Toronto Maple Leafs: Sheldon Keefe’s top-line is still a work-in-progress

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

Joe Thornton. Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner.

Throw those three on a line together, and surely any team – especially one as good as the Toronto Maple Leafs – should have no problem finding success, right?

Well, so far, that hasn’t been the case for Sheldon Keefe and company.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top-line is still a work in progress.

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Through the first two games of the 2020-21 NHL season, the Leafs’ top-line offense has been inefficient, to say the least. They’re getting up shots, a lot of them actually, but that doesn’t really matter if they aren’t going in.

That, my friends, has been the problem.

Playing roughly 22 minutes of action a night – 24 minutes for Matthews, 24.5 for Marner, and 18 for Thornton – Toronto’s topliners are taking an average of seven shots a game and have recorded zero goals and only two assists for their efforts. While they have had chances to get things going offensively – they are dominating Keefe’s playing time both at even strength and in the power play after all -the trio just haven’t seemed to mesh like many a fan had hoped – which is increasingly concerning considering their issues haven’t even been consistent from game to game.

In their season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs’ top-line took 32 percent of the team’s total shots (11-34) and made none of them. While some of this has to do with the natural growing pains of introducing a new member to an established line, it’s hard to look at all seven of Matthews’ shots and say they were ‘good.’

Ideal? No. No team wants to win games 5-4 where they get nothing from their top-line, but it happens. Even the best shooters make no more than 20 percent of their shots spread out over a full season, so 0-7 nights are going to happen from time to time.

What isn’t ideal, however, is watching the very same unit – who have a combined +/- of -9 on the season – take only three shots in their second game of the season against a presumably outmatched Ottawa Senators squad and still expect to win.

Now, again, none of Matthews’ three shots went in, and that clearly isn’t going to show up favorably on the stat sheet, but it looks a whole lot better than the goose eggs put up by both Marner and Thornton. To make matters worse, Thornton had to spend two minutes in the box after clocking Thomas Chabot with a high stick and watched his team give up a game-clinching goal to Chris Tierney a few minutes later.

So what gives? Matthews and Marner played very well together last season alongside Zach Hyman. Theoretically, kicking Hyman down a line and replacing him with the NHL’s active assists king should make life easier for Matthews and Marner, not less.

Read. Toronto Maple Leafs: Top-line Joe Thornton is just crazy enough to work. light

Are they missing shooting? Hyman had 20 points last season, which is a mark Thornton hasn’t hit since literally a decade ago in 2010-11.

Or could it be that Thornton is simply better suited in the middle of the ice, as opposed to on the left-wing? Thornton mostly played second-line center for the Sharks last season and looked pretty good doing so despite being a good decade older than all of his teammates not named Patrick Marleau.

I… hmm.

Next. Assessing the best trade destinations for Pierre-Luc Dubois. dark

Fortunately for the Toronto Maple Leafs, they still have plenty of time to figure things out, get the schedule on their side, and move forward with the best rotation they can muster. If that means keeping Joe Thornton, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner together, then so be it. If they instead opt to move Thornton to a middle-six center role and audition left-wing scorers like Zach Hyman for a more expansive role, that’s cool too. Heck, the Leafs could even go out and make a trade if they can identify the right player at the right price. In summation, the season is young and it’s okay to still be a work in progress… for now.