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Matthews returns, Brodie still recovering, defence pairings shuffled: Leafs Practice Notes

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Photo credit:© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
2 months ago
The Leafs are fresh off a dominant performance where they handily defeated the Penguins on Saturday. They were able to pull this off without Auston Matthews and TJ Brodie, both of whom returned to the ice for practice.
While Toronto did just fine without their cornerstone player in the lineup, there’s no denying that having Matthews back so quickly is a huge boost. He has been playing exceptional hockey of late with 10 points in his last four games prior to missing Saturday’s blowout win. Four of those points in a game against their next opponent, and while it would be a lot to ask of him to repeat the feat it’s not a stretch to say he will at least be a factor in the game.
Matthews’ absence allowed Sheldon Keefe to experiment with different combinations and one that proved to be effective was Max Domi and Mitch Marner. Highly doubt the duo gets reunited again in the near future, but it’s fair to wonder if at some point Keefe brings the two together with a fully healthy lineup as a way to balance out the lines.
Brodie inching closer to a return is also a welcome sight as he is easily one of their most important defenders. Unfortunately for him, the chances of him getting back into the lineup against the Rangers are not 100%.
Whatever illness has been affecting the team of late must have not been pleasant because it looks like it hit Brodie pretty hard. It is worth noting that he did not remain on the ice for the main session, which makes sense given he had his first meal in days this morning and has not fully recovered from his illness. The Leafs are operating under the assumption that he will be good to go for tomorrow, but if not then you can expect the defensive pairings to be closer to what they used over the weekend.
This explains why Simon Benoit was slotted alongside Morgan Rielly in practice today; he is merely a placeholder for whenever Brodie is set to return. Although this combination is not expected to be used tomorrow, I wonder if Keefe will attempt to use it in a game somewhere down the line. While he is by no means the second coming of Luke Schenn, Benoit plays a similar type of shutdown game and that playstyle has been a godsend in the past alongside the more mobile Rielly.
No complaints about the forward as the Leafs are close to having an optimized lineup. There is certainly room for improvement in the bottom six and plenty of intriguing targets for them to consider but this should do the trick in the interim.
One player I am keeping an eye on is Tyler Bertuzzi, who was coming off his best game as a Leaf from an offensive standpoint with three assists on the night. He has been playing great of late but was not getting rewarded for it until this past weekend. Would not shock me if he goes on a bit of a heater heading into the Christmas break.
We already assessed the first defensive pairing listed, but the other two are a mixed bag in terms of what can be realistically expected of them. Jake McCabe and Timothy Liljegren should do fine together with the former playing well of late while the latter is quickly getting back into a rhythm after missing over a month of action. By contrast, the third pairing could cause the Leafs some headaches from a defensive standpoint since the two of them are fighting to maintain their spot in the lineup once Brodie and Mark Giordano return.
At the time of writing, Keefe did not speak to the media about who would be getting the nod against New York although the safe bet would be Martin Jones. He has stepped up nicely since being forced into action against the Senators over a week ago and has provided some much-needed stability with Joseph Woll hurt and Ilya Samsonov struggling. While I would understand if the Leafs decided to give the nod to the latter in an attempt to get his game back on track, they should ride the hot hand and right now that is Jones.
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