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It’s kind of crazy how a little tinkering can completely change the complexion of an offense.
On Jan. 23, the Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck in a rut. For the better part of the past month-and-a-half, dating back to Dec. 12, they’d essentially spun their tires.
With a 6-7-3 record during that 16-game span, something needed to change, even if they were still sitting comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division.
Still, limping into the playoffs wouldn’t be ideal for Mike Babcock, so he did what he’s done best over his long tenure as an NHL bench boss: he adjusted.
Gone were the lines that weren’t working and in came something to experiment with.
Mitch Marner moved up to the second line. Leo Komarov dropped down to the fourth. Gone was Frederik Gauthier, who went from the fourth line to the minors. Matt Martin took a seat in the press box. And the Leafs brought up 21-year-old prospect Kasperi Kapanen, who put up good numbers in the American Hockey League.
The result looked like this:
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Mitchell Marner
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Connor Brown
Leo Komarov – Dominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen
Babcock must be quite the alchemist. His concoction has proven effective. Really effective.
Kadri and Marner have benefitted most. The former had two points in his previous 20 games before welcoming Marner on his right wing. Kadri, during the team’s 9-1-0 run as of late, now has seven goals and 15 points (including a hat trick and a five-point night on Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 6-3 win).
Marner had just one goal in his previous 11 games before linking up with Kadri and Marleau. Since then, he has seven goals and 13 points.
Even Kapanen is getting in on the fun. He’s got two goals and three assists in that span playing a less offensive role on the team’s fourth line.
Babcock wanted balance, and he got it.
The Leafs, for all their offensive successes during this stretch — they’ve scored 43 goals during their past 10 games — could give Frederik Andersen a bit of a break.
Andersen is seeing a lot of rubber. In Wednesday’s win, Andersen saw 19 shots come his way in the first period and another 22 in the second. The barrage continued in the third with a further 16. Yes, the quick math says 57 total shots. The man made 54 saves.
Wednesday’s result could have been much different if not for Andersen’s heroics.
In four of the past 10 games, the Leafs have surrendered 40 or more shots.
As good as Andersen has been for the Leafs, that isn’t sustainable.
The good news for the Leafs and their fans is that Andersen is in the top-five among starters (minimum 1,500 minutes played) when it comes to goals saved above average, one of the better goalie metrics to judge how good a puck-stopper is.
Andersen is also sixth in adjusted save percentage, which takes into account shot location when determining a goalie’s save percentage, taking the traditional metric one step further.
It’s all working right now for Toronto. And within their reach is the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs are just four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck