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Dave Feschuk: Leafs throw Matthews lifeline in Marner

Dave Feschuk: Leafs throw Matthews lifeline in Marner
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When the puck-slinging genius from Scottsdale racked up 10 goals in this season’s first six games, a fan base marvelled at a ceiling that seemed unlimited. As the goaltenders stood by helplessly and the lasers whizzed past them, even hardened veteran analysts suggested Matthews ought to be considered as an imminent challenger to Edmonton’s Connor McDavid as the best player in the game.

So it says something about the way things have changed in Leafland that the latest attempt at remedying the situation amounted to what was once considered a nuclear option. A line combination that included both Matthews and Toronto’s leading point-getter Mitch Marner, unveiled at practice on Monday with Patrick Marleau manning the left wing, has been previously framed by Toronto coach Mike Babcock as the player-deployment equivalent of forbidden fruit. When the coach has been asked in the past about why he’s shied away from conjoining the two 21-year-olds, Babcock pooh-poohed the mere concept as sacrilege.

“Because I like to win,” has been the gist of his logic. The coach’s inherent suggestion was that concentrating so much talent on one super line was a sure road to ruin. His players, on the other hand, clearly haven’t felt the same way. Matthews and Marner, good pals and road roommates off the ice, have always seemed a natural match on it, and have always spoken positively of the prospect of being linemates. In what universe is a team’s best pure goal scorer not a natural running mate for its most creative playmaker? The National Ballet of Canada saw the magic in the combo before Christmastime, in a memorable cameo at a performance of The Nutcracker.

And there are informed observers in Leafland who’ve long insisted that the only thing keeping Matthews and Marner apart was The Taskmaster. So while Babcock, known for his legendary steadfastness, paired Matthews with a long list of wingers, he seemed averse to pairing him with the team’s best one, only rolling them out together on Toronto’s ailing power play and the occasional desperation shift.

That in mind, there were a couple of ways to view Monday’s practice-day line juggle — which will almost certainly be carried forward into Wednesday’s home game against the Washington Capitals, no matter Babcock’s insistence of no such guarantee. Maybe it’s the sign of a coach becoming admirably experimental in a moment of mini-crisis. As much as it’s easy to criticize Babcock for unfailingly leaning on the same pet players no matter the depths of the under-performance — Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev come to mind — here he was making a change some insisted he’d be too hard-headed to ever contemplate.

Babcock even insisted the move came after he met with the team’s “leadership group,” the members of which, the coach said, formed a general consensus about the way forward.

“It’s way easier as a coach if they share what you’re thinking. When you’re thinking the same thing, you’re all on the same page, let’s get moving ahead,” Babcock said. “The bottom line is, we’re not finding a way to get ’er done, so we’re willing to change.”

Then again, maybe the move was simply a flailing team throwing a long-desired bone to a pair of players in crucial contract years. A franchise hoping for a modicum of financial mercy from Matthews and Marner would be advised to treat both with at least occasional deference when it comes to their on-ice contentment. And certainly both players seemed more than happy with the news they were on track to play together Wednesday, even if Babcock dangled the possibility the pairing wouldn’t last beyond warmups.

Said Matthews of Marner: “He’s obviously a special player … Just get open and he’ll probably find you.”

Said Marner of Matthews: “Everyone knows how good his shot is. So, for me, when I get the puck (I’ll be) trying to find him in open areas to release it.”

Monday’s rejigging can also been seen as a huge risk. In an attempt to ignite his most gifted goal scorer, Babcock broke up what’s been his best line. Playing almost exclusively with Marner on his right wing, John Tavares has scored 30 goals, tied for second-most in the league behind Alex Ovechkin’s 33. Marner has been credited with the primary assist on 15 of Tavares’s markers and assisted on 18 all told. Nobody else on the team has more than four primary assists on goals scored by No. 91. In other words, Tavares owes a lot of his success to Marner’s playmaking. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be quite as effective flanked by Monday’s practice linemates, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen.

At the moment, mind you, you can make the case that getting Matthews back on track is more important than keeping Tavares on a career-high 51-goal pace. Certainly it makes William Nylander’s ongoing struggle, foisted upon linemates Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown, a backburner concern.

“You kind of loan Mitch out a little bit to whoever needs a boost. He’s a sparkplug,” is how Morgan Rielly, the Leafs’ No. 1 defenceman, interpreted the move. “Mitch oftentimes is pretty infectious with his work ethic and his skill and the way he’s able to drive the play. And I think he can play with just about anyone. And John is able to drive his own line with his work ethic and his ability.”

Another way to look at Monday’s move? Call it a wakeup call for Matthews. As much as Matthews began this season as the team’s face — and as much as he’ll be one of the marquee attractions of this weekend’s all-star festivities in his role as captain of the Atlantic Division — there’s no arguing against the fact that Marner, though he was unjustly left off the all-star roster, has been Toronto’s unfailing engine. It certainly says something about the internal pecking order that Babcock enlisted Marner, the smiley-faced savant, with the task of jarring Matthews, his downcast pal, out of the mid-season doldrums. And Babcock was explicit about what he expects.

“The biggest challenge when you play with Mitchy — and I’ve been playing him against the best players all the time — you’ve got to play against the best players. And that means you’ve got to really commit without the puck,” Babcock said. “So that’s the challenge. Tavares has done a great job for us like that.”

In other words: OK, Auston, we’ll give you Mitchy. But you’ve got to give us more. Given Matthews’ impressive record of rising to the moment, here’s betting the challenge soon enough gets met.
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