Sheldon Keefe had a lengthy chat with Auston Matthews after practice on Wednesday morning.
With six goals in his first three games, Matthews isn’t a concern for the Toronto Maple Leafs coach at the moment (or almost ever). Keefe is already dealing with some very real and thorny lineup challenges, though, many of them tied to Brad Treliving’s first offseason as Leafs GM.
Let’s sort through them.
Not a new issue for the Leafs head coach, but one that keeps popping up again and again.
Keefe has been cycling through wingers to play alongside the two stars for the entirety of his tenure in Toronto. Most were ill-fitting for one reason or another. (The best, oddly enough, was probably Alex Galchenyuk.) Matthew Knies will become the third left winger in four games to join the line after very brief runs for Max Domi (no go) and Calle Järnkrok (not bad).
“I think Knies has a lot more to offer us,” Keefe said.
Knies spent the first three games playing alongside fellow rookie Fraser Minten. He logged only 10.5 minutes in a loss to Chicago on Monday night and only 12 minutes and change in the two games before that.
He’s yet to register a point or even be on the ice for a goal scored. But he’s had his moments. Over the weekend against Minnesota, Knies bulldozed his way to the net at one point — too big, too strong for Wild forward Marco Rossi.
“I think Knies has actually played well,” Keefe said. “I’ve just kind of lost him a little bit on that line.”
Knies played briefly with Tavares in the playoffs last spring. He’s a logical fit on that line. He can chase down loose pucks, create scoring opportunities for himself and others, and not be a liability at the other end.
That was a big part of the problem with Domi, the player Keefe first tried in the role. Domi made it only five periods there; the Leafs were somehow outscored 3-0 anyway. On the first of those goals, Domi was unable to keep a puck alive in the Montreal zone and thus, stuck as the Habs raced the other way and scored. Later that night, he had a chance to move the puck up and out of his own zone. Instead, he had it ripped away. The Habs scored moments later.
The final straw came last weekend when he was dusted by Wild defenceman Brock Faber in the prelude to yet another goal against.
Keefe dropped him from the line soon after and said he was looking for better puck management from the player the Leafs signed to a one-year deal in the summer.
Which brings us to another issue.
Max Domi’s spot in the lineup
The real conundrum is this: Domi needs to play with skilled offensive players to be effective and helpful on offence, but his defensive limitations make it almost impossible to play him with those same skilled offensive players.
So where to play him?
Keefe has stuck him on the left wing of a line with Minten and Järnkrok to start the team’s upcoming five-game road trip. The Leafs coach said the changes were at least partly tied to the road, where he won’t have last change. Control, that is, to decide who goes out against whom. Does he think he can protect Domi with Minten and Järnkrok? What can a line like that accomplish? Keefe probably won’t feel safe sending the unit out for difficult defensive zone assignments given the issues with Domi. Can those three give the Leafs anything offensively?
Minten has mustered only two shots in his first three NHL games and wasn’t a huge producer in junior. It sure feels likely that he’ll be going back to junior at some point soon. Järnkrok is Järnkrok. A helpful third banana, but not a producer of offence.
How much can Domi really produce with those guys? And if he’s not producing on the power play, where he barely plays, what value is Domi providing?
The Leafs are after a third line that can score, but this almost certainly isn’t it. They could attempt to build a third line that can at least defend, but even that poses Domi-related challenges: Does he end up on the fourth line in that scenario? And what purpose is he serving there playing alongside Ryan Reaves?
The sticky part of offseason additions like Domi and Reaves is, among other things, they lack much utility. Unlike offseason departures like Alex Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, Sam Lafferty and Ryan O’Reilly, there are very few places in a lineup to fit them in. (The Leafs penalty kill has been weakened by those departures, too.)
For Reaves, that place is in cement: Fourth-line right wing.
And that, too, is causing problems.
The Leafs signed Kämpf to a four-year deal with a $2.4 million cap hit in the summer. It’s early, but they’re barely using him now.
Kämpf logged just nine minutes and change on Monday night. In 82 games last season, he never drew less than 10 minutes in a game. Not even once. Kämpf led all Leafs forwards in five-on-five defensive zone draws last season.
Early this season, he’s lined up for the fewest.
Kämpf actually has the highest — the highest! — offensive zone faceoff percentage of any player on the Leafs this season (67 percent). He’s lined up for one fewer offensive zone faceoff (10) than Matthews.
That doesn’t feel like an optimal use of personnel.
Not only is Matthews starting less on offence. He’s having to start more on defence. In short, the Leafs are having to ask even more out of their best player and crucially, not putting him in the optimal spots to succeed.
Clearly, Keefe doesn’t like the idea of sending that line, as currently constructed, out for defensive zone mop-up duty like he used to in the past. And what’s really changed is Reaves’ addition to the unit.
The Leafs coach probably doesn’t want the 36-year-old running around defending in his own zone.
That’s precisely what’s happened anyway, though: In just 19 minutes, the Leafs have been doubled up in shot attempts (14-28) with Reaves, Kämpf and Noah Gregor on the ice. Expected goals? Just 29 percent. The Leafs have been outscored 2-0.
Kämpf’s skills aren’t being maximized.
Ideally, Keefe could build the kind of Kämpf-led unit that brought real function in the past. Think Kämpf with Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev. A threesome that could be buried in the defensive zone and still find their way out somehow. Keefe can’t build that kind of line with Reaves on it. Which means he has to either scratch Reaves, which isn’t happening (not yet anyway), or move Kämpf into the third-line centre spot, which the organization is obviously reluctant to try given Kämpf’s offensive limitations.
It feels inevitable that Kämpf ends up there anyway, if or perhaps when Minten returns to Kamloops. But even then — even then! — how does the Leafs coach build a janitorial line?
Järnkrok clearly belongs on that kind of unit with Kämpf. And then … who? Knies? OK. But then who’s playing with Tavares? How about Gregor? Well, does that mean Domi and Reaves are playing on the same fourth line?
As Keefe said, “You’re trying to find the right mix for everybody.”
The “right mix” isn’t easy or obvious though, not with the current personnel.
How to structure the defence
It took only two and a half games for the Leafs to abandon the Jake McCabe and John Klingberg pairing.
McCabe will play with Timothy Liljegren for now. Klingberg will join Mark Giordano on what amounts to a third pair.
“You want to give it time to breathe,” Keefe said of the defence. “But you also need to perform well and you need to get good results.”
The Leafs were outscored 5-1 with McCabe and Klingberg on the ice. The hope was that McCabe could be a stabilizer for Klingberg, but he’s really struggled out of the gate. Opponents have gotten way too many good looks around the net: McCabe has been on the ice for a league-high 21 high-danger attempts at five-on-five.
He’s tied in that department with Klingberg.
McCabe has an expected goals mark just below 40 percent. The Leafs need him to be a lot better. They need him to survive in top-four minutes. Their options are limited if he can’t do it. They could break up the successful (so far) pairing of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie or give the 40-year-old Giordano another go in the top four. Neither feels close to ideal.
Perhaps Liljegren, an improving defender, will help.
The time is now for the 24-year-old to stake claim to a bigger role and prove he can handle a nightly platter of first and second lines. The Leafs might be able to better weaponize Klingberg in third-pair duty — starting him more in the offensive zone, say, including the odd shift with Rielly.
Can they get him enough ice time from down there? And get him out there enough with the Leafs’ better offensive players?
It’s early, but there’s a lot going on already, a lot of challenges to overcome.
(Top photo of Max Domi: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)
Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, and Evolving Hockey