Mirtle: Why Mike Babcock’s overdue line switcheroo became T-Dog’s time to shine with John Tavares, Mitch Marner
By James Mirtle Oct 15, 2019 60 The ol’ line switcheroo.
It sounds weird to say that, seven games into a season. But it’s been clear from the early days of preseason that Kasperi Kapanen simply wasn’t clicking with John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
I think that’s probably a playing-style thing — he’s such a north-south player, and his linemates want more of a facilitator — but even if it was just a small funk, it was certainly time for a change.
After the Maple Leafs’ lacklustre first period Tuesday against the struggling Minnesota Wild, Mike Babcock dumped Kapanen back to his regular home on the third line and elevated Trevor Moore into the top six.
Tavares scored almost immediately.
The trio then looked ridiculously dangerous the rest of the night, at one point hemming the shellshocked Wild in their own end for a long spell.
They finished the game having spent six minutes together at even strength and posting a 69 percent possession mark.
The legend of T-Dog was born.
“It was a great play by T-Dog leaving it for him,” Marner said of Moore’s pass on Tavares’ goal. “I just tried to get in front of the net. I didn’t really think he was going to take a slap shot right away, but I saw him wind up. It was a great shot — post, in — it’s a hard one to save. That started us off.”
“He just made a great play,” Tavares said of T-Dog.
Moore was forced to explain the nickname after the game. It is his Xbox Live handle, he said, one given to him by his father more than a decade ago.
His teammates are making sure it sticks.
We are helping in that regard by putting it in the headline here. The Leafs already have a Goat and a Souperman — let’s get nuts.
It’s kind of a fitting nickname for Moore’s role on the line, anyway. Keep up. When necessary, go fetch.
“I think that (the coaching staff) hope that I can bring something similar to what Hyms does — go retrieve the puck and get to the net, that kind of thing,” Moore said of the new arrangement. “Leave most of the skill stuff to them and just do the work.”
Moore has had such a great start to the season, meshing well with newcomers Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev on a revelation of a third line. Heck, he’s had a great start to his NHL career, after a 25-games-plus playoffs audition a year ago that opened a lot of eyes.
A year and a half ago, Moore was a small, undrafted 23-year-old winger who had only 33 points in 68 regular-season AHL games.
Now he’s playing on what was one of the best three or four lines in the NHL last season. And helping it perform.
Moore is doing it with such an aw-shucks everyman demeanour that it’s hard not to root for him, too. His game is one built on hard work and puck smarts, with his ability to rarely get caught out of position a huge plus when playing with two superstars like Tavares and Marner.
His ice time has already jumped dramatically from last season, to the 14-minutes-a-game range, thanks to getting a regular shift on both special-teams units, something that can be awfully tough for a young player to do under Babcock.
Through 32 regular-season games dating back to last season, Moore now sits fifth on the team in points per 60 minutes at five-on-five, trailing only the big three forwards and Andreas Johnsson.
Moore’s ability to generate points and scoring chances is all the more impressive over this stretch given his most common linemates have been The Goat and Tyler Ennis, with a healthy dose of Connor Brown and Par Lindholm thrown in, too.
Now a guy who looked like he was found money as a useful fourth-liner for a near-league minimum contract suddenly seems to have a much higher ceiling than that. And he’s signed for very little for another year beyond this one.
If he can play with the $11 million boys and continue to be effective, maybe there’s a role as a scoring presence in his future? Especially given the relative thinness of the Leafs’ left wing group compared to elsewhere up front.
It was only two periods, in a game against a likely bottom feeder, but it looked like the start of something interesting.
Even if Babcock wasn’t doing backflips about it postgame.
“I’ve just been watching it and noticing that he wants it,” the coach said quietly. “We just tried it, and it seemed to be OK so we just stayed with it.”
Judging from their effusive praise, Moore’s new linemates want it, too.
“He was getting open and talking a lot,” Marner said. “We were able to move the puck around pretty well. We’ve just got to keep doing that.”
“A very smart player,” Tavares said. “Plays with good energy, is tenacious and he’s got good touch. Reads the play well. If that’s the way it is going forward or tomorrow (in Washington), then we’ll continue to build on it.”
You could see enough in this glimpse to figure this should be the way it is going forward, at least until Zach Hyman returns in a couple of weeks. Find out what you have in Moore and get Kapanen playing with the linemates you always had him earmarked for (Kerfoot and Mikheyev), on a sheltered third line where he can attempt to regain some of the confidence he lost in the first seven games.
It may well be that Moore fits better up the lineup and Kapanen down, for stylistic reasons.
And given their cap hits, perhaps that gives you some flexibility to make a more permanent move, dealing from one position of strength to address an area of weakness at some point down the road. The Leafs appear as though they’ll have some interesting choices to make on that front between now and the trade deadline.
It’s never a bad thing when you’ve got more options, especially if you aren’t afraid to use them when in-game adjustments are needed.
Or, in this case, Moore options.