Struggling Marner, Matthews split up in bid to ‘jumpstart’ Leafs
The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are being split up for the first time this season.
"There has been great reluctance on my part to make a change to the Tavares group," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "With Willy, in particular, he has really found a nice groove. His game has been going so well. You are reluctant to make a change to him and his situation. You don't want to affect guys who were rolling and feeling good in order to boost other groups. But I think the time is right."
The Leafs squandered a 3-1 lead before falling in overtime to the 31st-place Chicago Blackhawks on Friday. One night later in Pittsburgh, Toronto blew leads of 1-0 and 2-1 and dropped a 3-2 decision to a Penguins team that had lost four of five.
"Sometimes a little change can help everybody," Matthews said. "The way the weekend went mixing things up isn't the worst thing."
"It's just trying to jumpstart something," Marner said. "Hopefully it works."
Matthews has not scored a 5-on-5 goal in the last seven games. Marner has been held off the scoresheet in five of the last seven games. But Toronto's top line has been inconsistent all season.
"I don't think it's the last five or seven games," stressed Keefe. "It's been up and down."
"Too many highs and lows," agreed Matthews. "Just the consistency of putting together shift after shift hasn't been there as much as we wanted."
Keefe has been pushing and prodding Matthews and Marner throughout this rollercoaster run. He even called out the top line behind closed doors following a lacklustre performance against the Detroit Red Wings in Stockholm on Nov. 17.
"It is more so just challenging Auston and Mitch to sort it out and be better," Keefe said of his previous approach.
The group responded well on Nov. 19 during a win over the Minnesota Wild. But then they started slowly in Chicago, which led to another call out from Keefe.
"They have had really big nights and they have had other nights where they haven't been effective at all," Keefe said. "You are just trying to find more consistency there."
Matthews has three hat tricks this season while Marner posted a pair of four-point games earlier this month. And yet the pair have been unable to sustain momentum.
"If I knew the exact answer we'd, you know, fix it," Matthews said with a smile after Saturday's loss.
Nylander's 17-game point streak came to an end in Chicago and he was also held off the board in Pittsburgh, which opened the door to a top-six tinker.
"Since coming back from Sweden, I don't think it has gone as well for him," Keefe said. "You get back from the road and maybe things start to wind down a little bit in terms of the high that Willy was on. You can kind of reset some things."
This isn't exactly a new situation. Keefe also split up Matthews and Marner last November, which led to a strong run of form.
"Getting different looks is always good," said Nylander. "We've all played together before so I don't think it will be anything weird."
The Leafs outscored the opposition 38-14 with Matthews and Nylander together last season, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
Marner wasn't available to reporters after Saturday's loss in Pittsburgh, but did meet the media on Monday and addressed the state of his game.
"Obviously not as great as it usually is and as I like it," the 26-year-old admitted. "Gotta make sure I'm staying patient out there and not trying to force anything and do what I do best. That's bring high energy, bring good pace out there, and when the puck gets into my hands trust my abilities to do things with it."
The Leafs have been outscored 15-14 with Marner, a Selke Trophy nominee last season, on the ice in 5-on-5 play. The Leafs were plus-25 in that situation last season.
"He knows he needs to be better," said Keefe. "We are going to help him through it. We have been talking with him and meeting with him. We have been working on some things on the ice that I think he has to focus on and can help him start to be the Mitch Marner that we know."
Specifically, pace of play is important.
"Just not getting the puck with a whole lot of speed with myself moving," Marner said of his biggest issue. "And not really trusting my abilities out there, so that's something that needs to change. Just have to trust it."
Marner has 20 points through 19 games, which puts him on pace for 86. He posted a career-best 99 points last season.
"He went through stretches like this last season, too, especially in the early going," Keefe reminded. "It turned out that he had an incredible season for us. I don't expect it will be any different for him."
Marner had 22 points through 19 games last season.
"I've been in these spots before multiple times in my career," Marner said. "So, for me, it's making sure I'm relaxed, calm and steady out there, and just doing what I love."
How does he manage frustration?
"Breathing, relaxing, realizing that it will come," he said. "If you force stuff that's when you get more frustrated, more mad, so just got to trust your instincts, trust your game and you know."
Nylander played a career-high 26 minutes and 10 seconds on Saturday night. That was three minutes more than his next-highest total this season. It was also two minutes more than his previous career high.
"I actually felt pretty good up until the last shift there on the 6-on-5," he said with a smile.
Nylander is averaging 20 minutes and 12 seconds of ice time per game this season, which is up from 18 minutes and 33 seconds last year.
He leads the Leafs with 27 points, but Nylander also feels like he's taken a step defensively.
"It's come along a little with the PK too," he said.
Nylander is now getting a regular shift on the third penalty-kill unit beside Matthews.
"Getting out there and playing on the PK helps a lot," he said. "So, I mean, been putting focus on that. That's what it takes to win, right."
"I think Willy wants to grow in all areas of his game not just being a more consistent threat offensively," said Keefe. "We have talked a lot over the years about being great and influencing the game in all areas."
Playing with Matthews at 5-on-5 will likely lead to tougher matchups and more defensive responsibilities. Keefe confirmed that his comfort level with Nylander in defensive situations has increased.
"Especially because he has had the puck so much," the coach pointed out. "He hasn't had to defend too much. That is probably the biggest change. He has not been on our half of the ice as much. He is in control of the play."
General manager Brad Treliving was asked if Nylander's strong start has influenced contract negotiations with the pending unrestricted free agent.
"Willy has had a tremendous start to the year," Treliving said. "I don't think this is just a hot start. I think he is a really good player. I stated from Day 1 that our objective was to get Auston signed. We got him signed. Our objective is to get Willy signed. We are working on it. He has had his great start — great for him and great for us — but it doesn't change in any way. We just continue to work away at it."
The Leafs only have five regulation wins in 19 games.
"We have been hit and miss," said Treliving. "There has been some inconsistency in our game which is a little concerning."
The Leafs will hit the quarter mark of the season this week, which prompted the general manager to meet the media and offer his perspective on how things are progressing.
"The one encouraging sign is that when we look at a lot of the data, our defensive play and what we have given up has gotten better," Treliving said. "It needs to continue to get better. Overall, there are still gaps in the consistency of how we have played. Through the first quarter of the season, that would be my overwhelming theme. We have to become more consistent as a group."
Prior to last weekend, the Leafs had won four straight games.
"There are positive things happening with our group," Keefe stressed. "You just maybe have to look deeper to find them sometimes. Your job is to report on what is happening with the results. My job is to police the process, dig in deeper, and make decisions. I see positive trends."
The penalty kill, for example, has gone four straight games without conceding a goal and is up to 18th overall at 77.8 per cent.
"In that period of time, to me, our team has improved a lot in terms of our process and how we are playing," Keefe said. "We have been one of the top teams in the league defensively."
"It is an area we wanted to see if we could strengthen regardless," Treliving said. "Now that we have injuries, it tests your depth. You probably have people playing more minutes than you want, and they are hanging in there."
Mark Giordano, 40, is currently on the second pair despite being the oldest player in the league. Jake McCabe, a lefty, is playing on his off side. William Lagesson and Simon Benoit have been filling in on the third pair after starting the season in the American Hockey League.
So, it's no surprise Treliving is looking to bolster the blue line.
"We would like to help ourselves," Treliving said. "When you are sitting here in November, it is easier said than done. It is certainly an area we look at to see if we can help ourselves."
Klingberg signed a one-year deal worth $4.15-million on July 1, but struggled mightily after sustaining an injury in a game on Oct. 19 in Florida. Klingberg was placed on long-term injured reserve last week and is seeing specialists in New York in order to figure out the next step.
"I anticipate we will have clarity this week," Treliving said. "He is meeting with some doctors. We went through some meetings last week to see if this is a situation where there is a surgical intervention or not. I would anticipate that by the end of the week at the latest — and I say that cautiously — we are going to have a better idea of where John is at or what the prognosis would be."
Lines at Monday's practice:
Knies - Matthews - Nylander
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
Giordano - McCabe
Benoit - Timmins