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Life without Rielly: A chance for the Maple Leafs to get weird with their defence pairings
By Jon Steitzer13 days ago
We already know the bad news, the Maple Leafs defence isn’t good enough to take the hit of losing their top defenceman for one or two games, never mind the potential of missing Rielly for 5+ games. The blueline isn’t going to look great but it is a chance for the Leafs blueline to try some different things.
Heading into the last game both Conor Timmins and Mark Giordano were also unavailable, with Timmins sick and Giordano with something that Sheldon Keefe said could be “a little longer than day to day.”
So let’s assume Giordano is out too. That’s fine. No problem. It’s a chance to get extra creative with what the Leafs can do.
What shouldn’t change? Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit are pretty much glued together at the hip at the moment. They’ve been punching above their weight class and looking like a decent enough middle pairing (ignoring Benoit’s -3 against Ottawa). They handle the physical assignments and have developed a chemistry together. Now would be the wrong time to change things up with them but it seems highly likely that Sheldon Keefe will be testing to see whether they can be used against top units more frequently than they’ve seen in the past.
The bottom pairing seems like it is destined to be William Lagesson and Conor Timmins. This seems to be where things get a bit iffy. Conor Timmins is a decent offensive option and he’ll potentially see some powerplay time as well as long as Rielly is out, but he isn’t great defensively. William Lagesson is someone that I’m surprised the Leafs haven’t gone to more frequently and while the game against the Senators might not have showcased his best hockey but playing regularly has the chance to get the best hockey out of him as well.
That pretty much leaves the Leafs with what I’m not sure you call the top pairing or if that is now McCabe and Benoit, but TJ Brodie and Timothy Liljegren are both in need of a redemption arc this season and now is the perfect time for it. Seeing Brodie on the left side and if that improves his results is a worthwhile experiment and putting Liljegren with Brodie and allowing both of them to play responsible puck moving defence together might be finding a fit that Keefe has rarely explored given the greater need for both of them on the right side.
The Leafs do have other options to explore. McCabe and Brodie worked well at the end of the regular season last year, Lagesson and Liljegren could find some quick Swedish chemistry, and the combination of Benoit and Timmins seems like a bottom pairing. Unfortunately, lately all of these combinations seem like bottom pairings, but the Leafs need to find the combination that works.
Assuming that the Leafs do add another defenceman to this group before the trade deadline it is a good chance that a couple of these pairings will used going forward albeit in a reduced role.
The schedule for the Leafs would be viewed by most as friendly to their situation but given the Leafs track record with opponents beneath them in the standings it might not be a blessing. The Blues twice, the Flyers, Ducks, and Coyotes make up the next five outings before things get tougher. The Leafs aren’t so secure in their playoff spot that they can take these games for granted and will certainly need the most out of what is left of their defence core.
Missing an All-Star defenceman isn’t going to help a struggling blueline but at least the Maple Leafs are forced into trying something new with the group they’ve got.
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