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Which Maple Leafs could replace Joe Thornton on the top line? – Sportsnet.ca

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The early returns on the Joe Thornton-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner top line in Toronto were all positive in five games.

Each of the three are at or above a 60 per cent corsi rating at 5-on-5. Marner is tied with John Tavares for the team points lead at six, while Matthews is working at a point-per-game rate even though he’s only scored on two of his league-leading 27 shots — a 7.4 percentage that’s well below a 15.5 per cent career average.

In Wednesday’s defensive snoozer (which was actually positive in some way for both teams) the Thornton-Matthews-Marner line controlled 75 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots they were on the ice for.

It was Toronto’s best line.

And now it’s time for a shakeup.

Thornton left Wednesday’s game with an injury that Sheldon Keefe described as “not a day-to-day thing.” The team awaits the results of an MRI later Thursday for full details, but it’s clear Toronto will have to move on without its Jumbo centre-turned-winger for a while.

The question, naturally, becomes: who replaces him on the top line?

And it might not even be quite that simple.

Adding a little more intrigue to the mix is the fact Auston Matthews departed Thursday’s practice early, leaving some question as to whether or not he’ll be in the lineup for Round 2 against Edmonton Friday.

“He just wasn’t feeling great today coming off the game yesterday, so just going to take the rest of the day to see how he is tomorrow. We’ll have an update in the morning,” Keefe said.

If Matthews is out, then John Tavares’ line becomes the new “No. 1” and, really, all sorts of possibilities for line changes enter the mix. But with Matthews, at least, it seems a little more fluid and even if he doesn’t go on Friday his absence may only be short term.

The Thornton loss will have the longer-term impact, so who could replace him on the top line with Matthews and Marner?

Nick Robertson would have been perfect, but a knee injury has already forced him out for four weeks. Now Toronto’s bottom six will be stretched thinner and, perhaps, more work is coming for Tavares and William Nylander, who both are averaging just over 17 minutes of ice per game — or about six minutes less than Matthews, and seven less than Marner.

With Matthews in the lineup next to Marner, here are some possibilities to play on the left side.

Jimmy Vesey
Well, let’s start with the practice lines from Thursday, when Matthews was absent.

Adam Brooks would be filling in for Matthews here, and if this is what is put forth Friday, Vesey would arrive here from Tavares’ line and Zach Hyman would get a bump up from the third (more on him in a bit).

You could say the jury is still out on Vesey. He wasn’t great Wednesday, but arguably had his best performance the game before. He’s getting PK time, but feels more like bottom-six player than star support. Still, he’s getting the minutes and was practicing in this place Thursday. If that comes to pass it shouldn’t be a surprise.

But there’s this: in Toronto’s five early games they’ve been outscored 9-7 at 5-on-5. If Vesey doesn’t help boost either the offence or the defence in some way, and this scoring hole widens, Keefe could mix his lines up again. He’s nothing if not flexible with his set up, depending on the situation.

Zach Hyman

This would be my pick. Hyman is the worker bee who wins key corner puck battles and has supported Toronto’s stars to great success in the past.

On the third line to start the season, Hyman has been the driver — Toronto has controlled 55 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots when he’s on the ice and he’s the only bottom-sixer who has a positive goal differential at 5-on-5. In Monday’s game against Winnipeg, he recorded 10 shots on net.

After Thornton left the Oilers game, Hyman’s even-strength shifts were spent with Matthews and Marner. According to Natural Stat Trick, they played 6:16 at 5-on-5 together Wednesday and were 3-3 with the opposition in shots on goal. They were also the only Toronto line to score a goal Wednesday, which began on a Hyman drive, and finished (with a little luck) after Matthews won a puck battle.

The way the lines were arranged Thursday, though, suggests Hyman will instead start with Tavares and Nylander.

There is a potential risk to moving Hyman up now, especially if Matthews is out. The bottom six is stretching and Hyman has arguably been the most important piece in that section of the lineup. Promoting him would certainly be worthy, but you have to wonder in what state that leaves the depth. As mentioned before, an uptick in minutes for Tavares’ line could help that situation to some degree.

Ilya Mikheyev

Whether or not you think Mikheyev is a long-term fit in the top six, he’s clearly someone who could slot there in a pinch. And the upside is intriguing. He had 23 points in 39 games last season before a gruesome wrist injury removed him from the lineup until the play-in round. He has the one assist in five games this season.

However, if Mikheyev gets a bump up it may come with Tavares first instead. Mikheyev played more often with Toronto’s captain at 5-on-5 last season (138:45 minutes) and the underlying numbers for both players were better when they were together.

When Justin Bourne built his ideal Leafs lines out before Thornton’s injury, this is what his top six looked like, which would seem to bolder Hyman’s candidacy to join Marner and Matthews:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner
Mikheyev-Tavares-Nylander

Then you wonder, if it gets to a point where both Hyman and Mikheyev need to be in the top six and the Maple Leafs are still struggling to produce or find consistency, would Keefe reunite the Marner-Tavares-Hyman line that was so successful two years ago there is now value keeping them spread apart?

That, then, would conceivably leave Matthews with Nylander and either Mikheyev or Vesey.

John Tavares

If you see this one, something terrible has probably gone wrong.

Here is the emergency switch, the nuclear option. What if Toronto starts a spiral or goes a stretch where the scoring dries up? Could you see this attempted?

More likely this trip would get put together in a specific game situation, like trailing by a goal or more late when an offensive spark is needed. It’s been done before.

But putting the three of them on the same line for a full game, multiple games in a row, puts maximum stress on the rest of the forward units. Still, it’d be fun to see.

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Resolute despite injuries, distractions Leafs winning with consistency – Sportsnet.ca

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The commute across the pedway connecting the JW Marriott to Rogers Place is familiar for anyone who spent time in Edmonton during the NHL’s western bubble last summer.

Heck, it’s already a well-worn path for a group of Toronto Maple Leafs players that have kept things pretty locked down despite the unseasonably warm weather they’ve found on their second business trip through this season.

“For the most part you’re just at the rink and your hotel room,” said Leafs defenceman T.J. Brodie, with a sense of deja vu after spending a chunk of August doing that very same thing in the very same place with the Calgary Flames.

“It’s pretty much the same (as the summer), I guess. Obviously, you can go outside if you want to, but other than that it’s the same.”

Add it to the list of things that made Monday’s 3-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers so impressive.

In substance and in style, it looked like a reasonable copy of the game they played in the same building 48 hours earlier, right down to the fact they emphatically grabbed another two points with Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen watching injured from the stands.

In this second of a three-game set, the Maple Leafs were also down goaltender Jack Campbell after he tweaked a previous leg injury while delivering a shutout on Saturday night. No bother. Michael Hutchinson, No. 4 on the team’s depth chart in January, stepped up with another strong performance and stopped 31 shots to make it two Leafs doughnuts in a row.

“I just want to open it up with comments about our goalies. I think the past two nights they’ve been outstanding and I don’t think they get enough credit,” Morgan Rielly said before taking any questions on his post-game Zoom call.

That the backups blanked Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is a testament to their performance, but also a level of connected play the Leafs struggled to reach last season. They are really settling into a groove and sit at an absurd 17-4-2 — good for an eight-point advantage over Edmonton, head-and-shoulders above the rest in the North Division.

Just as importantly, they are slowly putting to rest some former demons. They have been prone to distractions in years gone by. And this season played amid a pandemic is full of plenty of those for everyone involved.

Yet the Leafs didn’t get satisfied after Saturday’s big win, or get rattled by another night without key contributors, or get knocked off course while spending 72 hours walking back and forth indoors between the hotel and rink.

“That’s been a big area of growth for us,” said Rielly.

“We had a lot of games last year that we were completely dominant, but I think we also had games where we were completely falling apart,” noted Travis Dermott. “I think this year we’re really focused on being consistent and showing up every day — whether we’re playing, whether we’re practising, or whether it’s an off-day and we have to be taking care of ourselves at home — I think everyone is just buying into a team plan that we’re going to be ready to go every day.”

After arguably their most complete win of the season on Saturday, head coach Sheldon Keefe ran an animated practice Sunday afternoon. He believes his team has reached the point where it’s proven that it can defend well, and the decline in high-danger rushes and chances against is a testament to that.

On Monday, they gave up a few more of those than they’d like, but some early saves on McDavid and Dominik Kahun set the table for a 3-0 lead by the first intermission. Zach Hyman and William Nylander continued hot streaks — Hyman with a goal in his second straight game, and Nylander with his fourth in the last three — before Rielly trickled one through Mikko Koskinen on the power play.

That gave Toronto its third win of the season with Matthews out of the lineup, and all three have come against Edmonton. The first, at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 22, instilled some confidence.

They’ve been winning consistently no matter who goes down.

“We’ve been without Wayne Simmonds for a good period of time here now. We’ve played without Joe (Thornton), now we’re playing without Auston,” said Keefe. “We’ve been playing without (Frederik Andersen), we played without (Jake Muzzin).

“It really forces you to fall back on your structure, play as a team, get guys to step up at key moments.”

There’s no guarantee any of the injured players will be back to close this series out against Edmonton on Wednesday night.

So the challenge may remain constant: Prepare for the NHL’s top two scorers, find a way to compensate for your own lineup losses and keep the mind fresh while walking back and forth on the most boring pedway in hockey.

Oh, and maybe find some time for a socially distant conversation with Zach Bogosian, who lifted the Stanley Cup in Edmonton just over five months ago. He’s got a great bubble story to tell.

“I mean obviously we were here for quite a while. Our meal room at the hotel, that was a little bit of a different scene the night that we won,” said Bogosian. “It’s just cool to be back. Obviously, it’s something I’ll remember forever so, yeah, it’s nice.”

Sometimes there’s a little excitement to be found on the other side of the monotony.

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After another loss to Senators, Flames’ season may hinge on next three games – Sportsnet.ca

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Here’s the thing about Bingo.

If you don’t take advantage of the free space in the middle of the card, you’re increasing the odds of everyone else around you.

The Calgary Flames’ dobbers went dry again Monday, becoming the first Canadian club to post two regulation losses against an Ottawa Senators team everyone else in Canada has feasted on.

To simply keep pace with division rivals, wins over the last-place Senators are a must, which is why the Flames’ season may very well hang in the balance over their next three games.

A Saturday matchup against the Edmonton Oilers is bookended by visits from a Senators team that just took the Flames’ lunch money once again.

A 5-1 loss Monday, combined with a 6-1 defeat Thursday, saw the rebuilding Senators outscore the Flames 14-8 over three games.

Sure the Senators are a hard-working squad that has improved steadily of late, winning six of their last nine.

But they’re still the Senators, a team the Oilers beat all four meetings, the Vancouver Canucks beat all three meetings and the Jets topped in four of five.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are 3-1-1 against their provincial rivals, leaving the sinking Montreal Canadiens as the only team that has played them to a draw at 1-1-2.

Then there are the sad-sack Flames, who lead the league in losses to last-place teams, giveaways and consecutive defeats while scoring just a single goal.

They increased that last dubious record to seven games Monday.

“All the teams in this division are good — there’s not much of a difference from the top teams to the bottom,” said Elias Lindholm, whose club escaped the first period with a scoreless draw before being outshot 22-6 in the second.

“Today, our first period was pretty solid and everything we did good in the first we did the opposite in the second and third. I think our patience out there was pretty bad and we started making some tough plays and turning pucks over — the kind of things we need to stop doing.”

The Senators opened the scoring after Sam Bennett was unable to handle a bad pass in the neutral zone from Milan Lucic.

Drake Batherson’s first of two goals put the Senators up 2-0 before a Lucic power-play marker lifted the Flames’ hopes. Briefly.

Eighty-four seconds later David Rittich got in on the giveaway game by mishandling a dump-in he promptly batted to Batherson, whose shot deflected in off of Mark Giordano as the Flames netminder tried scrambling back into the net.

It was another in the growing collection of moments that deflated the Flames’ bench and made it tough to create any offence as Ottawa sat on the lead and padded the humiliation with an empty-netter and a late deflection.

“We’ve got to come up with the solutions ourselves,” said coach Geoff Ward, whose team now sits closer to last place than it does to second-place Edmonton.

“As a team, we’ve got to be more committed to playing the game the right way. We’ve got to make sure we don’t let things compound. When something happens that’s not the way we want it to be we can’t fall back — we have to get a push in the right direction. Right now, when things are rolling the way they are for us, I think the confidence gets a little fragile and things start to compound, and we’ve got to find a way to make it turn the corner the other way.”

The Flames finish their gruelling, six-game roadie 2-3-1 and return to host Ottawa on Thursday having lost seven of their last 10.

Moral and consistency issues abound.

The players are struggling to come up with answers to the same old questions, and Matthew Tkachuk was so despondent after the latest setback he couldn’t muster up any of the fury you’d expect to hear from a leader on a team slipping closer and closer to losing control on the season.

“The easy answer is we’re at 10-11-2,” said Tkachuk when asked where his team was at.

“We’ve got to figure this out in the next two days before we play them again. We’re getting way too used to games where we’re down a couple in the third.”

Especially against teams previously considered the free spot on the Bingo card.

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ATP roundup: Andy Murray rallies for win in Rotterdam

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Qualifier Andy Murray rallied from three games down in the third set to defeat Dutchman Robin Haase 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 on Monday at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The former world No. 1 of England needed nearly 2 1/2 hours to secure his first tour-level victory since the 2020 U.S. Open.

In other action, Japan’s Kei Nishikori upset No. 7 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in straight sets, qualifier Marton Fucsovics of Hungary needed three sets to defeat American Reilly Opelka, and England’s Cameron Norrie toppled Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili in straight sets.

Argentina Open

Seeded players ruled the day in Buenos Aires as No. 6 Pablo Andujar and No. 7 Laslo Djere advanced in the Argentina Open.

Spain’s Andujar defeated Argentine Juan Ignacio Londero 6-3, 6-0 and Djere of Serbia needed three sets to hold off Italy’s Marcus Cecchinato 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-3.

In other action, Brazil’s Thiago Monteiro toppled Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain in straight sets and Germany’s Dominik Koepfer outlasted Argentinian qualifier Thiago Agustin Tirante 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

 

–Field Level Media

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