Maple Leafs’ attempt at gamesmanship shows pre-series paranoia

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
8 days ago
If you’re a hockey fan of a certain age, you’ve been instilled with the idea that the playoffs are a war of attrition, a battle between venerated foes. Hockey likes to imitate warfare, even if it seems silly in the context of the real world.
This spring, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins are facing off in an evenly-matched divisional rivalry that represents critical junctures in both team’s timelines. Toronto is facing all the pressure of wasting the Auston Matthews-era and critically need to defeat its greatest demon en route to a prolonged playoff run. The games haven’t even started yet and already, the Maple Leafs’ ill-conceived attempts at gamesmanship are revealing a line of paranoid thinking.
William Nylander — Toronto’s second-best player, coming off an outstanding 98-point campaign — was held out of Friday’s practice for an undisclosed reason. Nylander played in all 82 regular season games and was never listed on an injury report. These things happen through the rigours of an unforgiving schedule but the worrisome part is the lack of transparency. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe refused to tell reporters Friday why his star winger wasn’t available on the eve of the playoffs, stating that he’s under direction from general manager Brad Treliving not to provide daily injury updates.
Why not? There’s already a finite window to prepare and it’s hard to see a scenario where Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery alters his Game 1 lineup in reaction to Nylander’s absence, especially given that he has final line change during the opening two contests. Nylander is posted on Toronto’s nominal third unit, as the Maple Leafs’ attempt to spread their Core Four across three lines. He’s the second threat to account for on Toronto’s power play, which is effectively centred around getting Matthews and Nylander’s quality looks from inside the faceoff circles. His absence won’t change the Bruins’ calculus, if anything they’ll be relieved that their third line won’t have to square off against an all-world playmaker.
Max Domi previously revealed Friday that the Maple Leafs’ won’t name their starting goaltender, while asking reporters rhetorically if the Bruins had revealed their goalie. It was a gotcha moment, but there’s also a clear difference: Boston’s Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark are both elite options! It truly doesn’t matter if the Bruins tell the Leafs who their goalie is, it’s still going to be a difficult task to beat either of them, especially on a team that values defensive structure and discipline over everything! And if we’re to take the players at face value — there’s no reason not to — they’re not even sure if their superstar teammate will be in the lineup, which has to be disconcerting.
“It’s tough to replace Willy. I don’t even know what’s going on with him. Hopefully he can play, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see tomorrow,” Calle Jarnkrok said Friday via TSN’s Mark Masters
This is a crucial playoff run for the Maple Leafs writ large and for Keefe particularly, who has to make a strong impression on Treliving or he could be gone, even if he received a contract extension this summer, money is no object. Brendan Shanahan revealed that he’s the true emperor last year, firing Kyle Dubas unceremoniously after the former Maple Leafs general manager expressed some vulnerability in his end-of-year press conference. Refusing to reveal Nylander’s reason for leave the day before the important playoff series of the past decade is the white noise created by overthinking. Keefe often likes to tell reporters they’re overthinking but it seems apparent that management are displaying Cold War-level paranoia.
Will this ultimately come back to haunt the Maple Leafs? Obviously, if Nylander is nursing a genuine injury then there’s no reason to play him. The lack of transparency helps no one, it certainly doesn’t help the Maple Leafs and the Bruins aren’t even thinking about these reports at all. Both sides are equally matched but before the puck drops, it’s apparent the Maple Leafs are feeling the pressure with this line of paranoid thinking.

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