How much ice time can Matthews and Marner handle? The Leafs are about to find out
|Toronto Star 14 Feb 2020 at 21:34|
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have piled up just less than 27 per cent of the Maple Leafs’ goals since they became linemates in December.
The pressure to produce is even greater after Friday’s news that forward Andreas Johnsson is out long term with a knee injury that requires surgery. Coach Sheldon Keefe said Johnsson, hurt in Thursday night’s 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, will miss at least eight weeks.
The Leafs also learned that top defenceman Morgan Rielly, out since Jan. 12 with a broken foot, won’t return until late March at the earliest. Keefe said Rielly is scheduled to begin weight-resistance rehab in the next week or so.
With the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaching and the Leafs clinging to a playoff spot, speculation has centred on defence help. If Johnsson — with a $3.4-million (U.S.) salary cap hit — is placed on long-term injured reserve, it could give general manager Kyle Dubas the financial room to make a significant move.
Offence, though, has been the Leafs’ strength — tied with the Washington Capitals for second in the league in goals heading into Friday’s games with 205, one less than the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A big chunk of that offence has come from the Matthews-Marner pairing. Matthews has scored a team-high 20 goals in 22 games since the duo joined forces. Marner had six goals to go with 25 assists, tops on the club in that span.
That’s 26 of the club’s 97 goals in that stretch. The rest of the Leafs’ top six forwards — John Tavares, Alex Kerfoot, Zach Hyman and William Nylander — combined for 40.
Minus Rielly — who racked up 72 points last season — and now Johnsson, Keefe has been looking to Matthews and Marner more and more. In Thursday night’s game, both saw career-high ice time: Matthews 27:05, Marner 26:39.
For the second straight game, they started with William Nylander as a linemate. That experiment ended after the first period Thursday, though Keefe said he might give it another shot.
The Leafs’ biggest problem of late has been giving up goals early in the period. Tightening up defensively, though, is tougher when the blue line — also missing injured Cody Ceci — is short-handed.
“It’s part of the game. Most teams go through it,” Keefe said Friday about the injuries, before the team left for road games Saturday in Ottawa and Sunday in Buffalo.
“What it does is provide more opportunities for guys who haven’t had as much opportunity as they may have liked, or weren’t getting opportunities at all. It helps the team grow, and that’s the great challenge for our team … The good teams don’t get fazed by injuries. We hope to be in a better spot as a team when our injured players return.”