How the Leafs’ 11-forward experiment is working out
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was going to use the last quarter of the season to experiment with optimal line combinations after a hyperactive trade deadline, while the team’s playoff opponent was effectively confirmed within a few weeks.
There was some trial and error, but when Ryan O’Reilly broke his finger on March 4, it forced Keefe to try some new spreads faster than expected.
Keefe’s decision to use an 11-forward-seven-defense formation instead of the traditional 12-forward-six-defense formation caused some consternation among some fans, but presumably for the majority.
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“Through this, we can find that we can be better at 11 and 7,” Keefe told reporters after a Monday morning meeting. “I think it’s important that we don’t get locked up at 12 and 6.
“We have a lot more depth in defense than ever. We also have more opportunities for strikers, so we have more guys who can take on more responsibility. While 12 and six is the most comfortable situation, it may not be the best. It’s important that we give it some time and be very smart about how we handle the rest of the journey.”
Here’s a deeper look at how Keefe’s recent experiments have worked so far.
Mitch Marner and William Nylander seem to be the main figures
Mitch Marner and William Nylander have been the Maple Leafs’ top picks this season and have consistently been expected to lead the game on whatever line they’re on. When I asked Keefe after a 4-2 loss to the Sabres on Monday about the idea of his star wingers taking on additional defensive responsibility in an 11-hitter format, he completely dismissed the premise. telling me that I think too much about it.
It got me thinking – Keefe obviously understands his team and hockey in general much better than I do – but maybe we don’t agree with what we see on the ice.
Toronto set up an 11F-7D alignment on Saturday night against the Oilers, where Marner and Nylander put in outstanding performances. Alexander Kerfoot remained in the top line with Marner and Auston Matthews and they controlled 85 percent of expected goals in 5-on-5 matches. There were some concerns about Kerfoot’s form – it’s possible he will be a filler until Michael Bunting regains his form at the start of the season — but he was superb defensively, and his world-class speed provides another element for the work of his two superstar linemates.
Marner shows the best hockey in his career. He leads the NHL in rushing and plays sassy. Everyone saw his spectacular goal against the Oilers, where he hit Ryan McLeod and then knocked Stuart Skinner out of his pads. But even when his attempts do not lead to goals, it should still scare the hell out of opponents. One example is a cross pass over outstanding Buffalo defenseman Owen Power.
The Marner-Matthews tandem is arguably the best two-man game in the NHL. Even when it doesn’t result in a goal, Marner’s otherworldly playstyle allows the current Heart Trophy winner to continue offense and continue to create chances with his speed, frame and the threat of his versatile wrist shot.
Nylander has arguably taken on more responsibility than any other 11F forward. He has been placed on both wings and is capable of playing in the center, although the Maple Leafs have not yet resorted to this. He was asked to lead the line alongside Sam Lafferty and Kalle Jarnkrok against the Devils and Oilers before being placed alongside Bunting and John Tavares on Monday. There has to be someone who gets extra minutes and uneven lines in an 11-hitter format, and it is Nylander who is subject to the most spread among his linemates, a testament to his all-round prowess this year.
The hallmark of a superstar is the ability to make his linemates better, and like Marner, this was evident with Nylander throughout the season. He can score impressive individual goals, beating Rasmus Dahlin with muscle, he is dangerous on the powerplay, but perhaps most importantly, he beat Lafferty and Yarnkrock in two games with two assists in a 4-3 win over the Devils.
He agreed to play with two lower linemates without any complaints, and he has shown an innate ability to create attacks no matter who he is paired with. This will pay off when O’Reilly returns, allowing Nylander to focus on playing with Tavares in the first place.
Auston Matthews’ all-round superiority comes into full force
Last week we explored how Matthews improved and regressed in various aspects of the game. Good news for Maple Leafs fans: the long-awaited offensive burst is in full swing, and Matthews is back in top form in the final stretch of the regular season.
Matthews is an underrated playmaker and he clearly dominates the transition period. He was one of the catalysts for the explosion in the second period against the Oilers, setting up John Tavares for a 2-on-1 that nearly brought the whole house down.
We also compared Matthews to Steph Curry because of his gravity effect – the notion that he creates space for others because they are so worried about his toss – and it happened again on Monday. In this play, Marner digs the puck around the corner and finds Yarnkrok, who is finishing his shift. Matthews flies up the ice, and the Sabers rightfully have their full attention on him as he crashes into a key spot, waiting for a pass. Jarncroc manages to beat Craig Anderson after five holes as his entire team is distracted by the threat Matthews poses. Even when he doesn’t score, he contributes directly.
And given how good Marner is in all aspects, when the defense is occupied by him, Matthews can crash like a trailer and score too.
Matthews also won 60.6% of face-offs in all situations with this new setup. He did this by facing Connor McDavid and Tage Thompson as his main assignments. It may be in the Maple Leafs’ best interest to go back to the 12-hitter format, but it didn’t hurt the team’s top three players.
What are the optimal defense pairs?
After five games in which Jake McCabe paired up with T.J. Brody, Brody reunited with Morgan Reilly on Monday. Maybe it makes sense for McCabe and Brody to stay together—they were on the ice with only one goal against 5-on-5, and the line shuffling didn’t work against the Sabres.
Finding the right partner for Rilly, who was struggling to defend, is the biggest challenge. Timothy Lilliegren has the same strengths and weaknesses as Rilly, just on a smaller scale, and he’s putting in his worst game of the season. Justin Hall, who played great in November and December, became a liability again. Erik Gustafsson basically does everything that Rilly does on offense, but he can’t be trusted to play tough offside minutes on the powerplay. It’s still early, but the deal with Rasmus Sandin could be a little rushed.
Mark Giordano provided a stabilizing effect for all his partners throughout the year and he was incredible in the first half of the season. Giordano helped develop Lillegren and Hall’s best hockey of his career. Protecting Giordano and keeping him healthy ahead of the playoffs is the best course of action here. This is where Luke Schenn comes into play.
Schenn has been away from the team due to the birth of a child, and he may be Rilly’s optimal partner. During his time with the Canucks, Schenn protected Quinn Hughes and acted as a safety valve. Shann should be Rilly’s first choice after returning to the roster, but there are 16 more games to get it right.
Here is what I would suggest as optimal pairs:
Noel Accari continues to do everything right for number four
One of the constants in the 11F lineup is the fourth line, made up of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kampf and Noel Accari, who has been a real gem. Accari scores, throws a ton of punches, a marvel of analytics, subdues punches and has earned Keef’s trust.
Acciari does everything right. Here’s one example: Accari wins the puck from neutral…