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A plea for the Leafs using load management

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 months ago
It is a bit of an annual tradition on this site, my wish for the Leafs to get their players some rest down the stretch and have as many players ready to play their best hockey come playoff time. I make these pleas, but I think last it might have had the end result of Marner and Rielly each getting a game of rest before the start of the playoffs, but not much more. Fair enough, I’m not entirely sure it’s the top of the roster that needs the rest as much, or at least not Matthews, Marner, Rielly, and Nylander. It might be some of the depth guys, the older guys, or guys like Michael Bunting who haven’t played this much hockey in a long time.
The Leafs find themselves with 19 games remaining in the last 34 nights of the regular season schedule. They’ll have four back-to-backs in the next month, three involving the Florida Panthers as part of that back-to-back, including their back-to-back this weekend. The fact that the Leafs face the Panthers those three times, the Lightning twice, and the Bruins twice as well makes for a tough stretch of hockey, but also one where the Leafs have the potential to be strategic about not letting those teams see their best roster, perhaps another case for load management.

Taking advantage of their depth

The depth on the blueline certainly looks to have taken a hit with both Muzzin and Sandin out for extended periods of time, but the Leafs still have the opportunity to lean on interesting Marlies’ options like Kristians Rubins, and Joseph Duszak down the stretch. Duszak seems to be at the point where he is anxious to move on and get his shot, and his strong offensive season in the AHL should at least warrant Toronto taking a look at him before deciding whether or not to qualify the restricted free agent this summer. Rubins brings a bit more of a physical presence to the blueline, and he could be an interesting option to consider in the Leafs’ lineup if they wish to play their divisional opponents a bit harder down the stretch as well.
The forward situation is a lot more fun. Fun in the sense that load management means taking more of a look at Nick Robertson. Load management potentially means signing and playing Nick Abruzzese, Matthew Knies, and potentially another NCAA free agent (Ben Meyers, hello), and of course there are other Marlies worth taking a bit more of a look at like Joey Anderson, Alex Steeves, Brett Seney, and in the less fun category, we might see some more of Kyle Clifford down the stretch.
As for goaltending, well, we all don’t want to see too much Mrazek, and once Campbell is back, managing his workload is going to be important too. So Erik Kallgren might continue to see some work, which isn’t a bad thing, but ruling out Michael Hutchinson or a surprise appearance from Carter Hutton shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility either. Goaltending will be about finding who is working at the right time, and outside of Campbell looking like a lock to be part of the playoff roster, that second position seems very much up for grabs.

The snags

The first snag is the NHL’s rule about only having four non-emergency post trade deadline recalls from the AHL for the rest of the regular season. That’s why you didn’t see players like Nick Robertson and Kyle Clifford immediately recalled after the trade deadline and why the Leafs are presently sitting at the bare minimum of a healthy roster. This enables greater ease of facilitating emergency recalls, and Toronto can save their four actual recalls for when they truly want to use them.
The second snag is when Jake Muzzin comes off the LTIR. When Muzzin comes off the LTIR the Leafs likely lose the ability to have some reserve players on their roster and have a hard enough time getting 20 players in under the salary cap. While Sandin’s LTIR status gives them a little wiggle room, it’s not enough to usher in the glorious age of load management, you’d hope to see.
The best short term solution for load management appears to come in the form of NCAA arrives, but some of that will be contingent on how well Minnesota does in the Frozen Four, including their game tonight.

The other option

Load management can also take on a few other forms. With a playoff spot all but guaranteed, maybe it’s time to ask if Morgan Rielly needs to still play 24 minutes a night? Maybe load management can be as simple as balancing the 5v5 icetime a little more, and testing some new faces out on special teams.
One of the best parts of the last month of hockey is it’s a great opportunity to explore how weird you can get with the roster. Maybe Giordano brings something interesting to the first powerplay unit. Maybe a Bunting-Blackwell-Simmonds line would be a fun idea to test out (despite the fact we all know where Bunting belongs), and now is the perfect time to learn the extent that the Leafs can lean into Liljegren against tough competition.
While it seems that Toronto will look to rest some players down the stretch, there might be some benefit in starting sooner rather than later on that process. The flexibility exists now and could disappear later. Now is the time to start thinking about how to be best prepared for May hockey.

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