Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nick Ritchie was benched for the final eight minutes in the second period of the team's 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Friday. When he returned to the ice for the third period, he was replaced on the team's top unit and moved to the fourth line.
But Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe feels the criticism of the forward has been unfair. He deflected several questions about the Rtichie's benching before redirecting the blame at two of his core-four forwards.
"You should be asking as many questions about [Auston] Matthews and [Mitch] Marner as you are Ritch," Keefe said.
And he has a point.
Marner has no goals and one assist this season. If you go back to the previous campaign and include the playoffs, he has gone 13 games without lighting the lamp.
Matthews played his second game after recovering from offseason wrist surgery. Although he looked great in his season debut in a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Monday, he didn't find the back of the net. Instead of building off that performance, he and the rest of his linemates were flat.
"For me personally it wasn't my best performance tonight," Matthews said. "For me, I'm just trying to find my way and try to get in the rhythm again and just go from there."
Matthews' errant clearing attempt in his own zone helped set up San Jose's third goal of the game. With 8:05 to go in the middle frame, that play was the last we saw of Ritchie until the third period.
The Maple Leafs have scored 11 goals in five games this season. William Nylander, Jason Spezza and Michael Bunting are tied for the team lead with two goals.
Spezza scored his second goal of the season, immediately after he was on the ice for the Shark's game-opening goal.
Nylander has been a pleasant surprise thus far and Bunting, who signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract this summer has fit in well on the team's second line with John Tavares.
Ondrej Kase, another newcomer, and Tavares each scored their first goals of the season on Friday. But outside of that, the team looked flat against the Sharks.
Before the game, Keefe was asked about the identity of his team and he answered by pointing at the team's offense. Matthews and Marner are key cogs in that offensive wheel and their slow starts present some unfamiliar territory.
Matthews and Marner both began their NHL careers on the same night, Oct. 12, 2016. You may remember it. Matthews scored a record four goals in his NHL debut. They are known for starting the season with production and that hasn't happened thus far.
At 2.2 goals per game, that is the lowest the Leafs have recorded in the first five contests since they joined the league.
|Season||Team Goals Through 5 Games||Goals Per Game|
Contributing to the team's scoring woes has been the ineffective power play. They scored just three times with the man-advantage at a rate of 18.8 percent. The top power-play unit, consisting of the team's top forwards (Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander) and defenseman Morgan Rielly struggled to get set up in San Jose's zone. The second unit, which consists of Bunting, Spezza, Engvall, Ritchie and defenseman Rasmus Sandin got more time on the second chance and generated some chances at the net.
"I thought their unit was great," Rielly said. "I think our unit has to clean it up, but I think we feel confident that we can do that."
The Leafs changed up their power play this season by assigning the duties to new assistant coach Spencer Carbery. It has yet to yield the results they'd like to see.
Michael Hutchinson made 26 saves on 30 shots in his season debut in goal. Although he admitted he didn't have a strong game, Keefe defended his play and went back to the lack of scoring from his players.
"There's a lot more going on than just the goaltender today," Keefe said. "We have to score a lot more than we are."
The Leafs head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins on Saturday night. Keefe indicated that he'll likely go back to placing Ritchie back on the top line with Matthews and Marner. Until the duo starts lighting the lamp, it probably won't matter who is on the wing