The mix is in with the Maple Leafs.
Coach Sheldon Keefe will continue to keep opponents – and everyone else – on high alert using the various line combinations and defence pairings on his depth chart.
He reversed course after an awful start to Monday’s game against the Islanders, reuniting John Tavares and William Nylander as well as Mitch Marner with Auston Matthews. The desired results were evident a 5-2 win, with those changes sticking through Tuesday’s practice.
“The way both lines responded, it was a good time to go back to that mix,” Keefe said ahead of Wednesday’s home game against the New York Rangers.
“The chemistry between the players is fine, no matter what you do, but it’s more about how the individuals are playing and monitoring it that way. I don’t look at it as a going stale sort of thing, you’re just looking for a little spark.
“Sometimes the lines don’t work and (a coach is preoccupied) looking at the line itself. We’re talking about elite players. When they’re playing well (such as Nylander’s four-point night versus the Isles), it doesn’t matter who they’re with.”
There is no doubt Matthews and Marner have magic, the former a Rocket Richard Trophy winner when Marner, a fellow all-star was feeding him all last season. But Marner had been setting many personal highs for points streaks this term as Tavares’s right winger, while Matthews had been scoring less, but playing better defence as Nylander’s centre.
That script flipped against the Isles, Nylander and Tavares recording six points together in one the captain’s best nights. Matthews had a big goal, though ironically Marner’s club record Scotiabank Arena points streak ended at 20 games.
“Last year Matthews and Marner were really rolling and we changed that up periodically,” Keefe reminded. “It’s important we keep that up and keep the players on their toes.
“That (ability to click with irregular linemates) is a really good sign for them and our team. That has been the difference. In previous years, maybe that takes three, four or five games to fix that and get it back going. This year, Willy in particular has been able to make that adjustment.”
That movable parts theory was also behind the call-up of Joey Anderson on Tuesday. It turned out he didn’t go on the Western Canadian road trip with the Marlies after their win in Laval on Saturday, but will replace Zach Aston-Reese on Wednesday on fourth line right wing with Pontus Holmberg and Alexander Kerfoot.
“We think Joey did a good job when he was here,” said Keefe of demoting Anderson a few games ago to work on his sniping and offensive playmaking. “He gives us a right shot in the bottom six. I think that for Reeser, his game has been a little inconsistent for me.
“Whether it’s Bobby McMann coming in (now a consistent third liner with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall) or a guy like Aston-Reese or (the recently demoted) Dryden Hunt and Holmberg … all these guys are in competition for their spots.
“You have some guys coming in pushing and showing they can help us.”
On defence, the two young Swedes were kept apart Tuesday as was the case after Monday’s first period, Timothy Liljegren now with Mark Giordano, Rasmus Sandin with Jordie Benn. It appears Conor Timmins might come out for Benn versus the Rangers.
“Similar to what’s happened at forward, we needed to shake it up,” Keefe said. “We’ve moved things around quite a bit each game because of (blueline) injuries.”
TJ Brodie is still a few days away from returning with a rib injury.
Netminder Ilya Samsonov, whose stellar work in the first two periods bought Toronto time to re-jig its lines, was given Tuesday off for light gym work. He has been gold at home, a record of 13-0-1 so far, likely playing Wednesday and then Sunday against Washington with Matt Murray facing his old Ottawa mates Friday as this five-game home stand rolls on.
“We’ve been asking a lot of him lately,” Keefe said of Samsonov. “But he’s feeling good and comfortable and playing every other day.”