Should the Leafs adopt the 11 forwards/7 defencemen method in the playoffs?

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
30 days ago
A topic that seems to gain more and more traction as we get to the end of each season is the different lineup formation options for the Toronto Maple Leafs. More specifically, the conversation surrounding whether or not they should go with the traditional 12 forwards/6 defencemen formation, or load up the back end a little bit and go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
After the Leafs had their busiest trade deadline in their 107-year-long history last season, they had eight defencemen on the roster. The result was Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake McCabe, Mark Giordano, and Luke Schenn as mainstays, with Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, and Erik Gustafsson as part of a rotating cast that differed each night. There was speculation that they would use it as soon as they got this massive influx of players, and while they experimented with it a number of times in the later months of the season, they didn’t actually use it in the playoffs until Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, the game as we all know marked the end of a 19-year curse. They went back to 12/6 for Games 1 and 2, both losses, then back to 11/7 again for Games 3, 4, and 5.
Heading into this year’s playoffs, there’s reason to believe they could adopt that method again, and this time around there might be better reasoning to do so.
While Brad Treliving and the Leafs had nowhere near as active a deadline as they did last season, they did pad their defensive corps with depth like last year – this time in the form of familiar face Ilya Lyubushkin and veteran Joel Edmundson. The moves were necessary following the injury to Mark Giordano and the combination of injuries and inexperience that come with Conor Timmins. They did lose William Lagesson to the Anaheim Ducks in the process, which is easy to stomach considering the names that are coming in. With Rielly, Brodie, and McCabe still holding their spots on the back end and Lyubushkin and Edmundson entering the picture, that leaves Liljegren and Simon Benoit to round out their defensive corps heading into the playoffs.
So that begs the question – should the Leafs look at adopting the 11/7 method on a more regular basis in the playoffs? They should play it by ear to see how it works, without a doubt, but there are lots of reasons to support why it would work in their favour this season.

It would minimize their weaknesses on defence

The Leafs’ defensive corps this season is playoff-built by principle. Between Lyubushkin, McCabe, Benoit, and Edmundson, you have four bruisers who will make the lives of opposing forwards hard in front of the net. This is going to be a key factor given their first-round opponent, whether that’s the Boston Bruins or the Florida Panthers. It also doesn’t force them to sacrifice anything on the puck-moving side of the game, which you still need to have some of no matter how slow and physical your playoff opponent might be. It would take some weight off of the shoulders of players like Brodie, who has had trouble keeping up with the pace of play and handling the bulk of ice time he’s used to getting from Sheldon Keefe, and it would allow players like Benoit to be effective in the lineup without necessarily sending him out every third shift and risking exposing his flaws.
That last point might be the biggest supporting point for this cause. Sheldon Keefe has taken flak from fans on social media over the past week and a bit after scratching Benoit for a slew of games. If Keefe is making lineup decisions based on fan morale, then the Leafs were doomed from the start, but there is certainly an argument to be made over keeping him in the lineup. After starting the season as the team’s ninth defenceman on the depth chart, the 25-year-old took advantage of injuries in the lineup and blossomed into a dependable, physical shutdown option and a fan favourite alike. Because he’s left-handed, the acquisition of Edmundson has seemingly bumped him out of the lineup, and even Keefe himself didn’t seem thrilled about that.
While people are going to pin Benoit up against Liljegren for that last spot, the reality is the Leafs are going to do whatever they can to keep the latter in the lineup unless he gives them no other option but to sit him. The former first-round pick seems to have responded positively to the urgency for improvement on defence, notching a goal and assist in his last two games and showing signs of improvement skating alongside Edmundson. Icing seven defencemen would allow them to keep Liljegren’s puck-moving ability and power play presence in the lineup, allowing Benoit to log penalty kill minutes and give them another physical presence on the back end, and his penalty kill ability would likely allow Brodie to take a step back from that role and let him tread water with a little weight taken off of his shoulders.

It would minimize T.J. Brodie’s role

We’re going to piggyback off of the last sentence there because it’s something that I think will need to be addressed whether Keefe likes it or not. Brodie has long been one of if not the Leafs’ most dependable, reliable option on the defensive corps, but it’s becoming more apparent than ever that the weight on his shoulders is starting to get heavier and heavier – and it’s apparent from both an eye-test standpoint and an analytic standpoint. Of the three players he’s played alongside most this year (Rielly, McCabe, Liljegren), no pair an expected-goals-for percentage (xGF%) of any higher than 47.46%, and it’s the same story from a puck possession standpoint, with the Corsi-for percentage (CF%) falling below 50% on each pair. From an eye-test perspective, you can see that he panics with the puck far more often than he’s used to, doesn’t use his body as much in front of the net as he used to (which, he already didn’t all that often to begin with) and he’s struggled with giveaways more often than we’ve come to expect for somebody who’s calling card was dependability.
There have been times this season when giving Brodie a night off was justified, but it hasn’t happened yet – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a game where he’s played less than 20 minutes. It’s hard to justify scratching him given his $5 million cap hit (which expires after this season, mind you), but there’s no salary cap in the playoffs, and with the upgrades they’ve made on the back end, there’s simply no reason he needs to play as much as he has in the past. If he’s never going to get a night off, the next best thing is taking some pressure off of him and minimizing his role so his mistakes aren’t as magnified. He and McCabe logged a ton of minutes together in last year’s playoffs, and as unfortunate as it is to say, if he’s playing 25+ minutes a night against the likes of David Pastrnak or Matthew Tkachuk, the Leafs might not even make it to six games.

The Leafs don’t have a clear-cut fourth line

Unlike last season, when the Leafs had a nice combination of players they could rotate in and out on either side of David Kampf on the fourth line, it’s been more of a rotating cast of players in 2023-24. There’s been a little Ryan Reaves here, a little Noah Gregor there, and a little Pontus Holmberg in between. Bobby McMann was one of those players at one point, but he’s seemingly played himself into a top-nine role for the rest of the season.
Kampf is going to remain in the lineup for his role on the penalty kill, and considering that’s also what Connor Dewar was acquired to do, I don’t see him getting scratched either. There are probably going to be times when Reaves gets into the lineup due to the nature of their opponents, but outside of that, I don’t know that any fringe player is safe from having their spot taken in favour of an extra defenceman.
Just to put things into perspective, let’s do a little mock-up and put my projections on paper.
Matthew Knies – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Tyler Bertuzzi – John Tavares – William Nylander
Bobby McMann – Max Domi – Calle Jarnkrok
Connor Dewar – David Kampf 
Morgan Rielly – Ilya Lyubushkin
Simon Benoit – Jake McCabe
Joel Edmundson – Timothy Liljegren
T.J. Brodie
It’s probably wishful thinking to imagine Brodie as a seventh defenceman in the playoffs, but with this sort of a lineup, there’s not really such thing as a “seventh defenceman”. Their ice time will ultimately come down to the situations they’re used in.
Luke Fox of Sportsnet wrote an article during last year’s playoffs discussing the pros and cons of rolling with a lineup formation like this, and among the cons were the increased difficulty of developing chemistry, the risk that comes with tiring out your forwards if one of them gets injured, and the increased difficulty in making adjustments on the fly. These are all valid points, and precisely why the Leafs need to monitor the struggles just like they do the benefits. They did a good job of adjusting their lineup for certain situations last season, and ultimately, having too many options during crunch time is never a bad thing.
The Leafs are going to be in tough for the first round this season whether that’s against Boston or Florida, and they’ll need to prepare accordingly regardless of who they face. It might not be a cheat code to getting to the second round two years in a row, but going 11/7 could be more of a difference-maker this year than it was last year.

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