Can Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe form a playoff shutdown pairing?

Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
28 days ago
Necessity is the mother of invention and Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has governed this year’s club by this axiom. Toronto maintained its reputation as a flame-throwing offence with some defensive flaws, but mere flaws have metastasized into a crisis of sorts. There’s just one month remaining in the regular and Keefe can’t trust his nominal top defensive pairing anymore, rendering TJ Brodie a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s game against the Washington Capitals.
Can Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe fill this void and form a true playoff shutdown pairing? It’s one of the central questions surrounding the 2023-24 Maple Leafs. Brodie struggled badly through Toronto’s last 10 games prior to Wednesday’s win and hindered Morgan Rielly’s effectiveness throughout the second half of the year. He’ll almost certainly be in Toronto’s playoff lineup due to his roster status, continuity — whether it’s a good thing or not at this juncture — and the dearth of alternatives available.
There may be a case for Benoit-McCabe as Toronto’s No. 1 pair when they’re best suited as a No. 2 pairing in an ideal scenario.
At the time of this filing, shortly after the Maple Leafs defeated the Capitals 7-3 on Wednesday night, Benoit-McCabe have played 410:26 at 5-on-5, the 64th-most used pairing in the NHL. They’ve been on the ice for 13 goals for, 12 against, hovering over a 53 percent share of the expected goals with a .923 on-ice save percentage via Natural Stat Trick. That’s pretty good and given their usage, volume and results, this amounts to a solid No. 2 defense grouping over the course of the year.
A static evaluation of Benoit’s ceiling doesn’t really work. Benoit has grown exponentially more important for the Maple Leafs throughout the season, once viewed as a castoff from the 2022-23 Anaheim Ducks looking to remodel their reputation, then continued to ascend through the lineup due to a combination of injuries and poor play. He’s quickly emerged as a fan favourite due to his physical play and affable personality, but since the new year has begun, there’s been a genuine uptick in Benoit’s form, while growing more comfortable alongside the steady McCabe.
In part due to Morgan Rielly’s February five-game suspension, Benoit-McCabe are the 31st-most used group in the NHL at 5-on-5 since January 1, logging 337:11, while being on the ice for 10 goals for, 10 against. Toronto controls 55 percent of the expected goals when Benoit-McCabe are on the ice with a .917 on-ice save percentage during this span. These numbers aren’t outright dominant and no one is going to confuse Benoit-McCabe for Edmonton’s standout duo of Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm or Colorado’s Cale Makar and Devon Toews, but they’ve proven to be one reliable unit for the Maple Leafs this season.
Benoit wasn’t on the opening night roster, making his Maple Leafs debut on Nov. 6 and yet, independent of his partner, he’s been a stellar defensive presence. Since Jan. 1, Benoit ranks 67th in expected goals against per 60 among 211 qualified defensemen (200 minutes at 5-on-5 or more) via Natural Stat Trick. It doesn’t account for the quality of opponents faced but Benoit ranks ahead of Noah Dobson, Hampus Lindholm, Cale Makar and Evan Bouchard among others.
Toronto acquired Ilya Lyubushkin ahead of the trade deadline for a few reasons, primarily that he’s a right-handed, competent defenseman who will bring out the best in Rielly. Rielly started the year as a down-ballot Norris Trophy candidate but saw his play subject to diminishing returns just before Christmas. Brodie has proven to be far more capable on his preferred left side and Lyubushkin should theoretically offset some of Rielly’s Herculean workload, even if he’s not considered an outright defensive stopper in his own right. And for what it’s worth, Lyubushkin ranks 97th among qualified defenders in expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 since January 1. Maybe the centre of the hockey universe is where absolution is found.
Rielly-Brodie are no longer functioning effectively and since Jan. 1, Toronto has controlled a paltry 42 percent of the expected goals when they’re on the ice. Continuity usually leads to an innate understanding of where your partner is on the ice, but Brodie’s careless turnovers during a Tuesday loss to the Philadelphia Flyers betrayed this pact while calling into question if Toronto’s top pair guys can function in this role. Rielly can clearly still impact top-level hockey but he’s still being shifted around the lineup and will likely get additional minutes during Toronto’s first-round matchup.
Benoit was a healthy scratch earlier this month when the Maple Leafs reinserted right-shot Timothy Liljegren into the lineup. Liljegren is the highest-variance defender on the team: there are some nights where he looks like a bonafide second-pairing defenceman and the next night, he’ll make a half-dozen mistakes that confound even the greatest optimist. Because of these tendencies, it would be frightening to pair him with Rielly, even if that may be Toronto’s best offensive duo on the blue line.
In a vacuum, Benoit-McCabe almost certainly aren’t a true No. 1 NHL defence pairing, but once again the Stanley Cup Playoffs are not played in a vacuum. Benoit’s four points over 51 games would allow casual fans to think that he hasn’t been impactful for the Maple Leafs when in truth, were it not for him and Martin Jones, Christmas may have been ruined across the Greater Toronto Area! McCabe isn’t a true shutdown defender either but he provides secondary offense, he ranks 31st among NHL defensemen in expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 since January 1 and he’s been asked to play this role before with mixed results last year.
And truthfully, this premise works because of the dearth of top-calibre defensemen available to the Maple Leafs. Can Benoit-McCabe function in this role? If Sheldon Keefe is using the final 14 regular season games to optimize his playoff lineup, this hypothesis is worth testing, especially against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, who can ruin even the most controlled experiments. What could possibly go wrong?

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