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Revisiting my projections for the Leafs Game 1 Lineup of the 2023 Playoffs

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Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
10 months ago
The 2023 Playoffs are fully underway and the Leafs have once again kicked off the second season on the wrong foot.
Tuesday night’s 7-3 loss to the Lightning was a disaster no matter how you slice it. They looked nervous to start the game, badly lost the special teams battle, Ilya Samsonov had a rough outing, and Michael Bunting laid an unnecessary hit that resulted in him being suspended for the next three games.
While the series is far from over (and they have a chance to get back on track tonight), the Leafs certainly did themselves no favours to begin a pivotal playoff series with the future direction of the team hanging in the balance.
During the Leafs’ nightmare game, I kept thinking about the projections I made over a month ago for how the Leafs would have their lines to begin the postseason. This article acts as a follow-up so we can see just how wrong (or right) I was in my educated guesses for what Sheldon Keefe would do.

Forwards

Projections:
Bunting-Matthews-Nylander
Tavares-O’Reilly-Marner
Knies-Kampf-Jarnkrok
Kerfoot-Acciari-Lafferty
Extra: Aston-Reese, Simmonds
Actual Lines:
Bunting-Matthews-Marner
Tavares-O’Reilly-Nylander
Kerfoot-Acciari-Jarnkrok
Aston-Reese-Kampf-Lafferty
Extras: Knies, Simmonds
The only player that I projected to appear on Tuesday that didn’t was Matthew Knies, but how I predicted the lines would look was not exactly accurate.
Given how effective Mitch Marner was when paired up with John Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly, it would have made sense for that line to have been used. Keefe instead opted to return to the safe choice of the Leafs’ top line over the past two seasons. Bunting did not finish the game on this line and Calle Jarnkrok wound up getting reunited with Marner and Auston Matthews, which resulted in a garbage-time goal. William Nylander being on the second line made some sense as that line was utilized numerous times down the stretch.
The Leafs opted to go with all of their established players to begin the playoffs, so it makes sense why the bottom-six lines looked as such. Zach Aston-Reese had a strong end to the season and his line was showing quite a bit of chemistry, which is why they were the fourth line utilized.
Knies certainly did his part to increase his chances of slotting into the Game 1 lineup, but the lack of practice with the Leafs before the playoffs likely meant he was going to be eased into the swing of things. Bunting’s aforementioned suspension changes that, so Knies will soon be trusted into a big situation and will be asked to fill in the void left by the pending UFA winger. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wayne Simmonds only gets a nod if the Leafs lose any more players to injuries or suspension.

Defence

Projections:
Rielly-Liljegren
McCabe-Brodie
Giordano-Holl
Extras: Schenn, Gustafsson, Timmins
Actual Lines:
McCabe-Brodie
Giordano-Holl
Rielly-Schenn
Extras: Liljegren, Gustafsson, Timmins
Swap out Timothy Liljegren for Luke Schenn and the projections for the defensive pairings are bang-on.
While Morgan Rielly being listed as a third-pairing defenceman may be alarming to some, it makes some sense given his struggles this season and his success alongside Schenn since the trade deadline. It also has a lot to do with the fact the other two pairings have been so effective, with Keefe relying especially on Jake McCabe and TJ Brodie with the toughest defensive assignments.
It wouldn’t shock me if the Leafs decide to put Liljegren back in the lineup when the series shifts to Tampa Bay. While Schenn’s physicality and net-front presence are important, his lack of foot mobility could be a problem when Toronto isn’t blessed with the last change on account of them being on the road. Liljegren will provide the Leafs with some speed on their back end and should theoretically do better than he did in last year’s playoffs.
Highly doubt we see Erik Gustafsson and Connor Timmins appear in the playoffs unless the Leafs are desperate for a major spark or they return to the 11/7 lineup.

Goalies

Projections:
Samsonov
Murray
Woll
Actual Lines:
Samsonov
Woll
Kallgren
The projected lines were immediately proven wrong the moment Matt Murray suffered a concussion during a game against the Red Wings earlier this month.
What isn’t surprising is that Samsonov was given the start for Game 1 because his collective body of work demonstrated that he was the Leafs’ top option in the net. He did not inspire much confidence with his showing on Tuesday (which he took full ownership of after the game) and he remains with just a single playoff win in his NHL career.
Joseph Woll’s 2022-23 campaign was a huge success and he deservedly propelled himself up the depth chart. He came in relief of Samsonov during the third period and made four saves while allowing one goal. Whether or not he remains the backup in the playoffs once Murray is cleared remains to be seen, but he has certainly earned himself the backup spot for next season.
Erik Kallgren is the third-stringer on an emergency basis and will go back to the Marlies when Murray returns.

Special Teams

Power-Play Lines Projections:
Matthews-Tavares-Nylander
Rielly-Marner
Jarnkrok-O’Reilly-Bunting
Liljegren-Giordano
Actual Power Play Lines:
Matthews-O’Reilly-Tavares
Rielly-Marner
Kerfoot-Jarnkrok-Nylander
Brodie-Giordano
Rotate O’Reilly with Nylander and the projections nearly match what the Leafs went with. Bear in mind that by the time the Leafs used the second unit in the third period, Bunting was long gone and he is often used on the second unit.
The Leafs’ man-advantage unit was the least of their problems as they accounted for two of their goals and both came when the game was still within reach. One of the tallies came courtesy of the top unit listed which had plenty of quality looks, while the second came during a line change with Nylander and Giordano slotting in place of O’Reilly and Rielly respectively.
Keefe took out the blender in the third period for the power play lines, and it resulted in the second unit getting more minutes on the latter two opportunities. Meaning Sam Lafferty got a chance on the man advantage in what amounted to meaningless hockey.
In the moments that mattered, the Leafs were effective when on the power play and that needs to continue moving forward.
Penalty Kill Lines Projections:
O’Reilly-Marner
McCabe-Brodie
Acciari-Lafferty
Giordano-Holl
Actual Penalty Kill Lines:
O’Reilly-Marner
Brodie-Holl
Acciari-Jarnkrok
McCabe-Schenn
The projections are fairly similar to the actual lines, apart from Jarnkrok instead of Lafferty and Schenn instead of Giordano.
When watching the tape, the Leafs also used David Kampf and Alex Kerfoot when down a man. And given the Leafs ended up taking eight penalties on the night (including a five-on-three), all of the forwards had to be utilized for quite a significant portion of the game.
Their struggles to keep the puck out of the net when shorthanded isn’t squarely on the players in front since Samsonov accounted for all four goals in this situation. Having said that, the collective whole did not do a good enough job to keep the Leafs in the game when special teams were the deciding factor.
It wouldn’t be a big shock if Keefe decided to make some adjustments to who plays with whom in shorthanded situations as the series progress.

Summary

While I was inaccurate in a few areas, my projections are fairly close to what the Leafs ended up using for Game 1. There was one forward, defenceman, and goalie in the actual lines that I did not include in my guesses while some of the lines were a bit off from the projections.
The lineup used was not the reason why the Leafs lost by four goals, but the lacklustre play from some areas did not do them any favours in a game that was decided by special teams. What can’t be denied is that Keefe is going to be forced to utilize a shuffled deck to account for Bunting being unavailable until Game 5 if necessary.
As I said back when I made my projections, so many factors go into how the lines are utilized and it’s hard to consistently make accurate predictions as a result. Having both Murray suffering a concussion mere weeks before the start of the playoffs and Schenn getting the nod over Liljegren down the stretch are two things you can’t predict over a month in advance, hence why the projections aren’t entirely accurate.
Having said that, it was a fun exercise making educated guesses on what the Leafs would use for Game 1. My takeaway from this endeavour: I am no psychic.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com 

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