A cynic would say the Maple Leafs aren’t playing with a full deck of cards these days, but Sheldon Keefe is shuffling them anyway.
With a practice in between Saturday’s fourth straight loss, dwindling depth scoring and Monday’s game with Tampa Bay, Keefe paired two aces with an eager young jack and shifted some other suits around.
Matthew Knies will get his big chance with fellow Arizonan Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the hope to get Knies his first goal since potting two when Toronto beat the Lightning on Oct. 21.
Max Domi saw a lot of time in the middle Sunday with Calle Jarnkrok and Pontus Holmberg, the idea to give Domi more space to try and notch his first goal in 11 Leaf games. Tyler Bertuzzi resets with John Tavares and William Nylander, the only others besides Matthews and Marner to score consistently.
“We’re looking to get more from the entire group throughout the lineup,” said Keefe, who didn’t want to make the changes just about a potential fireworks’ show when Knies rolls out with the two all-stars. “The timing is right with a practice (versus a day off). It’s been a while since we’ve had an opportunity to change some things.”
The coach was given little choice but to tinker, the Leafs devoid of an even-strength goal from a non-member of the Core Four forwards since Knies’s two in the third period in Tampa.
While Keefe was cutting Knies some slack as he still adjusts to a busy NHL travel grind that’s nothing like his previous hockey life in the NCAA, much more was expected of veterans Domi and Bertuzzi.
They’ve been moved around a bit already with little success, Bertuzzi failing to exploit the coveted chance with Matthews and Marner, and dropped to the fourth for a bit in Boston last week.
“We wanted to give (Domi) some reps in the middle today so we have that option (Monday) ,” Keefe said. “He’s played lots of centre. It’s seeing if we can push the puck to the middle of the ice to help that line and get him unlocked. He’s an offensive driver.”
Knies was naturally thrilled at the trust shown with his latest assignment. He stayed out for extra practice with Tavares, whose house he’s been staying at for now, and cataloging tips from assistant coach Guy Boucher.
“Guy has been helping me all season, to make better plays, simple plays,” Knies said. “He’s extra eyes on you in a game that can help. The more I can take in, it’s only going to make me better.”
Stationed beside Matthews in playoffs last year during his crash pro course after leaving the University of Minnesota made Knies a hungrier forechecker.
“We both skate well, have a lot of tenacity, Auston has a lot of playmaking ability and I find myself around the net a lot of times.
“I’ve strung a few good games together, but I have to keep that consistency. Every time I’m out there, I want to be dominant physically, take it to the net and have poise with the puck.
“We’re just excited to get another chance to play and recover from that (6-4 loss to Buffalo).”
With no extra forwards on the cap-crunched roster, there is little Keefe can do with Ryan Reaves, the fourth liner who has been idled as an enforcer and weak defensively as a minus-8 performer. He did have a scoring chance Saturday and remains with Noah Gregor between David Kampf, who has moved back from third unit pivot.
Toronto doesn’t want to be leaving gifts with bows and ribbons for the Bolts as they did when the Sabres cruised through town.
On Saturday, Tampa Bay overwhelmed the Ottawa Senators 6-4, their first road win after failing in four tries.
Nikita Kucherov had five points, a club-record fourth time he’s done that, setting up a potential duel with Matthews, who had his third hat trick of the season Saturday.