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5 burning questions for Sheldon Keefe ahead of Game 1 vs Bruins

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
8 days ago
There’s a ton of pressure on a number of people within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization as they get set to take on the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While team president Brendan Shanahan may take the cake at the top of the list, there’s no denying the fact that head coach Sheldon Keefe is facing a ton of pressure heading into the postseason.
Keefe signed a multi-year extension before the season and it was a huge vote of confidence for him from GM Brad Treliving. After the organization and Dubas parted ways, following some head-scratching press conference comments, Keefe’s future with the franchise became extremely unclear, until Treliving decided he didn’t want his coach to be a ‘lame duck’, working without a contract the following season. Treliving moved quickly, giving Keefe a two-year extension through the end of the 2025-26 season. The Maple Leafs bench boss was provided with some job security and in his first season working for his new GM, managed to lead the group to a 46-26-10 record, good for third in the Atlantic Division. Bring on the Bruins.
Here are five burning questions for the Maple Leafs bench boss as Toronto looks to exercise its demons:

How Short is Samsonov’s Leash?

From all accounts it’s going to be Ilya Samsonov for Game 1 as he’s shown with his run the past few months that he’s more than capable of facing adversity, being resilient and finding a way to win hockey games. It wasn’t always pretty this season in the Maple Leafs’ crease, regardless of who was starting, but with the 82-game season in the rearview, and with Samsonov almost doubling Woll in wins this season, he deserves first dibs.
The good news is everyone should be fresh. No Maple Leafs goalie was overworked this season; injuries had lots to do with that, and so did a mid-season reset for Samsonov, but the Russian netminder only appeared in 40 regular season games and should have enough in the tank to go the distance should the Leafs do the unthinkable.
His play of late hasn’t been great, as Samsonov’s last two starts on April 11 & 13 against the Devils and Canadiens included a six-spot and a five-spot. Frankly, it was ugly, and after he let in three in the first period against New Jersey, Keefe decided not to pull him. That led me to believe he didn’t want to shatter Samsonov’s confidence only a week away from the playoffs. Now we wait to see what happens if Samsonov lets in a couple of early ones in Game 1 or Game 2 and how fast Keefe decides to make the switch.

Who Gets the Pastrnak Assignment?

Fun fact, Keefe has never coached an NHL playoff game against the Bruins, so seeing how creative he’ll be to slow down their offense will be fun to watch.
David Pastrnak had 43 more points than any other Bruin this season, he was the alpha dog in Boston this season. Without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci up front this season, Pastrnak decided to take matters into his own hands and lead the charge, regardless of who was playing with him down the middle of the ice. Well, it worked.
Keefe normally loves to match lines and even tries doing the best he can on the road so I’m curious to see who gets the assignment of trying to slow down Pastrnak. It’s going to take a team effort and Keefe is likely going to give the first assignment to John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Bobby McMann, who could possibly play in Game 1. The Leafs need McMann to be as physical as possible and do whatever he can to get under Pasta’s skin, meanwhile, Marner and Tavares will be trying to retrieve pucks and stay in the proper positions to quickly turn defence into offence.
I could see Keefe giving Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe this assignment as well. Both are very physical defencemen who need to be leaning on Pastrnak whenever they can and take every opportunity to lay the body. It’s playoffs, there’s no turning back now. Benoit and McCabe have had their moments this season, they’ve played a ton together and when they are clicking, can be an effective shut-down duo who deliver some crushing blows. Keefe should consider these five for the first crack at Pasta.

How Will Keefe Spark Offence If Needed?

Goals are hard to come by during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and they’ve been hard to come by against the Bruins all season long:
Seven goals in four games isn’t going to get it done, regardless of the opponent, but once again, all season long, the Bruins have had the Maple Leafs number. It’s like the older brother who is just way stronger, better looking and gets everything from your parents that you have always wanted, asked for, and never sniffed.
Keefe is likely going Max Domi with Tyler Bertuzzi and Auston Matthews on the top unit, and considering his horrible play of late, William Nylander on the third line with Pontus Holmberg and one of Matthew Knies or Nick Robertson. With the Leafs’ offensive woes against Boston this season, Keefe would be smart to give Robertson a look early on in the series.
If this alignment isn’t working in the top nine, Marner should go back to Matthews on the top line, keep Domi on the other wing, and move Nylander up with Tavares as the duo have played together a ton and can find instant chemistry. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to these kinds of adjustments being needed.

How Can Keefe Help Fix the Power Play?

The Maple Leafs finished the 2023-24 season ranked 7th in the NHL at 24% efficiency, however the last month of the season, Toronto only managed five goals on 28 attempts, good for 18%. If you go back to March, it’s even worse as they went 4/44 with the man advantage. It’s gone stale for a while now and Keefe needs to consider his options against the Bruins.
One small adjustment the Leafs bench boss should consider is going five forwards, taking Morgan Rielly off the top unit, and moving Tyler Bertuzzi to in front of the net, allowing for Marner and Matthews to work each point. When Toronto’s PP is effective, they are moving their feet, rotating as opposed to standing around feeding each other one-timers, and if they are going to be able to find the back of the net against the Bruins, Bertuzzi needs to be in front, taking the eyes away from likely starter Jeremy Swayman. Rielly often doesn’t shoot the puck when he should, and yes, he has great vision and his skating ability is off the chart, but if you’re not going to be a threat, you quickly become a wasted asset.

Who Are the Starting Six?

It feels like now that everyone is healthy on the Maple Leafs’ back end, Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin with start together, Benoit and McCabe as the second pair and Joel Edmundson and Timothy Liljegren as the bottom pair. Lyubushkin hasn’t been as effective as we saw earlier on in the season so he’s certainly on watch, with TJ Brodie lurking in the background.
Keefe’s leash will be short and if Toronto loses Game 1, I’d expect to him change up the blueline as quickly as Game 2. Mark Giordano is also an option and it’s likely he’d get the call before Conor Timmins, but both appear long shots at this point.
Suppose Brodie ends up making his way back into the lineup. In that case, Keefe has to do whatever he can to avoid playing him alongside Rielly, give Liljegren that assignment, and put him with Edmundson to form their own shut-down duo, as he’s shown he’s capable of playing his offside, he’s just not capable of doing it with Rielly.
Nevertheless, the Maple Leafs get set to face off against their bullies with hopes of finally landing a counterpunch. The series is going to be electric, it’s going to be a roller coaster of emotions and it’s filled with a ton of pressure. Let’s see how Keefe handles his first crack at beating the Bruins in a playoff series.

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