Five questions for the Maple Leafs ahead of critical playoff season

Auston Matthews talked about having some chemistry with Nick Foligno and how the newest Maple Leaf has adjusted to joining the team.

As of Wednesday, the Edmonton Oilers have 10 games remaining, and it’s a softer 10. They’ve got the Canucks five times, the Flames twice, the Canadiens twice, and the Jets tonight. I think you could fairly expect them to win six or seven of those. If you give them seven, and 14 points, they’d end the season with 72 points.

The Leafs have eight games left, which includes two versus the Canucks, one against the Sens, one against the Jets, and four against the Canadiens. They’re at 65 points, meaning just four wins from those eight would net them eight points and 73 on the season.

Maybe the Oilers will win more of their remaining games, maybe the Leafs win less, but at this point Toronto is pretty clearly going to win the division, which makes the remaining eight games interesting. A world of possibilities opens up when you don’t have to grind for every point down the stretch. What’s the best way to approach those games? How do you enter the post-season in peak form?

As someone who follows the team closely, I’ve got a handful of questions that I’m eager to see the team answer down the stretch. Let’s get to those below.

Does Freddy Andersen get games before the playoffs? What do the Leafs have to do to make that happen?

In a recent press availability, Andersen made some interesting comments. The core of those were that he’s back on the ice and starting to feel better, and that he’d like to get into game action before the start of playoffs.

I’m sure fans would feel a little better if that happened too, no?

The problem is, when the Leafs made the deals they did at the deadline - putting Freddy on LTIR and using up his cap space - they all but wrote him off for the regular season. It would take some devious cap work (that the NHL may not love) to bring him back into NHL action in the coming weeks. So will he play before Game 1 of the playoffs?

I bet the answer is “yes,” but in a roundabout way.

What likely happens is the Leafs use the CBA to the best of their ability: they don’t need to activate Andersen off LTIR to send him to the Marlies on a conditioning loan. He'll almost certainly play some games in the AHL, then get activated after the end of the regular season. Here’s a quote from Andersen during that press availability:

“Yeah of course it’s great if I can get into game action. I think we have different options to try to do that, but right now my focus is more just to see how it progresses day by day and I think we still have some time to, yeah, like you said, hopefully get into some game action.”

Note the non-specific “game action,” and “different options to do that.” I expect a plan involving the Marlies has been discussed and approved by Andersen, and that’s how they get him ready for the NHL post-season.

Some games of any kind – AHL or not - are better than no games at all, methinks.

Does Rasmus Sandin have a role to play in this year’s story?

I’ve heard some of the brightest hockey minds assess questions like this in a way that sounds like shirking but isn’t: the player will decide. As fans we like to think that teams have a grand plan for how everything is gonna go, but players are human and knowing what they’re going to do next is challenging. And so, sometimes you float a player out there in a position and just see what comes of it. That feels like Sandin here.

Now, that’s a cowardly out as an analyst, so I’ll go more direct. I bet Sandin is effective for the Leafs over the next eight games, becomes useful on the power play, and … opens Game 1 in the stands. It would take an exceptional run of play for him to get in right away. I think the team is confident with the six D they’ve used most of the year and will lean towards “experience” over “potential” in the short-term. That said, I also think he'll end up playing playoff games, whether due to injury, or just a couple off-nights in a row from one of Dermott or Bogosian.

This Bogosian injury is a bit of a blessing in disguise. They’re going to get a look at Dermott on his off-side for a while, which helps them assess both in-game and future flexibility. Dermott will play more PK minutes, which I believe he needs to do for this team to stay a long-term fixture. It’ll allow Sandin to find his game and fitness before the post-season. As long as Bogosian is back to himself when he returns, they’ll be in a better spot for this injury in the big picture.

How big a role is there for Alex Galchenyuk?

Tuesday after practice Sheldon Keefe had a fairly long chat with Alex Galechenyuk on the ice, the contents of which I don’t know. But I know those chats are generally reserved for updating players on where they stand and what’s expected of them, and aren’t generally straight up good news. Like, “Hey Gally, you’re playing with Matthews/Marner and on PP1 tonight, take advantage of it” takes 15 seconds.

What I see is a player with offensive upside who makes both Matthews/Marner and Tavares/Nylander better at one end of the rink. I also see a player who makes them worse defensively to the point that it more than cancels out any offensive gains. By the way, “worse defensively” does not always refer to effort -- it’s hard to read plays and do the right things. I think he tries, he just struggles there.

And so my guess is that talk was about the need for him to err on the defensive side of things if he hopes to continue to see those kinds of opportunities within the Leafs lineup. You just can’t play a defensive liability in a big role in the playoffs. I bet it’s a “show us over these eight games that you can be trusted positionally,” or the opportunities dry up, which means the scoring will (it already kind of has, but more so), which means the team may want players who do other things in their bottom six.

Galchenyuk has a big eight games ahead of him. Once they’re healthy and Hyman’s back, the Leafs are a tough forward group to crack.

How do you best position your team in the debate of rest versus rust?

The year before their Stanley Cup, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning drew Columbus in Round 1, got punched in the mouth for the first time all season, and the fight was over. It was Buster Douglas dropping Mike Tyson, the man ironically credited with the phrase “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Part of the autopsy on the Lightning was that they didn’t play enough meaningful hockey, it was too easy down the stretch, and because Columbus scrapped their way into the post-season they were the more ready hockey club. The Lightning were coming off the metaphorical beach.

Your mileage may vary on the value of that theory, but the Leafs have to debate how much hockey they want their biggest stars and oldest players playing these next eight games before jumping back into playoff-speed hockey. Rest is good, but it can’t become vacation mode.

The best-case scenario is they win a couple hockey games this week, lock up the one seed, and feel good enough to rest players in the games that follow so they can dress their full lineup for the last game or two of the season. Even if it takes longer to officially clinch, though, I think the team needs to focus on the big picture and rest players, even if it means missing the last game or two of the year.

Jason Spezza should rest, Joe Thornton should rest, Wayne Simmonds should rest. I’d consider the big four forwards (with Tavares as someone who definitely should), and try to get each of the top four D a game off too. They’ve got a taxi squad and quality depth, rotating a few guys out each game should help the legs and brain a little in a year where there hasn’t been much in the way of breathers.

How far will the experimenting go? Will Nylander play centre?

You don’t want to take the team too far out of rhythm, but you also don’t want to show up for the deciding game of a playoff series again and go “uh-oh, Nylander playing center is our best option and he hasn’t played it all year.” This would be a good run of time to see how Willy looks playing centre. They may want to try a different power play breakout (to pick something totally not at random) so they have options in the post-season if they’re struggling to get set up.

I realize this -- getting weird with positions and systems -- is where it starts to get too far off course for some. The Leafs are who they are, and if you shuffle things too much it’s impossible to know how to fairly judge anything, since all the variables in the experiment have changed at the same time.

But they’ve got a rare opportunity to tinker, and deciding what’s most important to get a look at -- and who to give rest to -- will be big decisions for the management and coaching staff heading into a post-season where the stakes for this core are the highest they’ve ever been.

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