Who is the odd defenceman out for the Maple Leafs in Game 1?

Photo credit:Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 days ago
The two obvious answers to start are Conor Timmins and Mark Giordano. Mark Giordano has been playing solid hockey lately, but he’s clearly on the outside of the lineup card looking in at this stage in his career. Conor Timmins is the one Leafs defenceman who would be in over his head in playoff hockey, with his place on the depth chart never in question.
There are also the locks for who is in and the list is shorter than in previous seasons. Morgan Rielly and Jake McCabe will be there. While Timothy Liljegren seems just as likely as a lock, there will be some performing mental gymnastics to make a case for why he shouldn’t be in. Not considering Liljegren a lock is part of the bizarre state of the Leafs’ blueline this season. There are plenty of serviceable options even if very few make compelling cases as players who will be in the lineup every night.
The Leafs will likely be exploring these options throughout the first round and if things go well, beyond it too. 
First, consider what the Leafs were trying to accomplish by adding Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin at the trade deadline. This team was supposed to get tougher to play against in the playoffs. That isn’t necessarily a case for both Lyubushkin and Edmundson being in but points to prioritizing physical play over puck movement to start.
Simon Benoit should be a lock for the Leafs on the opening night of the playoffs putting him with his frequent partner, Jake McCabe, seems obvious. Benoit and McCabe have had the best 5v5 results of any Leafs defensive pairing against David Pastrnak and trying something new and hoping for similar results seems unnecessary. Put the duo in and let them take those tough minutes.
After starting with Rielly, McCabe, Liljegren, and Benoit it does become a crap shoot, but going away from T.J. Brodie seems like a potential mistake. Brodie’s struggles against Boston have been due to his play higher up in the Leafs pairings than he should be. Rightsizing Brodie’s role to the third pairing gives the Leafs someone who potentially plays beyond the usual third-pairing responsibilities and can step up to fill needs on either side of the blue line if needed. He might not be your favourite Leafs’ defenceman this season, but with the Leafs’ offence spread across three lines, having a sound puck mover who might be a mismatch against bottom-six forwards is a plus. 
The toughest call is whether it should be Edmundson or Lyubushkin in for Game One and cases can be made for both. Edmundson seems like the best potential fit if he is needed with Brodie or Liljegren but Lyubushkin’s time with Rielly makes him the likely favourite. You can argue that Edmundson seems to be the better penalty-killing option and when he’s been in the lineup he has averaged more time on ice than either Lyubushkin or Benoit.
It might simply come down to lineup construction. If Benoit-McCabe is a lock, there is still the important matter of who plays with Morgan Rielly. 
That is a definite advantage for Lyubushkin as he has been the regular Rielly partner since the trade deadline and the option that fits with Sheldon Keefe’s approach last postseason with the Rielly-Schenn pairing. A Brodie-Liljegren bottom pairing is what is left, and that is about the softest option the Leafs could put out there defensively. 
The other option is for the Leafs to go with Rielly-Liljegren and steer into their puck-moving abilities and the elevated feistiness of Rielly in the playoffs. The Brodie-Edmundson bottom pairing gives Toronto two strong penaltykillers but eliminates a right shot from the lineup.
Revisiting what the lineup would look like without Brodie again seems worth considering. While he’s the square peg that eliminates some of the Leafs’ desired toughness, the drop-off skill-wise is too steep by taking Brodie out and replacing him with Edmundson or Lyubushkin.
As with most playoff Game One lineups, the best decision is the one that provides the team with options. Going with Ilya Lyubushkin over Joel Edmundson means making the right choice for Morgan Rielly. Lyubushkin can be on the ice for defensive zone starts and give up his spot to Liljegren when the play goes the other way. Lyubushkin has also played a fair bit with Brodie in tougher situations than they’ll be playing as a third pairing. The flip-flopping of Liljegren and Lyubushkin from the Rielly and Brodie pairings allows for a best-of-both-worlds situation and keeps both of their right shots on the point. 
Joel Edmundson’s recent injuries and minimal time in the Leafs lineup might be the best reason for sitting him in Game One. There is also the fact that Game One is just that. There will be things that work and don’t work throughout the lineup and Joel Edmundson is an encouraging Game Two option that can replace almost any defenceman other than Morgan Rielly or Jake McCabe and won’t result in the sky falling. 
One last consideration is if the Leafs should dress seven defencemen. Initially, it seems unnecessary, when cutting the forward lineup down to 12 is equally challenging. Game one is just one game and the Leafs trying to let it unfold with what they perceive to be their best lineup makes the most sense. 

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