Predicting the Maple Leafs defence pairings heading into the playoffs

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
1 month ago
After recently showcasing what the forward lines should/could like look down the stretch, let’s turn our attention to the Maple Leafs’ defence pairings. With a couple of fresh faces and a defence-by-committee approach, head coach Sheldon Keefe will be tasked with pairing up the tandems to give Toronto the best chance at some spring success.
There’s certainly a chance Keefe runs an 11F/7D lineup at some point down the stretch and/or in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, for this exercise, let’s make an assumption only six are going to dress. Here’s how Keefe should align his back end:

Morgan Rielly – Ilya Lyubushkin

It’s been obvious since Lyubushkin re-joined the Maple Leafs this season that he’d get a crack as Rielly’s counterpart and rightfully so -no pun intended. The Leafs are thin when it comes to righties and Timothy Liljegren has been over his head all season long. Lyubushkin’s fit in nicely and should stay with Rielly heading into the playoffs.
With Rielly’s rover-type style and his ability to use his skating abilities to create time and space, Lyubushkin’s physical presence is a great way to balance the two. ‘Boosh’ is at his best when he keeps things simple and limits the high-risk plays like backhand spin-o-rama passes at the blue line. Rielly will see more ice time per game because of his power-play minutes and getting double-shifted throughout the game, however, when Lyubushkin steps on the ice 5vs5, Rielly should be his partner.

Simon Benoit – Jake McCabe

When Benoit was taken out of the lineup recently it certainly turned some heads. Since joining the Leafs this season he’s done everything that’s been asked of him and more. Toronto needs his physicality and shut-down abilities and when paired with McCabe, they’ve shown some solid chemistry together.
Mike Babcock wouldn’t approve this pairing because of having two lefties, but who cares what Babs thinks. McCabe has shown he’s more than capable of playing his off side because of his ability to read the play and get ahead of the puck along the boards. This duo has already played 45 games together and should continue down the stretch to strengthen the chemistry. When Vegas won the Cup last season they essentially used the same six defencemen throughout.
McCabe has six goals on the season and has shown flashes of his offensive game. His ability to move the puck is something he’s worked on a tremendous amount and it’s helping solidify him as a top-four option. While Benoit is likely better suited as a #5 instead of a #4, if the duo works together and is effective, carry on. The Leafs would be in good shape having these two connected at the hip heading into the playoffs.

Joel Edmundson – TJ Brodie

This is where things get a bit complicated and need to work themselves out a little bit. Both Brodie and Timothy Liljegren have struggled of late and if the Leafs are dressing six d-men for Game 1 of the playoffs, Edmundson and Brodie should be the #5 and #6.
Brodie has been playing his offside since he joined the Maple Leafs and while he’s been paired with Rielly a ton throughout his tenure in Toronto, he needs to be pushed down the depth chart. Edmundson is going to be a great add for the Leafs and gives them a heavy stick in front of the net to clear space and with his experience winning a Cup in St Louis, he’s going to do wonders in the dressing room when the intensity gets cranked way up. He is best suited on a third pair and killing penalties and this duo is capable of shutting down opponents and keeping things simple.
Brodie’s leash needs to be short as Liljegren would be chomping at the bit to get back in, and to this point, it hasn’t appeared Keefe is ready to sit him to send a message. Could that be coming? Absolutely. Between the two of them, the Leafs need more out of them. Consistency, simplicity, and limit the costly mistakes. Brodie and Liljegren have been paired together at points the past month and while it looked nice over the course of Rielly’s suspension, too often lately it hasn’t looked good at all. Hopefully Keefe quickly builds trust with Edmundson’s game to avoid seeing the duo together down the stretch.
Worth noting it’s going to be extremely tough for Mark Giordano to find himself back into the Maple Leafs lineup once he’s healthy. The same can be said for Conor Timmins. When healthy, these two are solid #8 and #9 options and they’ll likely be Black Aces once the playoffs begin.
There we have it folks, my thoughts on how Keefe should be constructing his defence pairings down the stretch this season. Chemistry is so vital for playoff success and the coaching staff need to start setting some things in stone so the Leafs tandems can build a comfort level they can lean on when the games matter most.

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