After Monday night’s loss to the Islanders, a frustrated Sheldon Keefe remarked on the matchup game against the Mathew Barzal line, mentioning that the Islanders leaned on their top line so much it made him play his own just as frequently.

Keefe specifically mentioned that the Barzal line was having its way in the matchups when Matthews wasn’t on the ice, so he ended up playing his top line just as much as Patrick Roy did his top line to the tune of 24-25 minutes in total time-on-ice for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews by the end of the night.

Keefe’s point that the mismatches of Barzal’s line vs. other Leafs forward lines were so unfavourable to the team that it left him with no other options is a specious one. It leaves out the other options on the table in terms of the team’s line and matchup configuration. The lack of imagination, in part, hamstrings a team that should be using its relative strength at forward to create matchup dilemmas for the opposition as opposed to reacting to the other coach’s game plan (on home ice, to boot).

It is true that the team was without a trusted depth center in David Kampf and a trusted middle-six winger in Calle Jarnkrok against the Islanders, but this occurrence is not a one-off or a new development under this head coach, either, and to pretend he wouldn’t have followed the same playbook with those two healthy and in the lineup seems pretty naive at this point based on the history.

I don’t want to get overly bogged down in the minutiae of Monday night’s game; the Leafs could’ve won it a dozen different ways with a little more puck luck, a little better finishing, or one fewer untimely gifts to the opposition. Realistically, though, how Keefe configures his lines gave him little choice but to match up Matthews with Barzal more or less shift for shift (did his other lines dictate it for him, or did he create the situation himself?).

Big picture, I often come back to this one simple fact about this team’s construction: There are four $11+ million forwards on the Leafs’ roster (once Nylander’s new contract kicks in). It is a unique and unprecedented cap/roster structure. I am not going to debate whether a team can win a Stanley Cup when it’s built in this manner in a hard-cap system (although this is a legitimate subject of debate, one that has raged on for many years in this market and will continue unabated unless/until the Leafs win it all). I will suggest that with this model in mind, there is less reason for the head coach to always — almost exclusively — group all four of them onto two lines.

All of the top teams in the league also have elite forwards, but the Leafs are investing $45+ million into four of them, leaving the Leafs with few cap dollars to invest in their depth lines relative to the rest of the league. The coach’s current approach partly hampers the relative strength (or competitive advantage) the team is designed to leverage over its opposition.

It would be one thing if Matthews-Marner was so dominant this season at five-on-five — i.e. tilting the ice routinely — that it would be borderline malpractice to spread it out for any length of time. But this has not been the case this season, at least not in the marquee matchups (as seen recently against Colorado and Edmonton, and they also didn’t produce a single five-on-five goal in either game against the Jets or in the matchup against the Canucks).

The following questions should be asked:

Is Auston Matthews good enough to play with Jarnkrok (for example) instead of Marner on his right wing and still control the run of play over 200 feet against good players? The soon-to-be highest-paid player in the league certainly should be able to.

Is Mitch Marner capable of exploiting secondary matchups on a line with Max Domi while supporting his former junior teammate defensively? For $11 million, Marner certainly should be able to.

Ultimately, why isn’t the coach more open to at least trying to manufacture three credible lines capable of causing matchup headaches for the opposition — i.e. use the four $11+ million forwards at his disposal to try to elevate more of the supporting cast on the team? We can debate the quality of Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi’s individual performance levels this season, but the GM did invest more in the supporting forward cast this past offseason, and it’s on Keefe to exhaust every possibility to maximize the talent at his disposal.

There are plenty of situations within games — and even for stretches of games at a time — where turning to a more “loaded up” look makes complete sense, but by this point, it’s become fairly “one note” and predictable. We can all understand why Keefe leans on this tried-and-tested approach so much. It’s worked for him in the regular season and seems to be his most bankable route to racking up 105+ points. And if we’re honest, Keefe is probably less likely to experiment than ever with the playoff picture a little too tight for comfort.

But this is the mark of a coach securing a safe “floor” for the team without exploring its true ceiling or upside. Additionally, when it comes to the postseason and the team’s under-performance in the spring, the need for three effective lines is very clear as Anthony Petrielli has exhaustively laid out in his research and analysis:

Look at the Cup Finalists this past year.

Vegas runs three pairs of Jack Eichel – Jonathan Marchessault, Chandler Stephenson – Mark Stone, and William Karlsson – Rielly Smith. Florida spreads out three of their most talented forwards in Aleksander Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk, and Sam Reinhart across three lines.

When Tampa Bay won their Cups, they rolled Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli – Steven Stamkos, and Yanni Gourde – Blake Coleman. When Stamkos barely played in their first Cup year, Cirelli was flanked by Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson.

In Tampa’s Stanley Cup Final series, they played a Dallas team that rolled Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin on one line, Joe Pavelski – (a then promising) Denis Gurianov (who produced 17 points in 27 games that playoffs), and Roope Hintz – Corey Perry on another line.

The Habs ran the Philip Danault – Brendan Gallagher shutdown line, the Nick Suzuki – Cole Caufield line, and Jeperi Kotkaniemi – Josh Anderson on their third line.

In 2019, Boston trotted out the “perfect” line followed by Jake DeBruk – David Krejci and Charlie Coyle – Marcus Johansson. They lost in the finals to the Blues, who ran Jaden Schwartz – Brayden Schenn – Vladimir Tarasenko on one line, Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron on the next, and Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas (or even Ivan Barbashev and Alex Steen).

The only notable outlier is the Colorado Avalanche, who we could argue have similarities to the Leafs on the surface in terms of their top-heavy construction. However, once we dig in deeper, there’s no real comparison to be made.

Colorado’s top-six forwards played between 21:25 per game (Nathan MacKinnon) and 17:07 (Artturi Lehkonen). JT Compher was next at 13:40, and his five goals and eight points led their bottom six in scoring.  The Avalanche truly rode their horses in big minutes, and they delivered. The difference is that they have always shown themselves capable of it whereas the Leafs’ stars haven’t come close to matching that level so far. None of the Leafs’ top four players are over a point per game in the playoffs. The closest is Mitch Marner with 47 through 50 career playoff games.

In Colorado, Nathan MacKinnon has 100 playoff points in 77 career games. He has never paced below a point per game through seven playoff appearances. Other than four points in six playoff games in his first playoff appearance, Mikko Rantanen has been over a point per game in every playoff appearance of his career. He has 87 playoff points in 70 career playoff games. Even still, Cale Makar was the one leading their team in playoff scoring when they won the Cup, and he’s arguably (almost certainly) the best defenseman in the league.

We can’t compare the Leafs to this Avalanche model; they don’t have the top-end talent on defense, nor has their top-end forward talent come close to producing at the playoff rate of Colorado’s stars.

Maybe one day the Leafs’ top players will unequivocally prove that they can log monster minutes while playing together and deliver big in the spring, but they haven’t proven it to this point, and the Leafs need to look at the situation with fresh eyes.

To be fair to Keefe, looking at the relative inexperience on the team’s left wing, there is definitely an argument to be made that Brad Treliving needs to bolster the forward group with one more credible veteran two-way player who could plug into multiple spots within the team’s top nine as needed. Giving Nick Robertson, Matthew Knies, and Pontus Holmberg the runway to develop in the league has been a worthwhile pre-deadline exercise (before Treliving spends any valuable assets to shore up the group), but it naturally brings with it learning curves and somewhat limits the options at the coach’s disposal when it comes to the tougher matchups.

It’s never as simple as blaming it all on the coach — and there is only so much he can do about the state of the blue line at the moment, in particular — but in addition to the many questions I asked about his playoff approach after last year’s postseason exit, it’s fair to wonder if Sheldon Keefe has his group punching below its weight in the regular season for the first time in his coaching tenure.

The Leafs will likely still be fine as far as playoff qualification is concerned this year, but having already locked in two members of the core four to massive new contracts eating up an even greater percentage of the cap, the possible limitations of the coach’s current approach should be a major open question for Brad Treliving to consider in the coming weeks and months.