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Maple Leafs need to reset TJ Brodie with a role he can be successful in

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Photo credit:Mark J. Rebilas
Jon Steitzer
27 days ago
Here’s the thing about T.J. Brodie, it really sucks to be having this conversation. For the majority of his time in Toronto talking about Brodie was talking about the bright spot on the Leafs blueline and he was the guy Toronto could count on to play some very reliable, solid defence against the top forwards in the league. It seemed like every time the Leafs needed to jump start a defenceman and give them a bit more confidence they’d play them with Brodie for a couple of games and everything would make sense again. There’s a lot of good things that can be said about pretty much right up until the playoffs last year. The playoffs weren’t and things haven’t gotten better this year. Still three years buys a lot of credibility and as we saw with Muzzin and Holl before Brodie, Sheldon Keefe has a hard time moving on from someone who has delivered for him in the past and last night’s scratching was the first real acknowledgement that things have to get better.
Here’s Brodie’s numbers so far this season:
Of course, you don’t need a whole lot of numbers and red (bad) font colouring to tell you that Brodie hasn’t been good, your eyes have probably been telling you that all along. Still it’s nice to be vindicated by math and it at least gives some common language and some truly “yikes” measures like the increase in high danger chances against Brodie and the steep increases in goals against both at 5v5 and the penalty kill.
While Brodie has always exceled in shot blocking, the increase this year is more out of the necessity of the increased number of chances against him rather than previous years where it seemed like Brodie was just taking care of business in the rare opportunity someone was getting a scoring chance with him on the ice.
By comparison you can see the cliff that Brodie has apparently fallen off when consolidating all of his defensive play into one rolled up number. And it’s that reason that there needs to be an honest to goodness conversation about whether not it makes sense for Brodie to take on a reduced role but is he in fact a candidate for the press box.
Starting with the obvious, the days of Rielly and Brodie as a top pairing have long passed. Ilya Lyubushkin might not be a top pairing defenceman, but prior to a couple of strong years with Brodie, Morgan Rielly got along just fine with the likes of Ron Hainsey, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, and even last year the Leafs saw a productive Rielly-Schenn pairing in the playoffs to the extent that it was good enough, not what a team should have actively trying to recreate for the playoffs this year, but that’s another topic.
In the games leading up to the playoffs, Brodie was successful playing with Jake McCabe, that success wasn’t sustained in the playoffs either, and I’m not sure the Leafs should be trying to revisit that again, especially since like Rielly-Lyubushkin, the Benoit-McCabe pairing falls into the best the Leafs can muster this season and something that warrants some reconsideration over the summer. Still, why mess with what is kind of working at this point?
That leaves a mess of defencemen including Brodie, Liljegren, Edmundson, and depending on their health, Mark Giordano and Conor Timmins. On paper and somewhat in reality it should be Brodie, Liljegren, and Edmundson fighting for the final two spots heading into the playoffs.
If you are playing defence on a spreadsheet instead of ice, Timothy Liljegren is the surefire candidate for the right side spot (the eye test probably notes a few poor decisions and bad penalties though). His numbers, which are a bit more sheltered on a good team and benefited from his strong start to the season before his injury put him ahead of Brodie who has been struggling in a top pairing role most of the season and are better than Joel Edmundson’s, who has been struggling on the third pairing of a playoff bubble team most of the season. By the numbers it would be Brodie and Liljegren as the third pairing but that doesn’t account for the fact that Liljegren lacks the experience of the other two and the fact that Edmundson brings a physical element the other two don’t. (Word on the street is that Joel is quite the crosschecker.)
The other factors that come into play here are special teams utilization and while both Brodie and Edmundson are penalty killers (neither having great results), Timothy Liljegren has been needed on the powerplay this season. Given that the Leafs also have Benoit, McCabe, Lyubushkin, and one of Edmundson and Brodie to work with, it seems likely that Liljegren’s role will be prioritized, especially since the blueline could also benefit from a puckmover other than Morgan Rielly in the lineup at 5v5 as well.
So that really does bring it down to Brodie vs. Edmundson and before you join me in leaning into the cop out answer of saying the Leafs might be best with 7D going forward, the reality of who makes more sense at this point Brodie or Edmundson should be briefly discussed.
In the short term, pre-playoffs, the Leafs need to have a serious look at Edmundson and find out if he can still be the player that was a pain in the ass for the Leafs in the Montreal series a few years back. While I have been busy opining about how Brodie is not the player he once was, I can spare a brief moment say that Joel Edmundson at 30 might not be the punishing energetic defender he was for St. Louis when he was 25 when he won the cup nor for the Canadiens at 27 when they went to the finals. (If you want more on why Edmundson isn’t necessarily the answer, here’s the breakdown on him.) Still, the Leafs spent assets bringing in Edmundson and a combination of sunk cost fallacy and the lust for tough playoff hockey will give Edmundson a long look. The reliance on him also should give players like Brodie (and eventually Rielly and McCabe) a chance to rest up down the stretch and hopefully have everyone at their best for playoffs.
For me, I’m probably a bigger fan of using numbers than a lot of you reading this and I can also appreciate being done with a player who has underwhelmed. The problem with Brodie is that he has underwhelmed in a role that he is no longer suited for.
When it comes to matching against top lines (or Elite as PuckIQ.com identifies top opposition as), TJ Brodie has taken 40% of his shifts against that competition, that leads the Leafs defence. And while Jake McCabe might have better differentials when it comes to attempts, Brodie’s goal differential in those situations is still stronger.
This isn’t me making a case for Brodie back to the top pairing, but this is a case to be made for Brodie being a better option to have available than banking on Edmundson against tough competition.
The argument counter to that is that Edmundson plays stronger against bottom of the lineup players that you typically match a third pairing to and it may come down to the personnel the opposition has that defines who plays on a given night. For what it’s worth, Brodie and Liljegren have been okay at keeping the puck out of the net but have given up a lot of opportunities when on the ice together. Brodie and Edmundson are yet to see 5 minutes together, but the numbers show a lot of promise.
If there are to be excuses made for Brodie, it’s that he’s spent far more time than he should have with Morgan Rielly this season, 62% of Brodie’s 5v5 time. He’s not that player anymore and having Brodie with an offensive minded defenceman and playing Brodie on the right side hasn’t done him any favours. There is also something to be said for a new defensive coach. Brodie worked well under Dean Chynoweth but Mike Van Ryn’s approach has seen improvements for Rielly, McCabe, and Benoit while Brodie hasn’t responded the same way.
There’s also something to be said for Brad Treliving not really putting the defencemen, Mike Van Ryn, or Sheldon Keefe in a position to succeed when it comes to defence. He simply hasn’t brought in the personnel the team needs to be successful and constructed the forward group to be less defensive than previous seasons under Sheldon Keefe as well. The team defence impact doesn’t get discussed much because Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi are a hell of a lot more fun than Alex Kerfoot and Noel Acciari.
Still as it sits today, the lineup card is in the hands of Sheldon Keefe and the numbers, as well as the eyes, say stop playing Brodie with Morgan Rielly and either sit TJ or put him in the third pairing.
Data from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, and PuckIQ
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