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Maple Leafs and the “definition of insanity”, situational playoff lineups, and the new MLSE CEO: Leaflets

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
We’re going to dive right into the Leaflets first section with little attempt at an introduction and consider a couple of quotes that might apply to the Maple Leafs this offseason.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
This is often misquoted as “the definition of insanity” and almost always incorrectly attributed to Alberta Einstein instead of Rita Mae Brown. I think to some degree people look at the Sheldon Keefe era as the Leafs doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We’ll dive into that a bit more in a second.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Somewhat ironically people can’t remember that George Santayana quote and instead it has taken more of a life as “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” And to be fair, I’m one of those people but famous misquotes isn’t the topic I’m wanting to explore.
Given that the Leafs should be remembering the past and not attempting to do the same thing over and over again with different results is it worth exploring the state of the Leafs to see what is the same, what is different, and how the Leafs don’t repeat past playoff shortcomings.
The first thing that needs to be considered is that there is only so much control the Maple Leafs have over the playoff fate. They could have done things right in the past and were simply outmatched, perhaps trying the same thing over again would yield different results as their competition they face isn’t consistent and there is a potential risk in changing the wrong thing. For the record I don’t think anyone is making the case that Leafs haven’t made adjustments every postseason but there have been some constants:
  • The Core Four (Five)
  • Not having an elite goaltender
  • Question marks on defence
  • Sheldon Keefe overthinking the lineup/underthinking how the Leafs are being played
I’d personally make the case that the Sheldon Keefe issues are the biggest issue, but somehow the postseason autopsy always ends is saying the Leafs aren’t a tough team to play against. (To be fair, even when they’ve had tough players, the overall team was never tough to play against and you can probably add that to the list as well.)
There are a lot of similarities for the Leafs this year. The top three are no doubt the same, the fourth point about Keefe could be argued as well although the Leafs are noticeably different in how they play defence and there is a very strong possibility that Toronto will at least spread their star players across three lines at 5v5 and those are significant changes. The Leafs have also been a tougher team to play against when they choose to play that way. We’ve seen them get up for big games and come out tough, but they are still a team that can phone it in some nights. It would be nice to believe there will be a consistent high effort in the playoffs but if you are remembering the past, you know that an effort isn’t guaranteed.
If there is another significant change it is that the Leafs brought in some emotionally fueled players replacing their more cerebral ones, and rather than doing it largely at the trade deadline like previous years, it happened in the offseason and those players aren’t so much mercenaries as full blown bought in members of the organization, that could make a difference and at the very least steps far enough way from some of the insanity of years past.
Will it be enough? Was it the right type of change? And what happens next if it goes wrong or right? The attempt to learn from past playoff failures hasn’t resulted in regular season success, but as the Leafs previous regular season success should have taught Leafs fans, the playoffs are a fresh start.

The situational lineup impacts on the bottom six forwards

Trying to figure out what the Leafs lineup looks like for the playoffs if everyone is healthy is one of the biggest challenges for the remaining seven games. There are a few safe bets though and one is that there are 9 spots easily spoken for in the lineup. Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Domi, Bertuzzi, Jarnkrok, McMann, and Knies will absolutely be in despite Knies sliding down the line and McMann being new to this whole everyday NHLer thing. It’s also a pretty safe bet that my personal feelings won’t factor into Sheldon Keefe’s thinking and he’ll trot David Kampf out there whether I like it or not. So that’s 10 spots very much spoken for with five question marks remaining.
Those question marks are Pontus Holmberg, Connor Dewar, Nick Robertson, Ryan Reaves, and Noah Gregor. Perhaps the easiest way of looking at is that the Leafs have enjoyed Domi on the wing and haven’t used Dewar at centre much at all, that pretty much locks Holmberg into one of the remaining spots as a centre. It might not be that easy but at least for game one it probably is. There will be a lot of adaption after the fact and it is going to be that post game one activity that really shapes what the Leafs lineup looks like as Dewar, Robertson, Reaves, and Gregor all offer different things and some of them together offer a very different identity for the Leafs bottom six.
When we travel all the way back in time to July 1st, Ryan Reaves was a statement for where Brad Treliving wanted to take this roster. He’s seen more playoff hockey than any other Leaf (unless you go by minutes instead of games) and there is unquestionably a desire from Leafs fans to see Ryan Reaves standing over Sam Bennett’s broken body on opening night proving that the Leafs won’t be pushed around. There’s a lot of wishful thinking involved in using Reaves especially since he can’t tackle much more than eight minutes a night and there is the potential for multiple overtime games. He’s a defensive liability and doesn’t have much to offer at the other end of the ice either and it seems like a gamble to rely on him to set the tone of a game the Bruins or Panthers that are less likely to engage him and more likely to appreciate the Leafs used a lineup spot on him. That said, I wouldn’t doubt that he will appear in some form of message sending capacity whether it is on the first night of the playoffs or later on.
Connor Dewar seems like a double down on what the Leafs were hoping to get in Noah Gregor. Both are capable penalty killers who inject some speed and energy into the lineup but it is a matter of what else either one can deliver on that would make a case for them as playoff starters. With Connor Dewar still acclimating to the Leafs lineup he has the potential to make a final push for the start of the playoffs while Gregor seems to be one of the safest bets for being on the outside looking in at least for Game 1. If there is a need for speed, increased hitting, and help on the penalty kill, Sheldon Keefe will look to both of these players, with Dewar getting the first look in all likelihood.
That brings us to Nick Robertson. If I was making the lineup, Nick Robertson would be in. The idea of having a goal scorer tucked away in the bottom part of the roster that can be trotted as a fresh skater for offensive zone draws, one that could potentially benefit from a plethora of bottom six, bottom pairing matchups, and one of the Leafs better secondary goal scorers despite his limited usage, Robertson makes a ton of sense to me. That said, it feels like the Leafs need to witness first hand the top two lines get shut down and the powerplay fall flat before Robertson gets his name called. Between his six games against the Bruins, Panthers, and Hurricanes, Robertson is a point per game player (the Rangers are the only potential first round opponent that has kept him off the scoresheet, but he’s been a ppg player against everyone else.) Against good teams depth scoring is important, full stop.
All that being said, there are other variables. Will Jarnkrok be healthy? What does Sheldon Keefe envision for his lines? Who will be the opponent? Right now it’s best to look at it from an optimist’s point of view and appreciate that the Leafs have depth and options.

Meet the new boss…

I don’t think this is a matter of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” in the sense that the status quo will be maintained at MLSE or that there will be a lengthy discovery period about what direction the organization at large will go on. It seems like there will be changes and the recent look at Keith Pelley by Michael Grange and Elliotte Friedman profiles a new leader who wants to be involved and has the trust of the board to get the organization into more winning (and more importantly to them profitable) ways.
While the biggest part of the role according to the Grange/Friedman article will be navigating the politics of having competing telecomms as owners, a lot of the attention is going to be on what comes next for Brendan Shanahan:
Similarly, Shanahan’s standing will likely get a level of scrutiny that he may have been buffered from with Tanenbaum on board. The Hall of Fame forward turned executive has one year left on a six-year contract worth in the range of $25 million to $30 million, per sources, making him one of the highest-paid front office figures in hockey. And while the Leafs have been considered championship contenders for most of that run, the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly has just a single playoff series win to show for it. Another first-round exit could very well put Shanahan on the clock.
Whether or not you agree with the idea that Shanahan should be on the hot seat there would certainly be a downstream impact for hockey operations if the decision was made to move on from him. Anyone new in the role would very likely have opinions on who should be the GM of the Leafs, the coach, and if the Leafs core can actually win together. Again, whether or not you agree with those changes or not the end result is an organization potentially heading in an unpredictable direction.
None of that matters in the present. The focus right now remains on the playoffs and depending on how the spring plays out for the Leafs on the ice we’ll get a sense of the volume of changes coming off the ice.
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