Maple Leafs need to win at even strength, benefits of a short bench, and Keefe’s strategies: Leaflets

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 days ago
Playoff hockey is finally back tonight and with it the chance to cast off the 82-game audition and it is now time to see how the Leafs perform when it matters. We’re in the last few hours of previewing the playoffs instead of reacting to them, so in that spirit, here are some last minute thoughts before round one:

Even Strength vs. Special Teams

The past month of Leafs coverage seems to be hyper-focused around fixing the powerplay and penalty kill, admittedly two very important things, and two things that have shown to be difference makers when playing against the Florida Panthers. The thing is, the Leafs aren’t facing the Florida Panthers in the first round and where the Leafs have been losing games to the Bruins has been at 5-on-5. 
As the table above shows the Leafs have been ground into a fine paste by the Bruins at 5v5, or even strength in general. The -5 goal differential at 5v5 seems a lot more troublesome than the -2 goal differential with special teams. Somehow this feels like an encouraging thing because the Leafs seem to be a lot more in control of their 5v5 game in the past month than their special teams and with players like Calle Jarnkrok and Bobby McMann returning to the lineup and pushing scoring depth onto three lines for sure (four if Reaves sits for Robertson), and with a balanced blue line across their three pairs, the Leafs seem to be in the best position to face the Bruins at even strength this season.

Leafs advantage comes from a shorter bench

While the Leafs appear to be going with balanced defensive pairings, the Leafs forward group seems like it be at its best when relying on a shorter bench. Looking at the Leafs four lines vs. the Bruins four lines the matchup is pretty even, but if Toronto can shorten their bench and primarily rely on their top eight forwards (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Bertuzzi, Domi, Jarnkrok, McMann) and then use Knies, Holmberg, and Kampf situationally to fill out those three lines, Toronto will have a stronger offensive presence on the ice at most times in contrast to the Bruins who don’t have the same fire power when their bench is shortened.
Now, if McMann and Nylander aren’t available for Game One, you can pretty much scratch that approach, but with a healthy(-ish) Leafs lineup, a shorter bench that utilizes their star players more frequently is a better approach. It’s an approach that also supports the idea of having Ryan Reaves in the lineup. With a predominantly three-line approach, Reaves shifts are hand-picked and make it easier to shelter him. It also allows for the Leafs to split the work as 3C between Holmberg and Kampf, and there will be plenty of opportunities for Knies to pick up shifts as Bertuzzi, McMann, Jarnkrok, and Domi won’t be as close to the 20 minute mark as the Leafs core four forwards.
If the intention is to roll four lines against the Bruins there probably needs to be a bit more consideration put into who makes sense against them and Ryan Reaves isn’t going to be a great matchup. Both Dewar and Robertson would make more sense depending on whether the intention is to generate more offence or play lower event hockey.
Based on the Leafs lines in practice it is hard to gauge what Keefe’s intentions are. I’m not sure if Nylander’s absence was in part intentional so the Bruins don’t know if he’ll be taking a regular shift with Tavares or if he’s playing with Holmberg, and if both McMann and Nylander are coming in that creates some discussion about who comes out from the trio of Robertson, Dewar and Reaves (presumably Robertson is the first to go.)

Keefe vs. overthinking

The gamesmanship has already begun and with it some flawed attempts at strategy.
While I take no issue with teams not sharing starting goaltenders or lineup cards and want to bet on there being a bump from the “presumed to be injured” player actually playing, I’m not sure there is much of a strategic advantage. The Bruins are likely preparing for all contingencies. They likely have their defencemen prepared if Nylander joins a loaded line with Marner and Tavares, and they probably have a plan if there is a spread out attack across three lines from the Leafs. Hinting at Nylander not playing just feels like a free space and one that will have them overprepared. I doubt Jim Montgomery is staying up late worrying about what Nick Robertson will do and instead he has his defencemen preparing to play Robertson like they were matching up against Nylander. Maybe offensively they’ll prepare to take a few more risks but that likely isn’t something they need to plan for as much as have a quick conversation about.
Keefe’s defence pairings also warrant a bit of scrutiny. If we are at the point where the style of defence that Joel Edmundson plays is being valued over the skill that Brodie could bring to the Leafs third pairing, there is definitely some overthinking going on.
The struggles of T.J. Brodie have been well documented this season, but those struggles came against top line competition while Brodie was playing on the right side of the ice. The Leafs are putting a lot of faith in the Bruins not putting up with a couple of crosschecks in front of the net and I’m not sure that strategy will play out particularly well.
If there is comfort in what we’ve seen from Keefe’s practice lines it is that he is a true believer in the Matthews line and is keeping Bertuzzi and Domi with Auston. There was a legitimate concern that at the first sign of struggle Marner would be reunited with Matthews. The Domi injury at the end of season might have been a blessing in that having Marner back on the top line confirmed the benefit of keeping Matthews with the snot twins.
Writing off Keefe’s coaching before the series even starts isn’t fair but aside from Brendan Shanahan, there is no one in the Maple Leafs organization under more pressure to get it right this spring than Sheldon Keefe.


Stanley Cup Playoffs preview: Scouting the Boston Bruins by Arun Srinivasan
Who is the odd defenceman out for the Maple Leafs in Game One? by Jon Steitzer
Maple Leafs’ attempt at gamesmanship shows pre-series paranoia by Arun Srinivasan
Minten & Cowan producing in the postseason, Hildeby sets Marlies record: Leafs Prospect Roundup by Nick Richard
Who should start Game 1 for the Leafs between Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll? by Alex Hobson
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