The Toronto Maple Leafs were quiet on the NHL’s trade deadline day Friday, making one minor-league move that won’t affect the NHL roster. But, of course, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas had already struck multiple times – five times – prior to the deadline, drastically remaking the team’s defense corps and forward group. And now, with 20 games left in the regular season, Toronto coaching and management have one task: figuring out exactly which lineup is going to begin the playoffs.
In goal, the picture is fairly clear. Ilya Samsonov has played well enough to be regarded as the No. 1 man in the Leafs’ net. Matt Murray has struggled with consistency and his health, so he’s firmly in place as the No. 2 netminder. And if anything goes wrong with one of those two, youngster Joseph Woll will be turned to for help. That’s a gamble by Leafs management, but one they’re obviously willing to make.
At forward, the Leafs’ pecking order is also clear. The first two forward lines features Toronto’s core stars, including John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner; new acquisition Ryan O’Reilly is also a top-six fixture, as is winger Michael Bunting. And the bottom-six forwards unit, which received much attention from Dubas on the trade front, now has fixtures that include Calle Jarnkrok, Alex Kerfoot, David Kampf, Sam Lafferty, Noel Acciardi, and Zach Aston-Reese. You can very probably add NCAA star prospect Matthew Knies to that mix, once he decides to leave school and sign an NHL contract.
The one area in which we’re going to see significant experimentation is on Toronto’s defense corps. Dubas’ trade deadline moves gave the blueline a major depth boost, and now, the Leafs have 10 defenseman who could be playing in six D-man positions on any given night.
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The cornerstone members of the defense – the players who will always be in head coach Sheldon Keefe’s lineup – are Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, and the newly-acquired Jake McCabe. After that, there’s regular defensemen Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, and new Leaf Erik Gustafsson. And, finally, there are depth players Luke Schenn, Connor Timmins, and Jordie Benn. That gives Keefe a slew of options, and, more importantly, a degree of depth on defense that few, if any other teams possess.
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This is why The Leafs went with a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defenseman in their 2-1 win over Calgary Thursday. Keefe wants to play around with the defensive pairings, find out who has chemistry with each other, and build for a playoff push. The injury bug may make those decisions much easier, but if everyone stays healthy, Toronto is going to have a notable advantage over other teams operating with comparatively slim depth on ‘D’.
It was surprising to see Dubas not part ways with Holl, who almost assuredly won’t be back after he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. But Leafs brass sees Holl as an “own rental”, and they’re happy with letting Holl leave in return only for the $2 million in salary cap space. Gustafsson also will be a UFA this summer, as will Schenn and Benn. Very quickly, Toronto’s defensive depth will evaporate, and Dubas will be on the lookout for more affordable assistance on the back end.
But for the moment, Keefe and Dubas have the luxury of numerous different looks on ‘D’. For the remainder of the season, they’ve got opportunities to figure out their best lineup, and, while not every member of the defense will be happy with the results, it’s entirely possible the Leafs will need each and every defenseman will be leaned on for some stretch of time. Dubas has provided Keefe with the depth, and now Keefe has to make magic work with the assets he has.
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