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Making sense of the Leafs defensive pairings

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Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
10 months ago
Coming out of the last playoff loss to Tampa, and honestly the years before it as well, some of the criticism around Sheldon Keefe was that he wasn’t quick enough to adapt and was too insistent on sticking with his lines and his defensive pairings whether they were working at the moment or not. That’s where the objections to the rest line/pairing blender seem a bit strange, especially when Toronto is trying to find a fit for a number of new faces in the lineup. Complaining is kinda what we do and when it comes to the Leafs forward group it seems like everything is in a holding pattern until Ryan O’Reilly returns and the Leafs have an opportunity to make some sense of things. That said, the Leafs could truly benefit from some consistent defensive pairings, and it’s time to start building those so the partners understand what the other defenseman on the ice is going to do coverage wise and players like McCabe, who are here to stabilize the Leafs blueline have the best opportunity to do so.
So how do the Leafs get there? The things that need to be established are who works well with each other, who works well at either home or on the road, who does well against the Lightning, and who works well in each situation.

Home and Away Splits

I’m going to start off with an appreciation for context. The numbers below for Jake McCabe (on a very bad team), Luke Schenn (on a somewhat bad team), and Erik Gustafsson (on a bubble team) are going to be based on those performances and how they were utilized on those teams. It goes without saying that McCabe is going to be allowed to figure things out, Schenn was brought in for a very specific need, and Gustafsson, well, Gustafsson’s case has always been stronger on the stat sheet than on the ice and he will need to win over his new coaches quick.
These numbers give the results to date for the Leafs defensemen and at least hint at what might be worth considering for defense pairings.
So here’s where Jake McCabe in Chicago plus Jake McCabe without an established partner in Toronto can have an impact on these numbers. We can probably assume that there is zero consideration to pulling McCabe out on the road and even though that means that Rielly’s defensive numbers are the next worst, we can probably assume he’s staying in as well. That really opens it up to the Leafs just picking and choose what they want to be on the road.
I wouldn’t doubt Toronto wants to go with a safe all purpose pairing like McCabe and Brodie that will play upward of 25 minutes a night. It also seems like players like Gustafsson, who is more offensive, and Liljegren, who has struggled at late are far more vulnerable to be sitting than even Luke Schenn, who is by no means a statistically sound defenseman, whether his numbers are influenced by Vancouver or not.
At home, there starts being a statistical case for taking Justin Holl out, and Schenn is still very much Schenn. The ease of sheltering Liljegren and finding offensive opportunities for Gustafsson increases at home, but how much the Leafs are willing to give up size and physical play in the playoffs will open for debate. Plus, so far all we’ve done so far is look at the home/away splits for a few defensive stats, there are other things to consider too.

How do they do against the Lightning?

Which Leafs have success against the Lightning is going to be something that factors into the Leafs lineup construction down the stretch. How impactful it will be, probably not a main driver, but it’s certainly something worth considering and the players who have success against the top Lightning players might get a regular shift with a consistent partner in advance of round one.
The first lesson we should takeaway is that Liljegren won’t be out of place if he’s given a shot in the Leafs lineup. He’s shut down the Lightning’s top offensive players when he’s gone up against them, and over the past three seasons (the data sample from above) he’s actually seen a lot of time against the Lightning’s best players, likely with the Lightning believing that was a matchup they wanted.
There is a lot of context that still needs to be considered and these are minuscule sample sizes. Presumably, these are on-the-fly shifts, and not shifts started in the Leafs defensive zone. That’s not to take anything away from Liljegren, in fact, the opposite. This seems like the best case for him to play.
As for McCabe, again we’re talking about a player that didn’t see a lot of the Lightning being in a different conference, and the Lightning was merciless in the beatings of Chicago.

Optimal Partners

For many of the same reasons as above, there are flaws with looking at players isolated with one partner. For the most part, defensive partners do play primarily with one or two partners, and the sample size with other partners is limited. Those limited minutes are also quite possibly coming as the result of a blowout score one way or the other, a departure due to an injury or game misconduct, or in the case of Erik Gustafsson and Luke Schenn, they just haven’t been here long enough. (The same is also true of Jake McCabe, but I’ve included him anyway because of an interesting narrative.)
I feel like now that I’ve warned against the use of WOWYs, here we are with some interesting conclusions. It’s pretty easy to sift through this mess and connect the dots to a Rielly-Brodie pairing, a Giordano-Liljegren pairing, and a McCabe-Holl pairing. All of those seem worth a try or reunion, but they ignore the desire to lean into Luke Schenn in the lineup and I will say it until I’m blue in the face, Erik Gustafsson is worth trying to fit in.
Maybe the solution is to try a Gustafsson-Schenn pairing to see if they can work together, after all, Luke Schenn’s best hockey was spent playing with an offensive drive partner.
Of course, the contrast to that is Rielly and Schenn have most certainly not been working so Hughes with Schenn doesn’t mean every offensive defenseman with Schenn either. It seems the Leafs want to make Rielly and Schenn work so we’ll probably see that a few more times and we’ll most certainly see some attempt to get Luke a spot in the lineup.

What does Toronto specifically want on the blueline?

The short answer is they want to make Luke Schenn work no matter what and they want to make Morgan Rielly work no matter what. So as much as Luke Schenn doesn’t fit with a lot of the math above, he fits because he hits.
I haven’t looked at any of the offensive attributes of the Leafs defensemen here, but with a high octane offense, the Leafs are going to want Morgan Rielly front and center to help make it work and act as a fourth forward as often as they can get away with it.
I feel like those two things are something Toronto has tried to sandwich into one pairing and it’s simply not going to work. For all the different approaches, the Leaf might have to accept that Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie together might not be a physical option, but Toronto has the chance to address that in other pairings.
The question then becomes, who plays with Schenn and plays the role of the responsible partner alongside Schenn and his quest to put everyone on the trainer’s table? Mark Giordano is one option as he’s made both Liljegren and Holl better at times this season, and with Liljegren presently on a downswing, and Holl being Holl, Giordano might be the best option.
The other is to go with the guy who was tethered to Jack Johnson and Seth Jones in Chicago and assume if he could handle that assignment, maybe Luke Schenn is manageable too. Jake McCabe seems to have played with everyone but Schenn so far and maybe it’s easiest to put them together so a Giordano- Holl/Liljegren option can remain intact.
All this still leaves Gustafsson as the square peg that can fit into the round hole. Seeing what Gustafsson could do with a consistent partner might be an interesting experiment over the remaining twelve games and again Schenn seems like an interesting option.
So looking at what we know of the Leafs defense and what they are hoping to accomplish, the pairings I’d land on would probably be something along the lines of:
Rielly-Brodie
McCabe-Holl
Giordano-Liljegren
Gustafsson-Schenn (rotate in for Giordano and Liljegren)
Based on what we’ve seen from the Leafs and knowing who they want to use, perhaps the best usage of those players is:
Rielly-Brodie
Giordano-Holl/Liljegren (Holl=Road/Liljegren=Home)
McCabe-Schenn
Gustafsson
All of this has completely ignored Conor Timmins, which really isn’t fair to Conor Timmins so we’ll sandwich in some Conor Timmins talk right now. Timmins will be in the Leafs top 7 next season, easily. That said, this year he still has required sheltering that is typical of the bottom pairing defensemen or 7th defensemen, the Leafs have the luxury of 8 defensemen ahead of him who do not require that level of sheltering. That’s why he doesn’t factor in. He’s a nice little safety net when it hits the fan and I’m sure we’ll see him skate in at least a couple of games in April before the season calls it quits.
The Leafs have had a little bit of a tinkering window in early March to try some interesting things on the blueline but there is a lot to be said for the chemistry between defensive partners. The sooner Toronto can lock in who is playing with who the better they’ll be and it’s also something that will benefit the goaltenders as well. As much as the Leafs want all of their top eight to get a chance to play, they need to at least make sure their rotation includes keeping the pairings together as much as they can get away with.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick

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