Where Has the Maple Leafs’ Top Line Disappeared To, So Far?

Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs exacted some revenge for Thursday night’s 3-2 loss when they beat the Ottawa Senators by a 3-1 score. Missing from the lineup for the third game in a row has been the team’s star center Auston Matthews. Instead of Matthews centering his line of Mitch Marner at the right-wing and Nick Ritchie at the left-wing, John Tavares has jumped up to center that line.

Although the team is only three games into the season, some things seem to be taking shape. One is that the top-line of Marner, Tavares, and Ritchie hasn’t scored a goal yet. In fact, between them, they have only two points in three games. Given this dearth of scoring by the team’s top line so far, that the Maple Leafs remain more than competitive has been a good thing.

Other players are stepping up. In this post, I want to comment on the disappearance of the team’s first line from the score sheet and speculate about what that might mean for the near future.

Related: Three Maple Leafs’ Takeaways Game 1: Kampf, Nylander & Campbell

Point One: Mitch Marner Misses Auston Matthews

It isn’t as if Mitch Marner’s playing poorly, but he isn’t scoring. To my eyes, he’s all over the ice. He even had six shots during the second game of the season.

All that said, he’s certainly missed his regular partner Matthews. The two of them have grown into a team, and what Marner does on the ice fits Matthews’ skills and abilities. That works both ways, Matthews benefits from having Marner find him on the ice.

Tavares, now centering Marner on the team’s top line with Ritchie, is also playing well enough. There’s no knock from me on his work ethic or skillset. However, so far the trio hasn’t scored a goal yet and has only two points in three collective games.

That production isn’t good enough for this team’s first line.

Mitch Marner Upper Deck Maple Leafs 2Mitch Marner Upper Deck Maple Leafs 2

Fortunately, the rest of the team is stepping up. And that secondary scoring has carried the team to a 2-1 record thus far during the season. The answer is that others are leading the way. In some ways, looking at this small number of games, it looks like the playoffs again. 

Point Two: It Was the Smart Thing to Do to Keep Matthews Out

During last season’s playoffs, the Maple Leafs have been led by those same people who led them then. The Alex Kerfoot line is leading the team. William Nylander has been by far the team’s best player with two goals and two assists in the team’s three games thus far. And, on this high-scoring team – well it’s supposed to be high-scoring – Nylander is the only player averaging more than a point-a-game pace. 

William Nylander is leading the team.

Furthermore, except for a single absolutely wonky period – the first period of the team’s second game of the season where the Ottawa Senators fluked in three goals, the defense has played well. About those goals, the first one kicked into the net (or so it seemed); the second one bouncing in off Senators’ Tyler Ennis’ knee or face or somewhere; and the third one bounced in off Maple Leafs’ defenseman Justin Holl. The point is that the team’s defense has been stellar for most of each game. 

Point Three: The Maple Leafs Defense Is Good, But It Can’t Win Every Game

The Maple Leafs’ goalie play – except for that same single period – has also been strong. However, as crucial as defense is, it can’t win every game because it only keeps pucks out of the net. The Maple Leafs need to score, too. 

Although the goalies have played well, now Petr Mrazek’s injury makes him questionable for the near future. On Monday, the team will likely have Michael Hutchinson as their backup. Let’s hope starter Jack Campbell stays healthy. 

Point Four: Matthews Might Not Play on Monday Night

That’s where Matthews – and one hopes the Matthews and Marner duo – comes into play. It will be good to have Matthews back on the ice and scoring goals.

However, looking at the schedule, I’m wondering if Maple Leafs’ fans are going to see Matthews in the next game. He was supposed to miss three games; but, if he’s not 100%, I’m starting to think he might not play against the New York Rangers on Monday night. 

Maple Leafs Auston Matthews @reebeccathomsonMaple Leafs Auston Matthews photo by @reebeccathomson

Instead, after that game, there’s a nice four-day break with a Friday and Saturday back-to-back coming. Can the Maple Leafs pull off another win without Matthews on the ice? So far, they have and that’s good. 

Matthews has not played yet, and the team is surviving quite well without him thus far. But for now – things are going about as well as expected. The question is can team success last both without Matthews and a productive first line? One of the two has to show up soon.

Related: Four Lessons from Maple Leafs’ 3-2 Loss to Senators