The last time the Leafs were in the playoffs it didn’t go so well. This is a statement that seems to ring true every year, but last year seemed to carry with it the highest expectations of a season since the glory days of Pat Quinn. Frankly, the Leafs weren’t supposed to lose, and whether you want to brush it off as Carey Price playing some of the best hockey of his career, or the impact of losing players like Tavares and Muzzin, and others like Hyman and Foligno not being at 100%, the decision is up to you, but with Tavares out of the round due to his injury, and the Canadiens effectively neutralizing the Matthews and Marner line, it really just left William Nylander to carry the load. That didn’t work, and there probably needs to be steps taken to avoid that happening again.
One of the things that perhaps needs to be addressed is that the Canadiens didn’t really shut down the Matthews-Marner-Hyman line. Carey Price did. Ben Chiarot certainly threw some hits, but it didn’t impede Matthews, Hyman, and Marner being 3 of the 4 highest shooters on the Leafs in round one last year, William Nylander being the other player in that group. There are plenty of factors about whether or not those shots resulted in rebounds, whether they were perimeter shots, etc, that need to be considered as well, and what you see is that Matthews and Marner did still have some of the highest HDCF chances, Matthews’ shots created a high number of rebounds and that Matthews led the team in individual expected goals for during the round. On paper Matthews certainly did enough and Marner was better than we gave him credit for, but numbers don’t tell the full story and it’s in that land of eye test results, goaltending, and unmeasured aspects like shot placement, and positioning that account for a lot in the small sample of seven games.
So if we agree the Leafs weren’t as bad as they looked on paper, we can also agree they have to be a whole lot better. There’s also something to be said for the fact that production drops in the playoffs. Between line matching, increased game management from officials, and the fact that you are playing only the good teams that have probably put in a ton of time in the video room on their opponent, the playoffs are significantly tougher.
Against the Lightning, there is no reason to believe we’ll see Matthews on the ice without Hedman. That’s a scary thought. The equally scary thought is that the Lightning still has Ryan McDonagh to go up against John Tavares. When they do manage a favourable outcome against the defense, they still need to beat a goaltender that had a .937 save percentage in last year’s playoffs. The short of it is the Leafs still need to find ways of spreading around their scoring.
We’ve already seen some attempts at the Leafs correcting the reliance on two lines by having Tavares play with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot while Nylander has been playing with Pierre Engvall and David Kampf. The result has been a less top-heavy top-six forward group, but instead a balanced top nine group, with Kerfoot and Mikheyev being skilled enough to work with Tavares, and Nylander tapping into the offensive abilities of Pierre Engvall while relying on Engvall and Kampf to compensate for Nylander’s defensive shortcomings. The end result is also three lines that you don’t really worry about being caught out there against an unfavourable matchup.
Still, a team like the Lightning not only matches that but probably executes it a whole lot better as they’ve been taking this approach a lot longer than the Leafs. The difference is the Lightning’s depth isn’t what it used to be and potentially that is the advantage for the Leafs.
With the possible return of Ondrej Kase and his potential to take Alex Kerfoot’s spot on the second line, the Leafs have the opportunity to infuse a bit more skill in their fourth line as well. A Blackwell-Kerfoot-Spezza could be very impactful, as could giving Nick Robertson a go in that spot as well. The idea of having a set of capable fresh legs ready to go and do some damage during long stretches without a whistle, or that can be relied on for a regular shift in marathon overtimes is a luxury that not many teams will be able to deploy. And the fact that there is this level of competency that can allow for the in-game shuffling of lines to move other players around to best keep the pressure on the opposition is also to the Leafs’ benefit.
Taking this approach is largely contingent on one premise that runs in opposition to the main criticism of the Leafs in the playoffs, and that is that Toronto is too soft. Deploying a loaded fourth line means sitting both Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford, and the lack of a nuclear deterrent might be an issue for the Leafs (although the effectiveness of a nuclear deterrent is open for plenty of debate.)
Even if the fourth line isn’t optimized for rolling four lines capable of scoring, the Leafs are in a better place than before with spreading out their players. Matthews has worked well with Bunting, and moving Marner to another line isn’t the end of the world as it used to be. Hypothetically even with a pugilist in the lineup, the Leafs could have capable lines of
As much as there is something left to be desired by this approach, there are plenty of opportunities to run more intense combinations of three lines within those four lines as well.
The short of it is pretty simple, healthy, and even with a couple of unfortunate issues, the Leafs are in a deeper position than they’ve been in previous years. It’s not to say the Lightning or anyone else will be the easy out that the Canadiens should have been last year, but through spreading around their talent, running a skilled fourth line, and overloading when necessary, the Leafs should be in a better spot than they were a year ago.
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