With three new forward lines on tap, the Maple Leafs are looking to break out of their offensive slumber at five-on-five against the 2-7-0 San Jose Sharks, who are dead last in the league in goals per game (10:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
Sheldon Keefe is shaking up three of his four forward lines tonight while leaving his two big duos of Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner and John Tavares – William Nylander intact. In the media, Keefe has stressed patience for allowing the big guns the time to work through their slow starts at even strength — one goal for Marner and Matthews each, zero for Tavares at evens — based on their chance generation numbers, while demanding more offense out of his bottom six.
In the spirit of sparking more depth offense, the bottom six will now include Denis Malgin on the right side, Calle Jarnkork at center ice, and Michael Bunting moved down onto their left wing. Alex Kerfoot will shift up next to Matthews and Marner, while Zach Aston-Reese rejoins the lineup on a fourth line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall.
Engvall and Kampf were each other’s most common linemate last season (552 minutes of shared 5v5 ice time), and the pair won their minutes handily to the tune of outscoring the opposition 15-9 at 5v5 and breaking even in shots, shot attempts, and expected goals despite a heavy defensive tilt to their deployment.
Ilya Mikheyev often drove the offensive piece for that line with his 21 goals in 53 games, although Engvall scored 15 of his own and Kampf scored 11; if they can rekindle their chemistry from last season, the combination of speed, size/length, and defensive work ethic made it hard on the opposition to create much on the ice while leading to notable contributions at the other end.
As for Kerfoot’s history with Matthews and Marner, there isn’t much history to go on there with just 42 minutes of shared 5v5 ice time over the last three seasons, but the coaching staff clearly views Kerfoot as a stress-free swiss-army knife type of player who can reliably slot in just about anywhere in the lineup.
Tonight’s third line features a totally new mix of players, and it will be the first time in a long time that we’ll be able to evaluate Bunting away from the Matthews-Marner duo (perhaps the coaching staff has been reading Anthony Petrielli’s recent work). Bunting started last season on a line with Kerfoot and Nylander — later Tavares and Nylander when Auston Matthews returned from his wrist injury — but quickly ascended onto the top line (by game seven of the regular season) and never looked back after Nick Ritchie failed to gain traction in the Leafs‘ lineup.
In net, Erik Källgren will start his second game of the season as the Leafs load manage Ilya Samsonov in the early going (Samsonov is also said to be not 100% due to an illness). His first start was the Leafs‘ loss to Arizona, so he will face another struggling team with poor offensive numbers tonight while hoping for a better effort from the team in front of him. That said, the Sharks clearly have a more formidable group of scorers in their top six than the Coyotes, and the likes of Timo Meier (zero goals), Tomas Hertl (one goal) and Logan Couture (two goals) are all off to uncharacteristically slow starts to their seasons.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Sharks:
They have been in every game. Every game has been tight that they have played. They haven’t gotten on the right side of it as much as they would want to, I am sure, but they have been in every game. Our expectation is that it is going to be a close hockey game. We have to be ready for that.
They have a very good penalty kill — an elite penalty kill that is as good as you’re going to see in the league both in the stats they are showing here, but even prior to the season, they have always been a very good penalty kill. It looks good on tape as well — very aggressive with lots of pressure. Our power play is going to have to be sharp there.
They have good players. If you are not sharp and are not doing a good job defensively, they have some guys there that are looking to come alive as well just as we are. We have to be really diligent there defensively.
We need to come and play our game here. We still haven’t settled in. Winnipeg was close, but it still was not at the level we would expect from our group. We are trying to get there on this trip.
Sharks head coach David Quinn on his message to his team after losing seven of nine and only scoring 17 goals so far:
We need to continue to manage the puck. One of the things that has happened to us is our mentality off of the rush. Our offense has to be created below the hashmarks, even off of the rush. That doesn’t mean that you don’t create offense above the hashmarks, but your mentality has to be that way.
What will be a product of that is that you will be able to make more plays inside the blue line because you are driving and you’ll turn the puck over less. When we get pucks right now, too often, we are looking to make plays that are not there instead of establishing a pace and a mindset of getting below the hashmarks.
As you are driving and driving, you eventually start pushing people back, and now there is space where you can cross and drop or make plays inside the blue line. That is something we talked about and addressed in practice. It has to be the basis of our mentality on the initial rush.
The other thing I would like to see more of is earned ice. Just because a guy is standing near you, don’t say, “He can defend me.” Make him defend you. Just because someone is there and the net is behind him, doesn’t mean you don’t try to get there. Go through him. Don’t go around him. Go through him.
Keefe on Mitch Marner’s low shot totals through seven games:
I haven’t gone back and looked at it, but if I recall correctly, I don’t think he was hitting the net much at this time of year last year, either. Sometimes, things just take a little while to settle in and find that groove. The hope is that the success he had last season [shooting more] would carry over. I am sure he will get there.
As to why it hasn’t happened, you have to give some credit to the teams that are defending both him and Auston. When those guys come into a game, the other team is prepared and does not want to be embarrassed. They get the absolute best from the opponent.
There are some adjustments that can be made there, but really, for me, those guys just have to stay with it and find their rhythm and groove. Once that happens, we will see a lot of those same trends we last saw season come together.
Keefe on the decision to start Erik Källgren tonight:
It is a combination of keeping him active and involved but also managing Samsonov. It is not an easy road trip for a goaltender in particular. He has already gotten two games on the trip. He has been a little under the weather throughout the trip, so there is that to manage, too.
We are definitely going to need Källgren on this trip because of the back-to-back. It is a way to get him into another game and manage Samsonov at the same time.
Keefe on the performance of his defense pairs on the road trip so far:
The Vegas game is fresh on the mind, and none of the pairs were very good in that game. We look at Winnipeg, and it was pretty good all the way through. It is a work in progress there for those guys to get comfortable with one another.
Also, while we have some new pairs there, we have some different players that are playing in different situations as a result of Muzzin being out and Liljegren as well. You have some different things happening that the guys are adjusting to.
Certainly, the Winnipeg game was encouraging. That is more of what we expect from the group.
Mitch Marner on playing with Alex Kerfoot tonight and what the line needs to do to breakthrough offensively:
[Kerfoot] has the speed and the skill, too. We want some good o-zone time. We can’t waste our opportunities to attack the net. We can’t sit back and hold onto the puck. But Kerf has a lot of skill. I have played with him a couple of times, and he has a great IQ out there.
Marner on the challenge the Sharks present:
A lot of speed. They come at you quickly and fast. They work off of turnovers through the neutral zone and can counter on you quickly. They have some skilled guys over there that can make plays. For us, it is making sure we are in our system, staying above, and making it hard to get through us.
Nick Robertson on where he’s feeling the bumps and bruises as he adjusts to the NHL grind:
Both my shoulders [are sore] from taking hits and giving hits for sure. I had never had my shoulders sore from a game before — only from workouts.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#58 Michael Bunting – #19 Calle Järnkrok – #62 Denis Malgin
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #98 Victor Mete
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#35 Ilya Samsonov
Injured: Kyle Clifford, Jake Muzzin, Matt Murray, Timothy Liljegren, Jordie Benn
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel
San Jose Sharks Projected Lines
#28 Timo Meier – #48 Tomas Hertl – #10 Evgeny Svechnikov
#83 Matthew Nieto – #39 Logan Couture – #94 Alexander Barabanov
#23 Oskar Lindblom – #7 Nico Sturm – #11 Luke Kunin
#73 Noah Gregor – #16 Steven Lorentz – #62 Kevin Labanc
Note: Nick Bonino is a game-time decision*
#24 Jaycob Megna – #65 Erik Karlsson
#44 Marc-Edouard Vlasic – #5 Matt Benning
#38 Mario Ferraro – #51 Radim Simek
Starter: #36 Kaapo Kahkonen
#47 James Reimer
Injured: Nick Bonino*, Markus Nutivaara, Nikolai Knyzhov