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10 asks for the last 10 Leafs games
By Jon Steitzer11 months ago
After last night’s unceremonious loss to the Canes, the Leafs are now 10 games away from the end of the regular season. Not even three weeks until we start watching hockey we care about and not hockey that we strictly take in out of obligation or out of concern that someone might get hurt and the need to process that in the moment.
We can say a lot of things about the Leafs this season but I think we can all agree that they’ve been a good regular season team, a great one even. I just don’t think many people care. Respect in the handshake line is a shitty consolation prize and an entire generation of Toronto fans have been born in the window since the last playoff win. Is that entirely on Dubas? The current Leafs roster? No. Does that mean they don’t carry the burden of their predecessors’ failures? That’s also a no.
In the spirit of there being 10 games left, including the game tonight, I’m rattling off the 10 things that need to be seen before we move on to the hockey that matters.
1. The deadline acquisitions need to look like they’ve always been here
Right now we know that Noel Acciari is pure effort and will hit well above his weight class. That’s pretty nice and I’m sure it will help because it seems like he knows how to play hockey as well, but pretty much every other trade deadline acquisition has some questions lingering about them.
We’ll get to some of those individually below, but given that the Leafs have actually leveled off since making their moves there is some concern about whether or not this is a better team.
You can make a strong argument that this is very much still a period where everyone is getting to know each other, but that really needs to be resolved by Game One of the playoffs. Otherwise, it was the Leafs paying a high price to throw their lineup into chaos.
2. Consistently usable goaltending from Matt Murray
I’m setting the bar at “usable” for Matt Murray heading into the playoffs. Consistency hasn’t been his thing (unless consistently letting in four goals counts). Health hasn’t been his thing. Playing at home hasn’t been his thing. I think the Leafs should be heading into the playoffs with Samsonov as their Game One goaltender (hot take alert) regardless of whether it is at home or on the road and the net is his to lose.
The thing is the Leafs aren’t going to give Samsonov a long leash either and Murray will probably see time after the first loss Samsonov puts up with four goals against or more. If Murray isn’t usable at the time of the playoffs, maybe the Leafs are better off betting on Joseph Woll as being the next playoff Matt Murray and using him as the backup.
Murray’s last couple of starts before Saturday night were the start of some optimism, but with 10 games left, we should get an answer on what version of Matt Murray will be heading into the playoffs.
3. Jake McCabe needs a partner
At this point, McCabe has primarily played with TJ Brodie (as he was last night) and that seems like it has the potential to be a strong shutdown pairing for the Leafs. That said that is largely how McCabe’s time in Toronto started and since then he’s also seen some significant time with Liljegren and Holl as well. The Leafs may also need Brodie elsewhere to do some defensive heavy lifting and Toronto might need to find a Plan B for McCabe.
Generally, this is why I wouldn’t say I like the idea of late season defensive acquisitions as it’s hard to completely integrate someone into a new defensive system and find their ideal partner. The fact that McCabe has term should remove the stress about this trade in the long term, but the short term is very important, and having McCabe at his best for the playoffs is the main reason why he’s here.
It might not be the popular opinion, but I personally lean toward the idea of putting McCabe with Holl and sticking with it. If the plan was for McCabe to be the Muzzin replacement they might as well commit 100% to it. And with 10 games together down the stretch, they’ll start figuring each other out.
If it’s not Holl or Brodie, whoever it is, I hope they stick for the remaining 10 games and get a chance to figure each other out.
4. Knowing what the Leafs have in Ryan O’Reilly
This is more of an ask for the remaining eight games since that is the absolute earliest we see Ryan O’Reilly again, but there are plenty of questions for those games.
There’s a need to know if O’Reilly is 100% healthy. If he’s not and his finger will impede his abilities in some way, it will be time to adjust his role.
It will be nice to know if the plan is to play him on the second or third line or if they are committing to a hybrid.
Getting O’Reilly sorted also helps make sense of a few others like Sam Lafferty, Michael Bunting, and Alex Kerfoot in the process. There are a lot of balls in the air without ROR in the lineup and by next weekend things should hopefully be back on track.
5. The role of Matthew Knies
Matthew Knies and the University of Minnesota have advanced to the Frozen Four, meaning that April 6th (with a semi-finals loss) or April 8th (with a Finals appearance) will be the target days for his signing. Given load management benefits, the fact that Knies will be in Florida at the same time as the Leafs, and the excitement around seeing what he can do, it seems like the last three games of the season will be a lock for Knies and maybe if the semi-finals don’t go his way he’ll get the extra game against the Habs as well.
If Knies was knocked out this weekend instead of being put on hold for a couple of weeks, I’d say the Leafs would have a much better idea of how to use him come playoff time, but with the shorter window to try him out it will be interesting to see if the Leafs have to scratch serious playoff plans for him and just stick with burning a year of his entry-level deal.
I don’t see Knies as an X-factor type offensive player, but he certainly knows the top-six, offensive role and could be an interesting way of making space for Leafs forwards if they need it. He also has a way of making himself useful beyond the scoresheet and could slot into a bottom six role. It will be interesting to see what the Leafs do with him initially and how that works out because that will likely determine if he can bump one of the depth forwards from the lineup card in favour of an unknown upside.
Right now, I’m leaning towards Knies being an exciting mid-series addition when someone is too hurt or if someone hasn’t lived up to what was asked of them.
6. Getting Matthews to 40
This is a bit of a vanity ask but if Auston Matthews can hit 40 goals so we the narrative around his down season can at least fade a little. There’s no chance it goes away completely, but at least with 40 goals and presumably 80 points, we are talking about a middle-of-the-road Auston Matthews season and it’s not particularly reasonable to expect every year to be a career year.
I don’t doubt this happens, even if Auston is rested a couple of games.
And while I’m pushing the idea of getting players to 40 goals, Nylander should get there too.
7. Retiring the 11F7D
I’d like to say it’s been fun, but it really hasn’t. There are certain coaches that can pull off the 11-forward and 7-defenseman approach really well or have the right personnel for it, but I’m not sure that Sheldon Keefe is the coach for it and I’m yet to see the 7th defenseman utilized well enough that it is completely worth blowing up the fourth line for.
If we see the Leafs run with this in the playoffs I’d hope it takes the form of maintaining 3 really fresh players for potential overtime and likely leaning into Kerfoot being a Swiss Army knife, Knies being a sheltered option, and likely a defenseman that can be used in both special teams situations.
In reality, the Leafs have always liked rolling four lines 5v5 and the 7D is always tough to slot in so the traditional 12F6D is the way to go.
8. A proper sendoff for Wayne Simmonds
The reality is that there is a strong chance that there isn’t a role for Wayne Simmonds in the playoffs and with the Leafs not being able to find a potential trade spot for him this season and with Simmonds going on claimed on waivers, this is likely the end of Wayne’s playing career. It’s been a good one and that’s why he deserves a chance to go out by playing a few games in this final stretch and have a shot at one last NHL goal.
9. Load manage the hell of this team
If the Leafs use the 11F7D approach for load management purposes, they will have the ability to rest two forwards and two defensemen per game.
Maybe at the 10 game out mark it seems a little early to be talking about that and maybe it will require the Leafs clinching before that is something they’ll do and that might not come until Wednesday now. Maybe they want to have home ice advantage and the Leafs still need a combination of 6 Leafs wins and Lightning losses to get them to the advantage.
It’s maybe too early to be sitting star players, but hard working players like Acciari, Kampf, Giordano, etc. could all use nights off as well and it might be an immediate way of getting their load management in so players like Rielly, Brodie, Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Matthews can get theirs on the Florida road trip.
10. For the love of Wendel, just stay healthy
If the Leafs can go into the first round with their best lineup they have a real chance to not only see round two but see what they can do beyond it.
It is a dangerous thing to be confident about the Leafs, but there is a lot to be excited about this year and it would nice to not let wind out of the sails even before the playoffs start.
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