The Maple Leafs need to solve their chemistry problem. And it starts at the top line

The Maple Leafs need to solve their chemistry problem. And it starts at the top line

Tyler Bertuzzi’s early-season failures also fall on Auston Matthews as the team’s No. 1 centre, writes Nick Kypreos. × Already a Subscriber? Sign in You are logged in  Switch accounts Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS▲

After watching the Maple Leafs lose to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, it was painfully evident that a lack of chemistry is the main element holding this team back in the early going this season — especially on its top line.

Sure, a handful of new players are still trying to find their way in Toronto. But could there be more to it?

I grew up watching some legendary teams with great chemistry, and the common denominator is that it always started with the top line.

The ’60s had the “Production Line” (Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay) in Detroit and the “Goal-a-Game Line” (Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield) in New York City. In the mid-’70s we had the “LCB Line” (Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber) in Philadelphia and the “French Connection” (René Robert, Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin) in Buffalo. The ’80s introduced the Stastny brothers (Marián, Peter and Anton Stastny) in Quebec and the “Triple Crown Line” (Charlie Simmer, Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor) in Los Angeles.

Aside from elite production, the best part about great top lines is they motivate, inspire and rally the rest of the lineup.

So when the Leafs announced that Tyler Bertuzzi was being signed to a one-year, $5.5-million (U.S.) contract, it looked like the high-end player who’s been missing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on playoff rosters for many years had arrived.

“I’m excited,” Bertuzzi said during training camp. “It’s a big opportunity. I’m not going to take it lightly.”

Bertuzzi has a reputation for going hard to the net with energy and aggression. He’s a skilled player who can also answer to the likes of Matthew Tkachuk and Corey Perry in the post-season. He excelled in Detroit by opening up passing lanes, giving and receiving pucks from difficult places and working hard to generate scoring chances. He is a bigger, heavier version of Michael Bunting, with a higher ceiling.

Bunting had 112 points in two seasons with the Leafs, but they decided to let him walk to Carolina in free agency and signed Bertuzzi to take his spot. It seemed like a great idea, until it wasn’t.

Since the first pre-season game, Bertuzzi, Marner and Matthews could barely string three passes together. The trio was advertised as the unstoppable force the Leafs were searching for but the chemistry just hasn’t worked out. Now three weeks into the season, Bertuzzi has fallen to the second line while Calle Järnkrok steps into the top spot.

Maybe the first line’s problems are just a sign of the times.

Big lines don’t produce at the same rate as they did in the pre-salary cap era. The closest the NHL has come to an old school top line recently was the “Perfection Line” in Boston with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. They were amazing to watch until the coaches thought the second line needed some love. So they took “Pasta” away and broke up the band.

With such pay disparities between first and fourth lines, from $13-million (U.S.) contracts to $750K, coaches are often left with little support down the rest of the lineup. Those issues are even more challenging for the Leafs since they decided to spend half their salary cap on Matthews, Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.

It’s why in the past, they’ve thrown left wingers on minimum salaries like Joe Thornton and Denis Malgin on the top line and hoped they stuck.

But Bertuzzi is not on a minimum deal, and that’s what makes his struggles (even looking beyond the three points, including just one at five-on-five, in nine games) all the more disappointing. He was brought in to serve a specific purpose, even if it’s only for one year until Matthew Knies is ready to assume the role.

While many will be quick to blame Bertuzzi, all three players should take their fair share of blame for not gelling as the season rolls into November.

There’s no doubt that Bertuzzi hasn’t yet shown the ability to read and react at the pace Matthews and Marner have been accustomed to like Bunting did last season. Marner, meanwhile, has never been known for his quick starts, and this season is no exception.

And Matthews? He still needs to get a better understanding of the great responsibility a No. 1 centreman historically holds in the NHL — and it’s not just to earn individual awards.

The job is simple: make your linemates better.

Abel to Lindsey Jacques Lemaire to Steve Shutt, Bryan Trottier to Clark Gillies, Mark Messier to Adam Graves, Sidney Crosby to Chris Kunitz. That’s a small sample of elite centres getting greatness out of good players en route to Stanley Cups.

Dating all the way back to the pre-season, Matthews and Bertuzzi have yet to connect on the scoresheet at all. Bertuzzi’s failures are Matthews’ failures, too. Being known as the best shooter in the league just isn’t good enough anymore.

Marner is struggling right now and it’s no coincidence that Matthews is too. The No. 1 centreman is historically the player that makes his wingers better, but we talk more about how Marner has made Matthews a better player than we do for how Matthews makes Marner better. Matthews needs to flip that narrative this year.

The good news for the Leafs is that this isn’t mid-January. We know what Matthews and Marner and capable of. Bertuzzi will get another opportunity to play with them and live up to the potential we all talked about in the off-season.

It’s important that when the reunion comes, they will be more prepared.

Great lines can carry teams, and those who played on them will tell you about a common theme: the entire line was unselfish; they genuinely cared about each other; they respected each other; they weren’t always best friends but it sure helped when they were.

Chemistry doesn’t always have to happen effortlessly either. It can take being more conscientious and committed to one another. As long as the importance is recognized and there’s a willingness to achieve it, talent always has a chance to prevail.

Keefe may have temporarily split up the top line he envisioned carrying him to the promised land, but for the Leafs’ sake, let’s hope Matthews, Marner and Bertuzzi can still quietly build something that will pay off in the months ahead.

Kyper’s Korner

Lots of talk about mandating neck guards but the major topic among the players during their NHLPA fall tour remains pro sports gambling. Many players are still confused on what really happened with Shane Pinto. While they understand the league doesn’t want them betting on-site at team facilities, no one has specifically laid out the boundaries. Does that include the parking garage at the rink? Or restaurants attached to the building? What about road trips? Is a team plane or bus fair game? How about the hotel lobby? Can they place a football bet there? Players need clarity now before they find themselves suspended and in front of an NHL arbitration judge looking for more answers.

With the Calgary Flames in a flux, teams are starting to line up to pick at the carcass if ownership decides to unload by American Thanksgiving. It appears Chris Tanev is the most coveted defenceman, led by the watchful eye of his former GM who’s now in Toronto, Brad Treliving. Multiple teams will inquire on Tanev … and don’t rule out Edmonton and Vancouver revisiting. Additionally, at least two U.S.-based teams will aggressively be in on the most-coveted shutdown guy if he’s available.

Sounds like the Senators will not be looking to replace Pierre Dorian anytime soon. I see Steve Staios remaining the interim GM for the foreseeable future.

Change my mind:

On ending three-on-three overtime: It’s never looked less like hockey and more like basketball than it does today. Time to get rid of it.

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