Monday, November 28, 2022
HomeSportsMaple Leafs coach Keefe ‘shaking up’ top line amid goal drought

Maple Leafs coach Keefe ‘shaking up’ top line amid goal drought


SAN JOSE – “We’re shaking it up.”

That was Sheldon Keefe’s simple message to his shooters midway through the team’s five-game western swing.

In attempt to jolt an uncharacteristically sleepy collection of forwards, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach has made changes to three of his four lines after Monday’s dreadful 3-1 loss to the Golden Knights in Las Vegas.

The most significant tweak? Dropping top-line agitator Michael Bunting down to the third unit, while promoting 3C Alexander Kerfoot to the left flank of superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

“Last two games, we haven’t been very good. So, I don’t really view it as a promotion,” Kerfoot said. “They’re two of the best players in the league. So, it’s just about getting them the puck as much as I can, working hard off of it, using my speed, and letting them do their thing.”

Matthews’ and Marner’s thing is filling the net — something both the 60-goal and 35-goal scorer have failed to do with any regularity through the season’s first seven games. They have one goal each, a source of frustration in Leafland.

A club that prides itself on wielding a potent offensive identity rolls into San Jose Thursday sitting 26th leaguewide in goals per game.

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“We haven’t been scoring or controlling play the way we’d like,” Keefe explained of the changes.

“We’ve been really two lines that have been generating the chances for us. We need to get a little bit more from Lines 3 and 4 in terms of controlling play, generating their own chances, and stressing the opposition a little bit more.”

John Tavares’s line with William Nylander and Nick Robertson has been the most consistent in terms of production, so Keefe is keeping that trio intact.

The versatile Calle Järnkrok slides from the wing to centre a third line with Bunting and skillsy waterbug Denis Malgin in a bid to summon more scoring chances from the bottom of the group.

Trusty David Kämpf will be flanked on a fourth line with speedy wings Pierre Engvall and Zach Aston-Reese.

Permanent roles on the bottom half of Toronto’s bench remain in flux.

“I don’t think anyone’s really grabbed a hold of it here quite yet,” Keefe said.

The tweaks are part strategy, part challenge.

Engvall was re-signed over the summer, in part because the Maple Leafs believed the athletic Swede was capable of stepping up to supply secondary scoring. He has yet to register a point. Keefe liked how Engvall worked with Kämpf last season, hence the switch there.

Still, the headline move is Kerfoot.

There’s hope a refreshed look up top could help unlock a flood of goals Matthews is bound to unleash once his shockingly low 3 per cent shooting rate corrects itself.

“I don’t want to say (Kerfoot) differs, but he gets us the puck, and obviously we want the puck as much as possible,” said Matthews, who has kept cool through his slump.

“I mean, I’ve gone through this before, so I’m not sure it’s a super-unusual situation. I just approach it kind of similarly. Just put in the work. Have fun out there. Shoot the puck. And once one goes in, hopefully just kind of get on roll, get that confidence back, and just keep going.”

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Tavares finds Mattthews’ even-keel demeanour through these struggles impressive.

“The way he carries himself day to day, it’s the same as if he had just gone 51 in 50, like he did last year,” the captain said. “There’s a drive and a levelheadedness to him that’s very rare.

“What he’s done already in his career, especially at an extremely young age, playing in Toronto with the spotlight, you need to have that.

“An uncanny way to keep confidence and believe in themselves and sticking with their process and keep doing a lot of good things. And eventually things will start to turn.”

One-Timers: The Maple Leafs shifted Jake Muzzin from IR to LTIR, purely a cap manoeuvre. Muzzin still needs a follow-up appointment for his neck. There is no clarity on the severity of his injury or a timeline for return. … Kyle Clifford suffered a shoulder injury Monday in Las Vegas and has been placed on injured reserve. His MRI suggests it’s not serious, but he’ll miss some time. … Filip Kral was recalled for defensive depth, but there’s no guarantee he makes his NHL debut on this road trip. … Wayne Simmonds and Nicolas Aube-Kubel will be healthy scratches. … Thursday’s starter, Erik Kallgren, looks to bounce back from his loss to the Coyotes. He’ll face the struggling Kaapo Kahkonen (0-3, .873) at the other end, not ex-Leaf James Reimer.

Maple Leafs projected lines Thursday in San Jose:

Kerfoot – Matthews – Marner

Robertson – Tavares – Nylander

Bunting – Järnkrok – Malgin

Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Engvall

Rielly – Brodie

Sandin – Holl

Giordano – Mete

Källgren starts

Samsonov

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