The schedule is no friend of the Leafs

Photo credit:Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
The Leafs current three days off after the game against New Jersey before playing against Edmonton on Saturday night represents their longest break before the start of the playoffs. Hopefully they are making the most of it and it certainly makes it even more understandable why sitting John Tavares despite him being able to get in a full practice made sense. The Leafs find themselves in the top half of the league when it comes to games played so far this year meaning they have a slightly less heavy workload the rest of the way. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy schedule, but at least there are a couple of positives that can be taken away from it. Here’s a look at the final stretch of the Leafs season.
As it sits right now the Leafs magic number is 10. That is the combination of Leafs wins and Buffalo and Ottawa losses required for the Leafs to make it into the playoffs. There are additional numbers for teams below them in the standings, but either Buffalo or Ottawa represents the best opportunity to knock the Leafs out of the playoffs. It won’t happen, but once the Leafs have officially clinched we might get to use fun terms like “load management” a bit more or see more of players like Gustafsson, TImmins, Steeves, etc. become lineup regulars while other Leafs enjoy the luxury of sitting. There is also the matter of potentially wanting to beat Tampa in the standings and get home ice to start the first round and potentially close it out in Game Seven. That would require staying in the fight a lot longer before switching into play out the schedule mode.
It’s also important to note when Ryan O’Reilly is eligible to return. His 24 days, 10 games requirement of being on the long term injury reserve is met on March 30th. That gives him potentially eight games with the Leafs before the playoffs if everything goes well.
Another roster note of importance is what happens with Matthew Knies. Knies and the University of Minnesota are presently in the Big Ten Conference tournament, but no matter what the outcome for Minnesota they’ll get a placement in the Frozen Four national tournament. That tournament has regionals running March 23-26. Given that it’s a single game elimination tournament it’s entirely possible that Minnesota could be upset and Knies would become available at that time giving him the possibility of being available for 10 Leafs games to close out the season. What is more likely given the quality of the Minnesota team is that they’ll find their way into the Frozen Four which takes place on April 6th and April 8th. Presumably, the MLSE Jet will be parked in Tampa for that, with Kyle Dubas waiting with a contract onboard so Knies can be rushed to wherever the Leafs need him. Oddly enough if Knies makes it through the entire tournament the Leafs will be in Florida that week, so I guess it’s at least a short flight.
Anyways, back to the actual details of the schedule.
The Leafs come out of the nice little break they are in with 5 games in the next 8 nights, 3 of those games are against playoff teams (Edmonton, Colorado, and Carolina) and the other two are against Buffalo and Ottawa who are in active pursuit of a Wildcard spot. That’s not an easy workload.
The Leafs opponents in general are a pretty tough group. If we consider the Panthers, Predators, and Redwings to be out of the playoffs and content to stay out, it looks a little bit easier as there are seven games against teams considered to be out of the playoffs, three games against teams that are actively in the fight for a playoff spot, and eight games against definitive playoff teams.
There’s also something to be said for 11 games remaining against Atlantic Division opponents, 2 more games against the Canes, and one more game against the Rangers. That’s not a light workload. (Also of note is that there is one game remaining against each the Bruins and the Lightning.)
The next four games are also really the last real stretch of hockey the Leafs play at home until the playoffs. Only four of their last 14 games will be played at home and the final three games of the season are a road trip for the Leafs. Certainly a unique way to end the year.
The Leafs also have four back-to-backs remaining throughout the season. March 17-18 they go from home against Carolina to playing in Ottawa the next night, March 25-26 they go from playing Carolina to playing in Nashville, April 1-2 they go from Ottawa to coming home to play Detroit, and in then in the final week, April 10-11 they go from playing the Panthers to playing the Lightning. There’s a strong argument for load management in there and suddenly having nine NHL defensemen doesn’t seem so ridiculous.
After this current break the Leafs will have just three instances throughout the season with 2 days off in a row. It’s a loaded schedule, but it’s not as if the Leafs are alone in this but it will be interesting to see how they handle it. How much will they lean into their defensive depth to not only rotate out the bottom roster but to give everyone a rest, how equal will the goalie splits be between Murray and Samsonov, and do the Leafs find a way to bring more Marlies forwards into the mix are all questions to consider as the team closes out the final quarter of the season before meaningful hockey finally returns.

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