Make way for Mitch.
Skating with a regular unit for the first time with Sheldon Keefe at the helm — while indicating that he’s ahead on his timeline to return from his high-ankle sprain — Mitch Marner’s practice presence Monday morning caused a pretty significant ripple effect.
Returning to his normal spot on right wing with John Tavares, Marner squeezed last season’s second-line staple, Zach Hyman, while leaving Ilya Mikheyev on the left side. The byproduct of the decision was a new-look third unit, with Hyman on the left side with Kasperi Kapanen and Alexander Kerfoot.
Maybe more notably, though, Marner also replaced Morgan Rielly on the No. 1 power-play unit, making Tyson Barrie the new quarterback and preserving William Nylander’s spot on the preferred special teams group.
Rielly worked with the second unit with Hyman, Kerfoot, Jason Spezza and Nic Petan.
Again, none of the decisions Keefe has made since taking over almost two weeks ago should be considered a demonstration for Mike Babcock, who in his time with Toronto was resistant to change. But the tweaks at practice are just further examples of how different the two coaches view both the game and the personnel in Toronto.
Hyman and Rielly were included among the few players that would receive constant and unabated praise for their contributions under the previous regime. While still obviously valued members of the organization, they are the two players that seem to be benefitting the least from the switch to Keefe.
Rielly has struggled in many facets, but in particular from top of the umbrella on the Leafs’ power play, where he’s collected just five points in 23 games.
Hyman has been limited to nine games while missing the start of the year to continue rehabilitating his surgically-repaired knee. With injuries impacting all three members of the second line that had such immense success last season, to this point Hyman has been without the chance to share the ice with Tavares and Marner.
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