Is it weird to say that, even though the preseason hasn’t even started for the Leafs, never mind the regular season, a playoff spot seems pretty likely for the Leafs already?
Even with the three headed monster in the Atlantic that is the Leafs, the Lightning, and the Bruins, after that, it’s basically nothing. Florida *might* have a chance, but if they do, they’re competing for a wild card spot with the Metropolitan teams. Buffalo could pull off a 2016-17 Leafs run and squeak in, but getting rid of O’Rielly doesn’t help that cause. Detroit has some young pieces, but they have one of the worst defenses in the league. Montreal keeps trading good players for wingers that they want to play center. And then after 50 feet of cow manure, Ottawa also exists in the sad state that they do.
So, barring a slew of injuries, the Leafs should probably make the playoffs. Which means that they don’t have to go in to each game guns blazing, and maybe slow it down this year. You already got Andrew Raycroft’s name out of the record books, you don’t need to run Freddy to the ground to do it again, you don’t need to play Ron Hainsey 20+ minutes a night and play him every game that he doesn’t have an injury. Take it easy.
And you know what you can also do with a whole six months while waiting for the playoffs start? You can really start screwing around and going bold. REAL BOLD. So bold Kyle Dubas will yell at you and tell you to be more conservative. But, let’s look at some strategies the Leafs could totally do this year for the hell of it, because they can.
Only Run Three Centers
One of the big “stories” (and by stories, I mean terrible click bait articles written by some MSM member in order to make it seem like the team hates each other) this summer is how the Leafs will distribute the TOI between Matthews, Tavares, and Kadri. If you play Tavares and Matthews 18-20 minutes each, that leaves between 20-24 minutes for Kadri and the 4C. If the 4C gets 7-8 minutes, we’re looking at roughly 15 minutes for Kadri, which might not be enough for him.
Well, problem solved. Don’t have a 4C. Go with 11 forwards and 7 defenseman, and play whichever center isn’t tired with Kapanen and Ennis, or whoever the fourth line is going to be. This allows you to give all three centers around 20 minutes, and it allows you to share the wealth on defense as well.
Babcock wants to play Hainsey for the full two minutes on the PK. Well, make him the 7th defenseman, and use him as a PK specialist, and then you don’t have to worry about killing him by the playoffs. Or you want to give him regular ice time, but you don’t have any reliable PKers aside from Hainsey and Zaitsev, bring up Marincin and use him as the PK specialist. Or bring up Liljegren and only use him on the PK. It’s like making a bunk bed. There’s so much more room for activities!
Five Forward Power Play
Speaking of the power play, the Leafs have a wide array of offensively talent forwards, and they can use that to their luxury on the power play this season. Down by a goal late in the game? Rielly or Gardiner are hurt, and you don’t want to try any other defenseman on the power play?
Well, just throw out Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, and Kadri, and let them wreak havoc on the poor unfortunate souls that have to PK that unit. Babcock’s reasoning for having a four forward PP is because forwards score more than defenseman, so why not double down and make it five forwards?
Of course, this could be more situational based. If your playing against a team that’s playing grinders and defensive defensemen that likely aren’t going to be generating much offense shorthanded, this might be a better option. If you’re up against Connor McDavid, it might not be a good idea to have Marner and Nylander on the blueline in that scenario.
Loading Up the Top Six
Speaking of loading up lines, if the Leafs are down by a goal or two in the third period, it might not be a bad idea to start stacking lines to create better chances. The fact that Babcock rarely played Marner-Matthews-Nylander the last couple years when really pressed for a goal is bad enough, but when you have enough players to do it for two lines, it’s definitely something that should be done. If you run:
Tavares – Matthews – Nylander
Marleau – Kadri – Marner
and just rotate between those lines, and maybe you throw out a Johnsson – Hyman – Kapanen line to piss people off (but never let them take faceoffs), and the Leafs chances of tying the game are probably a lot better than if Babcock were to constantly throw out the fourth line for some reason.
If you have one line where it’s three dangerous shots in Tavares, Matthews, and Nylander, and then a second line where you reunite the dynamite line that was Marleau, Kadri, and Marner last season, and the Leafs can keep themselves in games more often.
Pump and Dump Zaitsev
Remember a few years ago, when Dion Phaneuf was having an amazing season, and we managed to get a decent return for him from Ottawa. Well, that was because the Leafs gave him lots of power play time, and sheltered him with Gardiner, and they managed to get rid of his $7 million contract without retaining salary, something that Ottawa wasn’t able to do last season when sending him to Los Angeles.
Part of the reason the Leafs could do that was because they were tanking, and could afford to have a worse power play if Dion Phaneuf’s numbers got boosted on it. Well, if the Leafs (likely) don’t have a problem with making the playoffs, why not try and do the same thing with Zaitsev this season.
If you aren’t going with the aforementioned five forward powerplay, why not swap out Gardiner for Zaitsev on the second power play unit? Part of his 36 point rookie season was his 12 points on the power play, so maybe giving him that chance again will make him look like a more tradeable asset. If the Leafs can offload that contract, that’s $4.5 million that the Leafs can put into Matthews, Marner, and maybe even Gardiner, while being able to bring up a defenseman on the Marlies that could probably be similar, if not better, than Zaitsev.
An added bonus is that by taking Gardiner off the powerplay, it hurts his stats, and his value, and makes him A LOT cheaper for his next contract.
Three Forward 3v3 Units
In case it wasn’t made obvious in the playoffs last year, the Leafs don’t have a large surplus of puck-moving defensemen. They helped it a bit by not bringing back Polak, but they still have Hainsey and Zaitsev, who probably won’t be much help at 3v3.
Well, the Leafs could take advantage of their surplus of forwards and start throwing out three forward units if Gardiner/Rielly/Dermott are tired, or one of them got hurt in the middle of the game, and they’re short a defenseman. Nothing would scare the other team more than throwing out Matthews-Nylander-Kapanen or Tavares-Marleau-Marner.
Sure, they might not really need to do this that often, but don’t knock it until you try it.