10 things for the Maple Leafs to do in their last 10 games

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
11 days ago
The Leafs are now at the 72 game mark and there are only 10 games remaining for them in the pointlessly long NHL season (I guess a ticket sales driven league doesn’t see them as pointless, but I stand by it.) The Leafs are now confronted with a Tampa Bay Lightning team that could make things interesting and now the Leafs could be destined for a wild card spot (maybe all 82 games need to be taken seriously after all.)
Anyways, with 10 games left it seems appropriate to put together a bit of a to-do list for the Maple Leafs before the playoffs and I guess we’ll see if Game 82 against the Lightning has the potential to see the Leafs facing off against Metropolitan Division opponents instead of the Bruins or Panthers. Maple Leafs fans should probably have the good sense in advance to avoid “We want the Rangers” chants as I can’t think of any instance where over confidence about an opponent has backfired.
Here’s the to-do list:

1. Get Nylander and Matthews to 100 points

As tempting as it would be to put get Matthews to 70 goals on this list, that’s a pretty big ask. It’s certainly a nice to have, but what seems like it is the least the Leafs can do is get Nylander and Matthews to the triple digits. Nylander is already in career best territory, his next goal is his career high and he’s already well into his career high for points, but considering how much we’ve heard of Nylander not caring or being inconsistent this is a huge milestone and a great way to justify his big payday.
As for Matthews, 100 points is a sign that last season’s “down year” is fully behind him and while others like McDavid, MacKinnon, and Kucherov are all ahead of him in points and that might earn them Hart consideration, Matthews being as sound as he’s been defensively this season while putting up 60 goals is unheard of outside of Wayne Gretzky and should have him on an easy path to the Selke now that Bergeron has retired. In a world where Alexsander Barkov exists I wouldn’t start etching his name into the plaque just yet, but Matthews’ 200 foot game is pretty special.

2. Figure out the Game 1 Starter

As things sit today it seems like the job is Ilya Samsonov’s to lose but his grip on the role isn’t so tight that Woll can’t overcome his rough return to play (that is a mix of team play and Woll not fully being up to speed yet).
The best case scenario is that the Leafs have a hot hand heading into the playoffs, but a consistent hot hand in net has been a rarity outside of Martin Jones’ run earlier this year. Neither Samsonov or Woll have been dominant but both have had stretches where they have given the team in front of them enough confidence that they don’t need to focus on who is net.
We’ve heard from plenty of Leafs talking about Woll’s composure throughout the season and that could be a difference maker.

3. Build blueline pairings that work not that don’t hurt feelings

Feels like this is targeting a couple of former Flames here, but the reality is that TJ Brodie has been a mess and simply giving him a couple of days off work and tossing him back into ridiculous assignments isn’t what is best for him.
During the Canes game Brodie was primarily playing against the Martinook-Staal-Teravainen line which is a very good 3rd line, but a third line nevertheless, and Brodie was still significantly outplayed. He picked up a couple of assists against the Devils again matching primarily against their third line which featured Nosek-Mercer-Palat, a slight step down competition wise. The moral of the story might be that Brodie is a situation 3rd pairing defender at this point. If it benefits the Leafs to have his puck movement in the lineup, he plays, if he is too much of a defensive liability, he sits.
With Mark Giordano returning the Leafs have their first opportunity to see if he can be a fit with in the post deadline pairings as things have certainly been shuffled around. He has played a ton of hockey with Timothy Liljegren so there is familiarity there, but Liljegren has thrived away from Giordano. There is also the fact that Giordano already looked terribly out of his element last playoffs and hasn’t done much to change that perception this season.
At the same time there should be some questions about a fan favourite like Simon Benoit, who does a lot of things the Leafs want from their defencemen but he might have to prove that he can do it away from his frequent partner, Jake McCabe. McCabe might be needed higher up in the lineup than the Leafs are comfortable playing Benoit in the playoffs.
Outside of Rielly and McCabe the Leafs don’t really have anyone who can feel 100% sure they’ll be playing every night and while that is a bit damning of the Leafs blueline, if it inspires players to earn their spots it could pay off for Toronto.

4. Determine if they are rolling lines or want a short bench

A lot has been made of two very different things in recent years. The Panthers and Golden Knights received a ton of praise for having four lines and three defensive pairings that were tough to play against for their opposition and they could all be trusted on the ice at anytime.
At the same time last season there was heavy criticism for players like Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander having nights with under 20 minutes of playing time.
This comes back to the simple concept of not playing your team the way that has worked for other teams but instead playing your team the way it has been built.
I’d make the argument that the Leafs can play that roll three defensive pairing strategy to some degree. You certainly want to get Rielly out with your top offensive producers but whether the pairing is Rielly-Lyubushkin, Benoit-McCabe, or Edmundson-Liljegren, they are all going to be about as successful defensively against the opposition as the other.
Forward wise the Leafs can probably put together 3 very tough lines to matchup against. The core four plus Domi, Bertuzzi, Jarnkrok, and McMann put down the foundation for a tough top nine that will likely see whichever hand is the hottest of Holmberg, Knies, or Robertson alongside them.
Dewar and Kampf seem like important parts of Sheldon Keefe’s penalty killing group, but given the results of the PK, I’m not sure how much of a case you can make for holding spots for current penalty killers should be part of the plan.
Given the Leafs current situation I wonder if we the fourth line being more of a collection of specialists, a 2nd unit powerplay guy (Robertson), a PK specialist/centre (either Dewar, Kampf, or Holmberg) and potentially a 7D or Ryan Reaves (if Sheldon Keefe believes this sends a message to the opposition.)
We’ve seen in the past that Keefe wants to find a way to that four line of tough competition model, but I’m not sure you can confidently say the Leafs are there now and it seems unlikely they’ll get there in 10 more games. Perhaps if they divorce themselves from the notion that they have the personnel to put together a full blown shutdown line and instead shoot for more defensive responsibility across the board that approach could work, but no matter what it shouldn’t result in the Leafs core players seeing less than 20 minutes of ice time a night.

5. Make special teams special again

You can’t wave a magic wand and fix special teams, but getting Mitch Marner back in the lineup might be the closest thing to that.
The Leafs are certainly not as bad as they’ve been once Marner is added to the powerplay and the Leafs are able to potentially add both Marner and Jarnkrok to the penalty kill. In fact, Jarnkrok might help the second PP unit as well, so personnel will help.
That’s a big part of the story but when it comes to the Leafs powerplay and the playoffs there are two things we’ve seen regularly that need to be adjusted for.
  1. The Leafs struggled with zone entries as Tampa and Florida would deploy a four man blockade around their blueline limiting the opportunity for the Leafs to carry the puck effectively into the zone last spring. Having one player go at top speed with nearly stationary outlets didn’t work then and is unlikely to work now and with some more aggressive players in their lineup this year, the Leafs need to consider different plans of attack.
  2. The slot has been a no-fly zone for a number of postseasons and Toronto needs to take it back or find ways of exploiting the outside areas of the ice. If the low areas are crowded, they need to be used as a screen and a means to move the puck quickly east-west in the high part of the zone before finding quick south-north movements that the goaltender can’t track. Some of this is going to be positioning and different personnel in different places on both units.
For the PK it seems like the Leafs are potentially already heading in the right direction by bringing William Nylander and Auston Matthews back into the PK fold more. While having 4th liners kill penalties throughout the regular season makes sense, taking top players off the ice in the playoffs when you need your best guys in all situations is a bit more confusing.
The biggest part of the Leafs penalty kill is their aggressiveness through speed and if Toronto wants to continue with a tighter deployment around the slot, the Leafs will need to rely on faster forwards to apply some of the pressure they’ve given up through positioning. Easier said than done, but this is what makes Mitch Marner such a valuable player in these situations as he does it better than anyone else.
As for the personnel, we can only hope the Leafs give something more inspired than Matthews-Marner-Nylander-Tavares-Rielly on the top unit powerplay and more thought is needed than putting the best five players on the ice and hoping for the best. That’s peewee house league level of coaching and while it often still works, the Leafs should try something different.

6. Figure out where Marner slots in 5v5

Next to Matthews. Done.
Seriously, that seems painfully obvious and while the Domi-Matthews-Bertuzzi line has worked well in Marner’s absence and there is merit to a McMann-Tavares-Marner line with Nylander taking his talents to the 3rd line, the best Matthews and the best Marner on when they are together. Given that both players need to be better in the playoffs, it seems like starting them off in a place they can successful is a good idea.
That said, the Leafs could certainly try to go another route and even if they don’t the question then becomes what do the Leafs do with Domi and Bertuzzi?
I’ve long lobbied that Domi belongs with Matthews and Marner. He can bring some of the Bunting type pestiness and despite his small stature he’s going to make sure that neither of the Leafs superstars get pushed around. He’s had chemistry with both of them and I have to say at this point I’d be shocked to see Domi start the playoffs anywhere other than next to Matthews.
As for Bertuzzi, he’s a lot more versatile and maybe the biggest question is where does he slot in? Once Marner returns the Leafs will hopefully answer that.

7. Finding the right depth

Predicting an X-factor seems foolish but my brain instinctively goes to Nick Robertson and the potential impact he could play as a depth scoring option who will see some potentially favourable matchups at times when he’ll have the freshest legs on the ice.
It might not be so much an “X-Factor” as it will be finding the right fit of the depth to match against opposition. Looking at the Panthers bottom six forwards it could be Gregor-Dewar-Reaves throwing Lomberg and Cousins into the boards every chance they get and not letting them become the pests they’ve made their livings off of being.
Against the Bruins it could be finding a line like Knies-Holmberg-Robertson that pushes the puck back into the Bruins end more and applies pressure at time when teams normally take the foot off the gas.
Or maybe we simply haven’t seen the best of Noah Gregor and his speed and willingness to finish his hits will matter more now than it did in the regular season. The impact of Zach Aston-Reese in the playoffs last year says that it probably won’t be Noah Gregor but the Leafs having a variety of options puts them in a better place than they were in last year.

8. Get plenty of rest

The constant sickness that worked its way through the Leafs locker room has given some players some time off lately but not exactly the most restful time off and not one that makes players feel like they are recovering. As it sits right now the Leafs have Mark Giordano, Conor Timmins, Martin Jones, Ryan Reaves, and Noah Gregor as players who are potentially on the outside looking in for the Leafs playoff lineup and that still leaves the Leafs with 7D.
The Leafs should have those players in the lineup every night in April and finding time for players like Tavares, Rielly, Bertuzzi, and others to sit. Once Nylander and Matthews hit 100 points I’d say rest them too unless Matthews is painfully close to 70 goals, then good luck trying to make that happen.
While sitting might not be the way to go for everyone it would be nice if April results in attempts to limit ice time for star players and try to ease the workload in game. That seems easier said than done as I’d imagine when the Leafs are down by one and Auston Matthews is sitting right there, Sheldon Keefe is going to play him.
I don’t expect we’ll see load management as aggressive as I’m suggesting, but I do have say I’ve been encouraged by the fact that Sheldon Keefe seems to be giving Woll and Samsonov the full night off when they aren’t starting and putting Martin Jones on the bench.
And having Reaves available for the seven remaining Atlantic Division games is a situation where he can show his worth.

9. Fix TJ Brodie

Okay so I’m up to #9 on the list and I’m running out of ideas and this is doubling back around to #3.
The reality is that a competent TJ Brodie can give the Leafs a lot more than any of the Leafs other defensive options outside of Morgan Rielly and Jake McCabe, and that’s why there is value in trying to figure out what exactly is going wrong. If it is strictly a matter of age hitting him like a ton of bricks, good luck with that, and instead the Leafs are better to move on. The thing is that Sheldon Keefe really doesn’t seem to be acting like that is the case and maybe there is hope to be had for a fully realized TJ Brodie.
It seems like the right side of the blueline needs to be a no-fly zone for Brodie moving forward. His past success there is null and void and the Leafs need to look at him strictly as a left side option. With that the conversation starts around who makes sense to play with him and there isn’t a lot of recent success to speak of with McCabe, Liljegren, Lyubushkin, or Timmins. That pretty much leaves Joel Edmundson moving over to the right side as the option and that too could be a scary undertaking.
Brodie doesn’t have the speed or physicality to carry those angles of a defensive pairing. He’s strengths are in his shot blocking/positioning as well as his ability to move the puck out of his end. Given that the Leafs defencemen are generally on the slower side, I think there needs to be some consideration for the forwards on the ice and finding a way to utilize faster forwards lower in the Leafs zone to not only help Brodie but others. Finding the physical element in the Leafs lineup is no longer a struggle so finding someone to handle net-front crosschecking won’t be a challenge.
Does it come down to sheltering Brodie? Is there a legitimate opportunity to do that in a playoff series? Maybe. Brodie could be more useful as an 7th defenceman than dressing a 12th forward. Putting Brodie out as an offensive zone faceoff option and providing some relief post powerplay/penalty kill for higher utilization defencemen might be his biggest strength. He’s seemingly played with everyone and on both sides (as much as I don’t want to promote the idea of him on the right side again), and that flexibility in a defender might serve a purpose even if he doesn’t get a regular partner.

10. Become a team

The way the Leafs rallied around each other during Morgan Rielly’s suspension and took Rielly’s action as a wakeup call seem to be wearing off. I’m not sure whether crosschecking someone new in the face is the answer but there needs to be some sign that the Maple Leafs aren’t a collection of good hockey players and instead that they are a good team.
There has been a lot more support of each other in the media this year beyond the Rielly suspension. Early in the year there was a lot of praise for Joseph Woll’s composure. There has been praise from Matthews and Marner about Pontus Holmberg’s talent, and team generally seems to love that Bobby McMann has become an NHL goal scorer.
It seems like Matthews, Rielly, and Max Domi leading a lot of the way on this and that’s not to say that they are alone in that, but they are the ones we all get to see.
Accountability also needs to be a bigger part of what happens for the Leafs and was something notably absent at the end of the playoffs last year. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are the two players most will be looking for accountability from in the playoffs.
The other piece of that is identity and the reality is that if that isn’t beating us all over the head by now the Leafs still lack one. You could make a case for the Leafs as offence driven team that is quick to punish their opponents if you give them an opening, but I feel like when people say identity they really want to a specific one in mind that involves a hard working, unified team that gives their best every night and has their opponents afraid to step on the ice with them. That doesn’t sound like the Leafs even if they do seem to be working their way closer to that.
The teams that have gone far in the playoffs have embraced what they are and run with, not tried to change into something else. With a blueline full of question marks and goaltending tandem rather than a bona fide starter for the playoffs, the Leafs are probably best to steer into their offence first identity and figure out how to support it instead of trying to become the best defensive team in hockey in the next ten games.

Check out these posts...