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Leafs need to be flexible with Knies, Holmberg should be an option, and the 11/7: Leaflets

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
Tonight the Leafs make their fourth attempt at eliminating the Lightning from the playoffs, the second attempt this season. The previous three haven’t gone particularly well, but as the saying goes, the fourth or fifth time is the charm. And if you are looking for some additional optimism, the Leafs haven’t been defeated in three straight games since October so with this current iteration of the Leafs the wheels seem far less likely to come off. I’m sure absolutely none of that is comforting and when it comes to all the numbers, being favourites in the series, and the knowledge that this dynasty of failure can’t go on forever, it doesn’t change that an entire generation hasn’t seen the Leafs live up to their potential. It would be great if that changes tonight and we can raise the bar from “just win a round” to “win it all.”

Deploying Knies differently

It was very cool to see Knies up in the top six for game five. We won’t reflect on how that game went for the Leafs, but certainly no one is hanging anything on Knies and he has established himself as a competitor that Sheldon Keefe wanted out with the best of the Leafs forwards towards the end of the game. That’s not a bad first month in the NHL.
That’s where I’m maybe a bit of a jerk for splashing some cold water on the Knies situation and think that his deployment needs to be dialed back a bit and slotting him in as the fourth line LW is the right call at the moment.
Like it or not, the Leafs were winning with Kerfoot in the top six. There is also something to the idea of trying Bunting with O’Reilly, and after the last game, you’d hope that there is universal support for blowing up the fourth line or at least making some changes to it.
Knies could potentially offer some help to that line, but given his effort and skill, there is also value in having him as an option that a quick thinking coach can move up in the lineup based on slow starts from his other forwards or reading the situation to see which of the top three lines could most benefit from Knies and reassessing the lineup card. I recognize that means breaking Keefe away from his habit of rolling four lines at 5v5, but especially on the road it would be nice to have the Leafs setting an aggressive pace and relying on Kampf’s line to simply slow things down and get the top nine some rest rather than having them fall into unfavourable matchups.

A plea for Pontus

Not every prospect is going to come in and be as impactful as Knies has been in the playoffs. We did see some good energy from Nick Robertson back in the Columbus series and while he’s not a rookie, there seems like there is a looming defensive bump coming from reinserting Timothy Liljegren back into the Leafs lineup as well. Still, maybe I’m hoping for too much that Pontus Holmberg could do the same for the Leafs, but to some extent, it is a bit more about moving on from the underwhelming performances of Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty as it is bringing back Holmberg and hoping he over delivers.
By design Lafferty and Aston-Reese are the Leafs two worst forwards. It’s what made the Michael Bunting scratch for game five confusing, but it is also why we slip into just accepting the fourth line as being underwhelming. They aren’t going to keep up with the rest of the lineup.
The problems in round one are twofold. The first is that Sheldon Keefe very much likes to roll through all four of his lines at 5v5 and these aren’t 5 minute a night fourth liners, they are averaging over 9 minutes a night. Kampf averaging close to 12 minutes. Keefe wants to play them and they haven’t been good. The second part of the problem is that they haven’t just been typical fourth line bad in this series, they’ve been exceptionally bad. Lafferty, Aston-Reese, and Kampf are all in the bottom five on the Leafs in CF%, they are in the bottom four for GF%, and they are the bottom three for xGF%. If Justin Holl wasn’t having such an exceptionally bad series, this trio would be drawing a lot more heat.
There’s never really been much of a case for saying that Aston-Reese or Lafferty is better than Pontus Holmberg, so with Bunting likely to rejoin the roster and the discussion shifting to who should come out on the 4th line, I’d suggest the answer should be both and give Holmberg a chance to make his case. After all, he did win the Playoff MVP of the SHL a couple of seasons ago.

Finally, the case for 11F/7D

I think I’ve made a number of arguments on this site in the past that I don’t have anything against the 11/7 approach, but I don’t particularly like it for Sheldon Keefe. A big part of that is his love of rolling four lines and I think he is equally content to roll his three defensive pairings and isn’t the best at utilizing the extra defenseman that he has at his disposal.
I’m going to say that I’m in favour of giving 11/7 a go for game five as it seems like it may in fact save Sheldon Keefe from himself. The 11 forward option gets him using his three strong centers more frequently and forces him to be less reliant on the fourth line and gives him an excuse to deploy them minimally.
The seven defense option is less critical but if it is something where Keefe wants to bolster the second powerplay unit, Erik Gustafsson can help, and he can be a strong offensive zone start option to trot out instead of Giordano or McCabe at certain points in the game. I will note that in this 7D line of thinking I also still see Justin Holl as scratched and both Gustafsson and Liljegren come in.
Expecting this to suddenly work for the Leafs after not bringing much to the team in the regular season might not be realistic, but with Toronto having two tries remaining to get past the Lightning, I’d rather see the bold experiment option in game six than in game seven.

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