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Ilya Lyubushkin: The Maple Leafs’ designated hitter

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
13 days ago
The Maple Leafs’ need for a tougher blueline has been evident for a long time. There still seems to be some confusion about what a tougher defence should look like. Arguably the Leafs’ defence should be tougher to score goals against. And while Lyubushkin might have been physically tougher at times for opponents to face, a player averaging 17 minutes a night on the bottom-feeding Ducks was not the right choice to pair with Morgan Rielly.
The Leafs paid the price of a 2025 3rd-round pick along with a 2024 6th-round pick to acquire Ilya Lyubushkin to incorporate some pain into the Leafs lineup where he’d only carry a $687k cap hit. It’s not a price that will haunt the Leafs and there was some hope that Lyubushkin’s familiarity with the Leafs would help and that maybe he could fill a role similar to the one played by Luke Schenn last postseason. Through no fault of Lyubushkin, it didn’t work out as planned. The hits and shot blocks were there, but so were plenty of shot attempts and scoring chances. The puck did stay out of the net when Lyubushkin was on the ice, and he was only on the ice for 1 goal against with Morgan Rielly in 90+ minutes. In the 41 minutes Rielly played away from he was on for two goals against, one with McCabe, the other with Benoit. Maybe Lyubushkin was fine after all.
The regular season numbers with the Leafs tell a similar story for Lyubushkin, especially when he was playing with Morgan Rielly. The moral of the story here is probably that Lyubushkin isn’t the answer to the Leafs’ blueline issues, but at the right price, he could once again be the answer to who should play alongside Morgan Rielly, if you aren’t overly concerned about drastically improving the blueline.
The lack of moving the bar for the Leafs’ blueline is the biggest concern when it comes to Lyubushkin. The Leafs can’t accept the status quo of their defensive personnel and under Craig Berube this is going to be an area drawing a lot of focus from Brad Treliving. It is established that Morgan Rielly does well with a physically tough, stay-at-home option but both Lyubushkin and Schenn have been one-dimensional in that role and lack the puck management skills that T.J. Brodie brought to the Rielly pairing in previous years. Finding the combination of career-prime TJ Brodie and Ilya Lyubushkin skillsets in a single player the Leafs can afford could have the Leafs exploring the cheaper option of running back Lyubushkin, and looking at other aspects of the blueline to address, keeping Rielly-Lyubushkin and Benoit-McCabe intact.
The one thing that hasn’t been considered as part of the Rielly-Lyubushkin equation is the offence the Leafs want to get from Rielly and both in the playoffs and the regular season, Rielly’s offence suffered when paired with Lyubushkin compared to other partners. In the regular season, Rielly went from being on ice 3.37 GF/60 at 5v5 to 2.62 GF/60. While it’s tough to judge in the final stretch of a season and perhaps with a training camp spent together that number can be improved. Although the Leafs should be looking beyond leap-of-faith options.
That being said, at the right price Ilya Lyubushkin could be an option away from Rielly on the Leafs as well. It is entirely possible that Lyubushkin could be best suited for being the 3rd pairing option that most teams have used him in. If Lyubushkin is looking for the $2.75M AAV he had on his last contract or possibly a raise given the increasing salary cap, the Leafs probably shouldn’t be too interested in him as a gamble either as a Rielly partner or third pairing guy, but if he is looking to continue his time in Toronto, where he has arguably been most successful and add a bit of term to his deal, perhaps there is a fit. At the very least he’s a safer bet than Joel Edmundson.
Data from Natural Stat Trick

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