Resting Leafs, line juggling and the salary cap: Leaflets

Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Less than a month until meaningful hockey. It shouldn’t have to be this way. It would be nice if there were something beyond avoiding injuries and roster optimization left to care about for the season, but that’s not how it works. I guess it could always be worse than being a team that has been locked into your playoff opponent since late December, you could be a team that hasn’t had a sniff of the playoffs all year, and then really, after the trade deadline what are you tuning in for? So rather than going completely negative on there still being 14 games left to play, I’ll embrace this wild ride through lineup card construction that will likely lead us back to something very familiar to us in time for the playoffs.

5 Player Units

While Sheldon Keefe is exploring what works and what doesn’t when it comes to his lineup card, I wouldn’t mind seeing him dust off the old Soviet tactic of having five player units that head out together rather than running forward lines and defense pairings separately. To some extent, the Leafs are already trying to do this as much as possible as there isn’t much point in putting Morgan Rielly on the ice with the third or fourth forward lines, but why not optimize the lineup card to roll three lines and carry three specialists who will make up the fourth forward line? And it probably should be a fourth forward line because I firmly believe the biggest barrier to Sheldon Keefe getting the most out of an 11F/7D lineup is Sheldon Keefe.
Having a pairing of Giordano and Holl or Liljegren entirely focused on trapping the opposition along with the Leafs third forward line would be beneficial. Putting Morgan Rielly in a situation that allows him his best chance at offense and keeping him tethered to Matthews might make sense while a McCabe-Brodie pairing might offset the riverboat gambler mentality of a Tavares-Nylander line.
As for the specialist line, it feels like the perfect place for a penalty killer like Alex Kerfoot who is underperforming and has a Swiss Army Knife like ability of being mediocre but not damagingly so on any line he plays on. It seems like a great way of carrying a player the Leafs want to shelter but to test as a difference maker in Matthew Knies, and as for the last spot, we’ll just assume it’s the doghouse for whichever bottom sixer isn’t living up to what is needed from them on the third line.
I certainly want to spend a bit more time taking a look at who Rielly, Brodie, Giordano, Holl, and Liljegren have thrived with to see if there is a math based argument for this approach or if I’m just going full Keefe.

The NHL is setting the PA up to take the fall on the salary cap

This really isn’t anything new, but this year it seems that everyone is spelling it out a lot more fairly. The league is stating that the salary cap is likely to go up $1M next season, but it has the potential to increase a lot more if the NHLPA is willing to negotiate on that. The biggest issue there is that the NHLPA is now almost completely free from the escrow deficit and has no interest in going back, something that a raised salary cap has the potential to do.
So here we are once more as the NHL paints the PA as the bad guy, the anti-fun group that wants to suck all the air out of free agency and completely ignoring the fact that this is a mess of the league’s making largely by offering multi-year, multi-million dollar deals to players like Erik Gudbranson right up until last year. It certainly isn’t the players fault for wanting to get paid or for asking for money when it’s there, but NHL GM’s have done some interesting things with their allowance and ultimately it winds up being just the fans who suffer through this farce.
Personally, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as there is a salary cap it doesn’t matter what the number is. The hard cap itself is the problem. The hard cap is what causes teams to sell off players that they can’t afford after they’ve developed them into a higher caliber player. It’s the hard cap that has solid NHL players dealt as salary dumps. With things like a $1M cap increase, most teams have already spent what that on their bonus rollover penalty from the season before. It’s a broken system or it’s one doing exactly what you want it to. I guess it depends on who you ask.
The Leafs have become quite skilled at navigating the salary cap and the addition of Brandon Pridham is one of the most important additions the team has made. The initial fumbling of the cap coming out of the first lockout which was stacked against high spending teams, followed by Burke & Co.’s complete lack of understanding of player valuation made the salary cap an issue. Now it’s a nuisance at worst.

Bottom of the roster load management

With Noel Acciari leaving the game last night for precautionary reasons it seems worthwhile to raise the point that it’s not just star players that the Leafs will want to have rested and 100% heading into the playoffs. The bottom of the roster is likely just as banged up as the top, but comes with the added bonus of people not freaking out when Keefe decides he wants to give Acciari an extra day to recover and let Alex Steeves pick up a couple of shifts instead. Right now with Steeves and Simmonds in the Leafs press box, I’d give them their time in the lineup as much as possible, especially Simmonds considering it’s not the worst idea to try to keep the opposition honest in the later games of the year.
This idea also loops back around to my first point of trying five man units. Bringing Steeves and Simmonds in and possibly going with 7D at the same time allows the Leafs a look at three top heavy lines with consistent defensive partners to see if it works.
Tonight it looks like Acciari will sit, Simmonds is in, and the Leafs will stay with 12F/6D. So it’s at least a good sign that no one is going to be rushed back into the lineup.

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