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5 storylines to follow as the Maple Leafs close out the regular season

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Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
27 days ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs have 14 games left to close out the regular season in what’s been a very up-and-down year. From getting chomped on by the injury bug essentially the entire season, to watching Auston Matthews pursue 70 goals, it’s been quite the year of storylines during the 2023-24 campaign.
With less than a month until the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s going to be intriguing to see how things shape up in the Eastern Conference. It appears the Maple Leafs will either play the Boston Bruins or Florida Panthers, which ideally isn’t a great matchup either way in the first round. While that’s certainly something to follow in the conference, let’s take a look at some other storylines to keep a close eye on in Toronto with the playoffs just around the corner:

Goaltending Battle Will be Interesting

As it stands right now, it feels like Sheldon Keefe would go with Ilya Samsonov as his Game 1 starter, however, it’s too early to write off Joseph Woll. Samsonov’s been playing a ton of late and rightfully so as he’s been much much better since being reset and taken off the ice for a couple of weeks.
Woll hasn’t been given a solid run since his ankle injury and has only won two games in 2024. Samsonov’s save percentage is quite worrisome, however, his winning percentage is among the best in the league. With Toronto playing essentially every other night until the end of the season, it will be important for Keefe to give both goalies some reps and try and get them both at the top of their game for the playoffs.
The Leafs play the Panthers twice down the stretch so it will be fun to watch what Keefe does with those two games. Split them up or give one goalie both, or what about hiding the playoff starter against them so they don’t overexpose? Decisions decisions, but one thing is for sure, the Leafs need one goalie to get hot heading into the postseason or else they stand no chance of getting out of the first round.

Where Does Mitch Marner Fit Back In?

Right now Keefe needs to give Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi and Auston Matthews some more run as the team’s top unit. They’ll be back together when the Leafs face off against the Oilers on Saturday night, and against the Capitals this week they were one of the best lines we’ve seen in a Leafs uni since Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur. The chemistry was off the charts and you could see by the smiles on their faces and the laughs on the ice how much fun they were having running the show in Washington.
Matthews can play with anyone, he’s that good, but it’s the other two to worry about. Domi can dish the puck with the best of them and having a facilitator on the line obviously makes a ton of sense when you have the best goal-scorer in the league. If Marner isn’t there, Domi is the next best thing. Bertuzzi has been doing a great job getting to the dirty areas of the ice and doing the little things to keep plays alive. He’s going to be so fun to watch in the playoffs.
So what about Marner? Can a Tavares/Nylander/Marner second line work? Nylander hasn’t played left wing a lot this year and moving Tavares to the wing doesn’t seem like something Keefe wants to entertain anymore. He may have to if he wants to keep Domi and Bertuzzi on the top line where they may be the most effective playing alongside #34.
If Marner slides back in with Matthews once he returns from his ankle injury, look for Keefe to keep Domi on the top unit and move Bertuzzi down with Tavares and Nylander.

Can Nick Robertson do Enough Down the Stretch?

Robertson is one of the bubble forwards for the playoffs as his game doesn’t scream playoff hockey. He hasn’t been able to consistently provide secondary scoring, even though every time he returns to the lineup he ends up scoring.
With Bobby McMann, Matthew Knies and Bertuzzi ahead of him on the depth chart and with Domi playing the wing of late, Robertson may be in tough to crack the lineup. Until Calle Jarnkrok comes back he should be safe, but once the Leafs are at full strength, Robertson may be in a suit and tie eating popcorn when the puck drops on the postseason.
The knack is he’s small, he’s pushed off the puck too easily and he can’t play a defensive style to mesh well in the bottom six. There are no top-six minutes available for him right now in Toronto and frankly, there may never be.
Once everyone is healthy, this could be how Keefe presents his Game 1 lineup:
Domi – Matthews – Marner
Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander
McMann – Kampf – Jarnkrok
Knies – Dewar – Holmberg
At this point it just seems like Robertson’s behind the eight-ball to crack the playoff lineup and I have a feeling with Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten on the way, he’ll end up getting traded for a defenceman in the offseason.

What Does the Back End Look Like?

It’s wild how many lineup decisions are not set in stone this close to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a couple of additions at the trade deadline, some injuries messing with rotations, as well as some underperforming defensemen like TJ Brodie of late, Keefe has some major work to do these last 14 games.
Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin have played well enough together to keep them together for the playoffs. Joel Edmundson seems to be a solid partner for Timothy Liljegren as the two complement each other nicely. Liljegren’s been much much better of late and is starting to look like the blueliner the Leafs have always wanted since drafting him in the first round. Giving him some run on the top power-play unit is smart business by Keefe as it’s allowing him to build some more confidence and contribute where he should be contributing on the ice. He’s best suited as an offensive defenceman and can make an impact on the score sheet. Edmundson is still working through learning the system and while he hasn’t been anything to write home about since joining the Leafs, wait until the playoffs when Toronto needs a penalty killed and he does everything he can to clear the front of the net and block shots. His time will come.
Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe have been great together this season and they can be a solid shut-down pair for Keefe to lean on. McCabe’s played the right side enough since joining the Leafs that the coaching staff should be comfortable with him there. He’s a great skater and smart enough to get on the ‘right’ side of the puck and not get jammed up on his wrong side. Benoit shouldn’t have been taken out of the lineup and he’s been playing pissed off ever since returning. His physical play and ability to keep things simple is something the team needs to lean on come playoff time.
Brodie on the other hand has been unplayable of late. While he’s best suited at this point in his career as a #6 defenceman on a very good hockey team, Keefe’s been playing him way too much and against the wrong matchups and finally, it came crashing down. With Connor Timmins being available, Brodie sat during the Capitals this week, his first time being healthy scratched as a Leaf. I have a feeling it won’t be the last.

Can the Leafs Find PK Units That Work?

While the power play will be fine as they have way too much talent to not figure it out, fans should be way more concerned with the penalty kill and its lack of consistency. If the Maple Leafs want to go deep this spring, they need two PK units they can rely on who are willing to do whatever it takes to keep things to the outside and not give up grade-A chances.
This could be the most important aspect of the team to watch down the stretch as it’s so vital for playoff success. All season long the Leafs have struggled shorthanded and the coaching staff has essentially tried everything, including giving the stars a serious look as regular penalty killers.
When the playoffs hit, look for Kampf, Jarnkrok, Marner, Dewar and Holmberg to be given most of the ice up front, with Lyubushkin, Edmundson, Benoit and McCabe on defence. Without Mark Giordano and maybe Brodie, the Leafs will need to lean on these four the most. It will be important to get Lyubushkin and Edmundson some reps together so they can build some chemistry these last few weeks. Benoit and McCabe need to be attached at the hip at all times and Keefe would be making a huge mistake if he doesn’t.
Block shots, get sticks in passing lanes, stay aggressive and keep things to the outside, all easy to say, but we’ll have to wait and see if the Leafs can fine-tune their system and get some penalty killers some reps together so they’ll be ready to go for Game 1.
The Leafs know they have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, at this time they don’t know who their first-round opponent will be. That’s not the only unanswered question at this point, which is pretty wild to think considering there are only three weeks left in the season. This season’s book is entering its final chapters, let’s hope the storylines can continue into early June.

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