Load managing the Maple Leafs down the stretch

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
There is still a lot of hockey to play down the stretch. The Red Wings and Lightning now find themselves in a potential dogfight with the Flyers, the Islanders, and maybe even the Capitals when it comes to the wild card spots. The Panthers and Bruins will hopefully work way too hard down the stretch in a battle for the Presidents Trophy as well as the first spot in the Atlantic, once again handing the Maple Leafs one of the toughest first round matchups in the NHL although maybe they’ll be exhausted.
As I alluded to in the first paragraph, the Leafs will finish third in the Atlantic. They could go on an unprecedented heater that coupled with either the Bruins or Panthers falling off results in a different outcome at the top of the standings, or the Leafs could go on a ridiculous losing streak that somehow sees them fall into a wild card spot (would you rather have the Leafs go through the Metropolitan Division in the playoffs?) but history, math, and reality all point to the Leafs being the 3rd place team in the Atlantic and know that, the pressure should be off the Leafs when it comes to the standings.
With pressure being off when it comes to the standings there is an opportunity to revisit the most basketballian of terms, load management. Critics condemn teams for sitting players for two reasons, the first being that they are paid to play and should be in there if they can be and the secondary one of no one wants to shell out $300 for nosebleed seats at the Scotiabank Arena only to have Auston Matthews scratched that night. (That last argument is fair but half the remaining games are on the road.)
Counter to that argument comes what we are already seeing with Mitch Marner and that is the Leafs stars are a little banged up. Marner is day-to-day, missed Saturday’s game and will miss Thursday’s as well, but it is highly beneficial for the Leafs to give the star player as much time as he needs to work through what is ailing him. I suspect if the game on Thursday was the first game of the playoffs, Marner would be good to go. It’s not, so sitting him makes sense.
Marner isn’t alone when it comes to players who could use some rest. If Morgan Rielly hadn’t recently given himself an unpaid 5 game vacation, he’d probably be near the top of the list for Leafs players who could use some time off as Toronto’s blueline has required him to play around 24 minutes a night. If there is one benefit to the Leafs having two new blueliners and Conor Timmins also approaching full health, it’s that Morgan Rielly can either get a couple of nights off in April and likely transition to being a 20 minute a night player the rest of the way. (Load management can happen in game too.)
One of the least surprising candidates for load management should be TJ Brodie, who has been close to averaging 22 minutes a night this season. At 33 his age is showing signs of catching up to him and giving Brodie a week to reset might not be the worst thing either.
We’ll just go right ahead and apply some of that same kind of thinking to John Tavares but with the knowledge the Leafs aren’t exactly deep on centres and taking him out of the lineup presents different challenges. Maybe the Leafs wait until they have a little “x” next to their name in the standings before fully embracing that one.
The Maple Leafs also have four back-to-backs left in the next five weeks of the season and that should get Sheldon Keefe thinking about how to have fresh legs in the lineup for those second games. Next week the Leafs have two back-to-backs and a great opportunity to at least shuffle around the bottom part of his lineup card for both of those games.
And of course, there is also how will Keefe manage his goaltenders the rest of the way. Given that neither Samsonov nor Woll have established themselves as the clear cut Game One of the playoffs starter and there are 18 games remaining, it seems like splitting the work at 9 starts a piece is reasonable, but in that time is there a window that Sheldon Keefe wants to give each goaltender an extended look to see what they can do with 3(+?) starts in a row, and depending on how things shake out, is it important to get Martin Jones back in the net at some point as well? Is it more of a 8/8/2 split between Samsonov, Woll, and Jones?
Regardless of what happens in net, from here on out it seems like there is a benefit to having Martin Jones wearing his ballcap and gear on the bench and giving full nights off to Samsonov and Woll.
The Leafs have already recalled Nick Robertson (emergency loan) while Connor Timmins and Mark Giordano remain on the LTIR, and Toronto has the ability to make four more (non-emergency) recalls from the Marlies the rest of the season while no longer have a maximum number of players on the roster. It will just be a matter of what works from a salary cap perspective and that’s where Brad Treliving will need to determine how to balance the players he wants to get into his lineup with the fact that Robertson is the only player he can demote with ease. Mark Giordano is eligible to return to the Maple Leafs lineup on March 26th.
The Leafs presently have 25 active players including 15 forwards, 7 defencemen, and 3 goaltenders. At the moment the priority should be around sitting forwards when they can but feel like Matthews is going to be in the lineup every night until he hits 70 goals and the story is probably similar for William Nylander and 100 points. That said, the in-game management can be a lot more flexible, and Sheldon Keefe can look at this as an opportunity to play some of his depth in bigger situations than they are accustomed to as well.
In contrast you’d expect to see a player like Ryan Reaves, whose role largely exists to keep the opposition more honest (in theory) in the lineup every night. Same with players like Noah Gregor, Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson, and Bobby McMann who should be making their case for the Game One of the playoffs lineup.
The blueline is a bit more straightforward at least until Timmins and/or Giordano return. Finding partnerships that work seem like the priority and letting players like McCabe heal and Brodie rest. The seven defencemen the Leafs have available right now are the seven they are going to be using in the playoffs and while rest would be nice, knowing who can play with who is what should be keeping Sheldon Keefe up at night.
The Leafs having more the foreknowledge of their playoff situation 18 games in advance is an advantage whether load management is the way they want to go with it or not. Of course, they will probably need at least 6 wins out of the next 18 games to make it in. After they get to 94 points maybe the Leafs will take the foot off the gas.
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