Sheldon Keefe facing heavy criticism for how he's managing his line combinations right now; plus playoff line projections

Published March 22, 2023 at 10:38

Following a blowout 7-2 loss on the road on Long Island, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is taking a lot of heat for how he's been handling the Leafs' lineup - particularly how he's been constantly rotating defensemen in and out of the lineup and mixing up his forward combinations.

Former Leaf Carlo Colaiacovo believes that what's delaying some more solid lines and pairings is that the Buds are still awaiting the return of Ryan O'Reilly, who suffered a broken finger a few weeks back, which will have cost him 4 weeks with the team when all is said and done. This morning, on TSN1050's First Up, The Athletic's Jonas Siegel confirmed that Colaiacovo's theory is correct, but shared some of his concern that the team is running out of time to set things in stone.

"The problem is, you're waiting for such a big piece [in O'Reilly] - but I don't know that that is the reason why there's been so much change. Obviously, having 7 [or more] defensemen means you're kind of shuffling things constantly. That's part of the reason I don't love it, especially after a trade, with so many new players. You're trying to build continuity and it's like every shift is different combinations... so you're kind of in this weird place where nothing has really stuck." - Jonas Siegel on Keefe's concerning trend of constant player rotation getting in the way of the players building chemistry with one another

Siegel went on to point out that the Leafs only have one set line in Zach Aston-Reese, David Kampf and Noel Acciari - and it's their fourth line, which is another reason for concern. Yes, Auston Matthews and John Tavares both have pre-existing chemistry with both William Nylander and Mitch Marner, but there has been a pretty consistent rotation of wingers on both the first and second lines this season. Between Michael Bunting, Alexander Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok, they have all spent time on each of the top 3 lines. Matthews also recently expressed the desire to have Jarnkrok on his line full time, which could help in solidifying the top line. I'd imagine that a Jarnkrok, Matthews, Marner line could become a reality sooner than later.

Still, with Keefe playing musical chairs every practice and every game, it's giving the Leafs some issues building chemistry - and the postseason is not the time where you want to have to figure things out. I'm sure things will only become more challenging once Matthew Knies signs. That can't happen until the conclusion of his NCAA season, but we'll know if he's heading to the Frozen Four by this weekend. If the University of Minnesota loses on Thursday or Saturday, his season will be over. The Leafs are going to want to give Knies a look in the NHL before committing to playing him in the playoffs, which means that lines likely won't be fully set until the last game of the season, or even worse, Game 1 of the 2022-23 playoffs.

Obviously, once O'Reilly is back, I'm sure we'll see things begin to take shape a little more, minus maybe trying to fit Knies into the picture and seeing what they have in him at the NHL level. By the time all is said and done, perhaps we'll see something like this:

Extra: Knies (with the likelihood that he and Lafferty will rotate)

Extra: Gustafsson/Liljegren

Naturally, Schenn, Liljegren and Gustafsson will likely all be involved in a bit of a rotation, so that bottom pair may never be fully set, except if the injury bug bites, but I could see the roster looking something like this as we near the playoffs.
March 22   |   375 answers
Sheldon Keefe facing heavy criticism for how he's managing his line combinations right now; plus playoff line projections

Will Matthew Knies be on the Leafs' playoff roster come Game 1 against Tampa?

Yes21557.3 %
No16042.7 %
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