Mike Babcock considering switching up Maple Leafs defence pairings

Mike Babcock was asked why he swapped some defensive pairings, and his answer will not shock you. He also talked about Nikita Zaitsev taking a bad game in stride.

When you’re in the middle of a tight playoff race and you get shellacked by a team below you in the standings, you ought to reassess things before your next game. That’s what Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is doing as his team continues its Florida road trip.

A day after a 7-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, Babcock switched up the defence pairings at Wednesday’s skate.

Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev have served as the team’s top pair for most of the season but Babcock had Rielly with Alexey Marchenko and Zaitsev with Jake Gardiner. Matt Hunwick skated beside fellow veteran Roman Polak, while Martin Marincin was with Connor Carrick.

“I’m looking for the puck not to go in the net,” Babcock told reporters. “Sometimes you just fix something to fix it, so right now it’s not as smooth as it should be and it needs to be better because we’ve got good players in those positions.”

The Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday in the most important game of the season to date. Toronto is one point behind Tampa with one game in hand and one point behind the Islanders for the final East wild card spot. If a tweak to the defensive pairings is enough to spark the team then Babcock will consider it.

“We’ll decide [Thursday] what we’re doing but this was just a different way to look at it here today,” he said.

Rielly and Zaitsev play against opposing teams’ best lines on most shifts and plus/minus can be misleading, but the two are a combined minus-46 this season. Even if you think plus/minus is an outdated stat, minus-46 is not what you want out of your top pair. Both players rank in the bottom eight among NHL blue-liners. Rielly is third worst at minus-25 and Zaitsev is minus-21

Gardiner’s plus-25 rating is a bit of an anomaly on a team where no other player has a double-digit plus/minus, so putting him with Zaitsev could be a worthwhile experiment.

Zaitsev is in the midst of an impressive rookie campaign but Tuesday’s loss might have been the least impressive outing of his young NHL career—you could say the same about a handful of Maple Leafs players, though.

The 25-year-old finished minus-4 against the Panthers and Babcock said the Russian was apparently joking around Wednesday, asking his teammates if that was an NHL record.

“Sometimes it goes bad and sometimes you don’t have a lot to do with them and sometimes you have something to do with them,” Babcock added. “Some of the clips that he was probably on the highlights for he probably would not like to be on the highlights. That’s part of being a good player. We put him out there against the best players. We expect him to be a good player and he’s been beyond resilient and ultra competitive so I expect him to back.”

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