none of these lines are totally new. Tavares-Marner is a duo that has spent loads of time together, including Tavares and Marner’s career seasons in 2018-19; Mikheyev also played a number of games on their wing before his wrist injury in 2019-20. Kerfoot and Nylander have been a consistent duo, while Kase and Matthews have shown promise together before injuries and Covid sidelined Kase.

Against the 21-16-7 Anaheim Ducks tonight, the Leafs aren’t up against a world-beating opponent by any stretch, but they’re no pushover and they’ve won a couple in a row (over TB and Boston). The Leafs have had a run of practice time to prepare the new lines for game action. As we inch towards the midway point of the season, it’s as good of a time as any to experiment.

In addition to the aforementioned Kase’s return to the lineup, Justin Holl will finally return from Covid protocol and is expected to play on a pairing with Rasmus Sandin. In net, Jack Campbell is looking to get his season back on track after a small dip in his numbers of late — his .866 over his last four starts is his worst stretch since mid-April 2021 when he posted a .837 over a 1-2-1 skid.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the Anaheim Ducks’ young skill and whether there are parallels to the Leafs of a few years ago:

There has definitely been a shift that has allowed their young guys to take a hold on their team and their progression has really changed with the overall skill, ability to play in transition, the speed that they have, the finishing ability, and the creativity. Zegras gets a lot of attention, but they have a lot of other guys as well.

There is also their defense, in particular, with the speed and skill they have to join the rush and be in the attack. Having more forwards that play that way with their offense is connected with their D and them being involved. With that progression of their young guys, from my perspective on it,  there seems to be a shift in how their team plays.

That is not unlike what has happened in some ways here over the years. I think there are some parallels there.

Keefe on how David Kampf’s usage might change with Kampf apart from Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev:

It’ll change a little bit. I think you’ll see me move things around to ensure that he is still getting the d-zone starts that I’d like him to have. At times, he will come off of that line when there are o-zone faceoffs and things of that nature. We will move things around there.

He is a valuable player for us no matter where we have had him in the lineup or who we have played him with. Especially in games where we have the lead, his minutes get up there because we trust him. He does a lot of good things.

We have now put Mikheyev, Engvall, and Kampf on three different lines as well. There is a ton of focus on Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander, but having Mikheyev, Kampf, and Engvall — with how well they have played — on three different lines adds a lot. Those guys have really established play for us. We have started them in each game [of late] and in each period because they have gone out and established our game for us.

Kampf has that ability. He has done a lot of really good things there to go out and play a very straightforward game. At the same time, he is underrated with his ability to move the puck up the ice, make plays, and distribute the puck to his wingers.

I am anxious to see that, but in terms of his actual deployment — faceoffs, and things of that nature — I don’t think it will be too out of whack from what we have seen.

Keefe on Ondrej Kase and Justin Holl’s return to the lineup:

The feedback has been positive. They’ve had a couple of days in a row to skate. Playing a game here today is a natural progression for them.

They’re anxious and excited to play. It is going to take time for them to get back. It takes a little bit of time to get back into it, as we have seen. They were able to be active and do some different things after five or six days in Arizona. They were cleared to start training and working out. It has just taken longer for them to travel, get back to Canada, and all of those kinds of things.

They have been more active than a lot of our previous Covid cases were, just not necessarily on the ice.

Hampus Lindholm on John Gibson’s play this season:

All year, he has been unreal. Every player, every goalie has ups and downs here and there, but year in and year out for us and game in and game out, there is nothing you can complain about with his play. He has been really hot for us lately. He has been helping us win games against really good teams.

Ryan Getzlaf on the Ducks’ embrace of a “feisty” identity:

We did a lot of similar things to when we played Tampa. When you get things rolling in the right direction, you play the same way; it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We came out with a little bit of an “in your face” attitude. That doesn’t mean you run over people. It just means you are playing up and taking away space the whole time.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #25 Ondrej Kase
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kampf – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin  – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek

Extras: Kyle Clifford, Nick Ritchie, Alex Biega
Injured: Jake Muzzin (concussion)

Anaheim Ducks Projected Lines

#46 Trevor Zegras – #15 Ryan Getzlaf – #67 Rickard Rakell
#44 Max Comtois – #23 Sam Steel – #19 Troy Terry
#28 Vinni Lettieri – #21 Isac Lundestrom – #33 Jakob Silfverberg
#20 Nicolas Deslauriers – #39 Sam Carrick – #53 Buddy Robinson

#4 Cam Fowler – #22 Kevin Shattenkirk
#47 Hampus Lindholm – #34 Jamie Drysdale
#86 Simon Benoit – #29 Greg Pateryn

Starter: #36 John Gibson
#41 Anthony Stolarz

Injured/Out: Max Jones, Adam Henrique, Sonny Milano, Derek Grant
COVID-19 protocol: Josh Manson