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Adversity has been a friend of the Toronto Maple Leafs

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Photo credit:Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
The easy thing to do would be to complain about having Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, and Calle Jarnkrok out of the Leafs lineup for extended periods of time. There has been plenty of that. What has been a pleasant surprise is that the Maple Leafs have seemingly made the most of this challenge to stubble into a few opportunities that have served them well including seeing that a less-than-full lineup can hold their own against a potential first-round playoff opponent that looked to be putting up a decent effort by a clinched team in April standard.
Now that the Leafs are on the verge of Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner re-entering the lineup it seems worth appreciating some of the things that the Leafs have discovered about themselves along the way.
  • Auston Matthews can along just fine without Mitch Marner and he could have two new potential linemates in Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi. While Matthews’ goal totals dropped below a best-in-30-years pace, he produced well with the feistier duo and that could be the lineup that gives Toronto the best playoff fit. The split up of Matthews and Marner could also allow Marner to bring some of his defensive zone responsibility to another forward line that could use it and allow for the Leafs to consider having Matthews, Marner, and Nylander spread across three lines during regular shifts in the playoffs.
  • The depleted Leafs lineup has also given extended looks to players like Bobby McMann, Pontus Holmberg, and Nick Robertson, all of whom are making their cases for important spots in the lineup. Bobby McMann looks like he will be with Tavares the rest of the way regardless of whether it will be Marner, Nylander, or TBD on the other wing and Holmberg and Robertson look like they, alongside Matthew Knies could have the youthful energy you look for in a fourth line during the playoffs that can take advantage of tired competition during long stretches without whistles and can force the opposition to play hard against a depth line on the attack. I’m not sure you can consider Holmberg and Robertson locks the way Bobby McMann has become, but depending on the opponent and style of play, the Leafs have encouraging depth they can explore.
  • The prolonged absence of Morgan Rielly has allowed TJ Brodie to figure out some of the issues in his game and while it seems that he has been figuring it out with Rielly’s most likely playoff defensive partner, the demise of Brodie was declared prematurely and he has not only had the opportunity to find his game but has demonstrated that he can still play in situations beyond a sheltered third pairing role.
  • The Rielly and Edmundson injuries have also opened the door for Mark Giordano and Conor Timmins to get regular ice time down the stretch which has been a huge benefit for the Leafs as having the 8th and 9th defencemen capable of stepping in the playoffs without a lengthy absence for game situations would be valuable if the Leafs go on a deeper run. Giordano in particular looks like he has something he wants to leave on the ice in what could be his final NHL games and Conor Timmins may be someone the Leafs consider in 11F/7D situations if they find themselves looking for more offence from the backend.
The Leafs being able to ask more of their depth and get it is the most encouraging thing to see over the past month and no longer does it feel like the Leafs will live and die by the performance of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in the playoff, this is now a team capable of getting results throughout their lineup.
That’s not to say that everything has gone right for the Maple Leafs while they’ve been dealing with injuries. Special teams are nearing a disastrous state that they require a telethon. Toronto has had their share of leads they’ve struggled to hold and while there have been some strong goaltending performances, you can point to enough questionable nights that a clear-cut #1 heading into the playoffs hasn’t emerged.
Still, the Leafs are winning, and they’ve been winning consistently ever since the Rielly suspension that seemed to kickstart their injury woes as well. Given that things rarely go completely right in the playoffs, seeing Toronto as a team that will battle through the hard times is a comforting narrative and reason for optimism in the final stretch of regular season hockey.

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