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How the Leafs’ 11-forward experiment is working out

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has been experimenting with an 11-forward look lately. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was going to use the final quarter of the season to experiment with optimal line combinations after a hyperactive trade deadline, while the team’s playoff opponent has been essentially confirmed for weeks.

There was bound to be some trial and error but when Ryan O’Reilly broke his finger on March 4, it forced Keefe into trying some new alignments quicker than expected.

Keefe’s decision to run an 11-forward/seven-defence alignment over a traditional 12-forward/six-defenceman setup has caused some consternation among sections of the fan base, but there appear to be material, trickle-down benefits for most of the core.

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“We might discover through this that we just might be better at 11 and seven,” Keefe told reporters after Monday’s morning meeting. “I think it’s important that we’re not locked into 12 and six.

“We have way more depth on defence than we’ve ever had. We have more depth on forward as well, so we’ve got more guys that can take on more responsibilities. While 12 and six is the most comfortable situation, it might not be the best one. It’s important that we give it some time and be really smart with how we manage it the rest of the way.”

Here’s a deeper look into how Keefe’s recent experimentation has worked thus far.

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has been experimenting with an 11-forward look lately. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mitch Marner and William Nylander appear to be the focal points

Mitch Marner and William Nylander have been the Maple Leafs’ best players this season and there’s a constant expectation that they’ll drive play on any line they’re placed on. When I asked Keefe following Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Sabres about the idea that his star wingers take on added defensive responsibility in the 11-forward format, he dismissed the premise entirely, telling me I’m overthinking it.

This gave me some pause — Keefe obviously understands his team and the game of hockey overall far better than I do — but perhaps we’re disagreeing about what we’re seeing on the ice.

Toronto installed its 11F-7D alignment on Saturday night against the Oilers, where Marner and Nylander both submitted outstanding performances. Alexander Kerfoot remained on the top line with Marner and Auston Matthews and they controlled 85 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5. There has…

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