The Leafs have a situation on the back-end that they haven’t had in any of their previous first-round attempts during the Matthews/Marner era: it’s not entirely clear which of their D are best suited to be in their playoff lineup in two weeks.
Here are their pairs from Tuesday night against Philadelphia:
Rielly – Lyubushkin
Brodie - Holl
Giordano – Liljegren
I don’t even know what order to write those pairs up. It’s assumed whoever is with Rielly is the “top pair,” so we’ll start there, but after that they essentially have three pairs to roll.
On Tuesday at even strength all six D played between 14 and 18 minutes, with Rielly ending up with the most TOI thanks to four-plus minutes of power play time, and with Lyubushkin’s minimal special teams TOI he saw the fewest minutes overall, but was still above 15.
Jake Muzzin is back skating, and he’s supposed to travel with the team on their upcoming road trip. That implies they think it’s possible he could get into an upcoming game, and if he’s going to get into the playoffs, they’d surely like for that to be the case.
When Muzzin comes back, he’s going to get into the lineup, full stop. It may take him a few games to get back up to speed – or maybe he never gets there - but you’re not just gonna sit that guy in the pressbox if he’s able to play without giving him a chance.
So that means some shuffling with the pairs.
Immediately you think Brodie will shuffle back over to the right side to make room for Muzzin, so now one of Lyubushkin, Liljegren or Holl needs to start the playoffs in the pressbox, which is quite the situation for three guys who are all likely to finish the season above 60 games played.
Less than two months ago, this was an easy conversation for me: then, I would have easily said Liljegren out. Now it’s near impossible to think about keeping him out.
At that time Liljegren was putting up shiny possession numbers but was still making what seemed like nightly mistakes that were leading to direct goals against. It seemed like rookie mistakes, like being green, like someone who needed some confidence and maybe a little muscle. During the Leafs Heritage Classic game he saw just over 10 minutes of ice time, then followed with games where he saw 15 minutes, then 13 minutes, then was a healthy scratch for the March 19 game just one month ago.
Then Toronto traded for Mark Giordano, and since then, Liljegren has been one of the Leafs' best D-men, almost entirely eliminating the type of error that was so frequent just months prior. I’m not crediting Giordano for that (though it’s possible he’s helped the 22-year-old), so much as the addition of the veteran defender became a clear demarcation point in the Leafs’ season. Since adding the savvy left shot from Seattle the team is 12-2-1 in 15 games, Liljegren has scored four times, and he’s now seen over 19 minutes of ice time in five straight games. Liljegren’s improvement, plus the addition of Giordano, plus the addition of Lyubushkin before him, really made the whole D-corps feel a little more physical and without the type of real obvious hole in the 5-6 spots that’s hurt them in playoffs past.
My point here is, boy, Liljegren has been so good for such a good stretch here that it’s not impossible to believe he’s just permanently improved as young players do, and that taking him out of the lineup would be madness.
So what about Holl or Lyubushkin?
I’m not going to spend much time on Justin Holl, as he’s simply too valuable a puzzle piece for the Leafs to have out of the lineup. He’s averaged four minutes per game more in ice time than either Liljegren or Lyubushkin this season. Only David Kampf and TJ Brodie have played more total shorthanded minutes than Holl this year, and Holl has played more per game than either of those players. In sum, he’s a first-guy-over-the-boards PK player. The Leafs are seventh in straight up PK and second in net PK, and he’s a huge part of it.
Holl sees tough competition and starts in his own end and puts up decent results in those minutes.
He had a tough first half of the year, I thought, but he’s too big a part of a successful Leafs team to take out. I know some people don’t like Holl's style out there, but these paragraphs are all you get on the “take Holl out” front. He’s in, moving on.
As you can see on that same chart above, he also gets very little offensive zone deployment, and he does go up against good competition, which are relevant details. But from a statistical standpoint, it hasn’t gone well for him.
Sort any “advanced” stat category among Leafs defencemen, and Lyubushkin checks in last or close since joining the team. By shot attempts, expected goals, scoring chances, all of those things, he’s last among Leafs defencemen. Now, that’s not to say he’s bad – the Leafs' defence is good and Lyubushkin is better than league averages, but we’re not grading him versus the league, we’re grading him versus his teammates.
With Lyubushkin, I see a few defensive problems that lead to looks against.
1. Sometimes he gets stopped. As in he’s just not in motion, and often has to start up from a complete stop and so it takes him a second to get up to speed again, making him look slower. He’s not slow, he’s just often getting going from a standstill.
2. In corner battles, he sometimes battles himself out of defensive position, meaning he can get beat off the wall back to the net. It can look like he’s trying to pin the puck not the player. (Leafs fans may remember how well Zach Hyman sealed off opponents against the wall – Lyubushkin needs work there.)
3. Last is just that he seems to trust his goalie, and allows players to shoot from above him rather than put himself in a defensive position where he can be beat wide. He seems like the perfect Barry Trotz/Islanders defenceman, in that he seems okay allowing the other team to shoot as long as those shots are less threatening. He needs good goaltending more than the Leafs other defencemen.
But with that style, I don’t know that it’s entirely a coincidence that Lyubushkin has received the best on-ice save percentage on the Leafs since his arrival. He seems to play in a way that makes goaltending a bit easier.
Over his past two seasons on the Coyotes, he was first on the team in high danger chances against, and received the best save percentage on the team for his troubles. I think he’s more likely to be leaning on opponents looking for second chance opportunities, even when they do get a whack. He’s ranked second-last among Leafs defencemen in high danger chances since he’s been with them, but … and maybe I should whisper when I say this, but … he has been playing with Morgan Rielly, who’s currently worst in that category, and has been the Leafs' worst there over the past three seasons among players not named Martin Marincin.
As much as Lyubushkin trails Liljegren in so many stat categories, that’s mostly a product of Liljegren’s offence, as Lyubushkin’s actual goals against per 60 (at even strength) is only .1 goals against worse with tougher assignments.
So hopefully I’ve painted a picture of a flawed-but-useful defender. As you can see, Lyubushkin has shaken out on the right side of things defensively this year.
Of course, so has the other guy with whom he’s fighting for a spot.
Still, this is all just considering defensive play, and where things are different between Lyubushkin and Liljegren is that the latter does the things that help produce offence, which I sort of glossed over above. Of course Liljegren’s great performance there matters.
The Leafs' rookie defender drives play by moving the puck effectively from his own zone, making good passes, and most of all, by being very active in the offensive zone. His default is to “go for it” up the rink and, according to SportLogiq, he's 37th among NHL defencemen in stretch passes. Liljegren leads the Leafs' defence in expected goals for percentage going back to the start of March, while Lyubushkin trails him by over 10 per cent. That’s a large gap.
But Lyubushkin hits, and hits like a truck often, and it’s widely been accepted (rightly or wrongly) that a lack of physicality is one of the reasons the Leafs haven’t been able to get through the first round in seasons past. Of the six guys who played Tuesday, the second-most “physical” Leafs defenceman has been Justin Holl this season, throwing 5.41 hits per 60 (Liljegren is at 5.14), so, about two hits per game. Lyubushkin sits at 11.47 hits per 60 since joining the Leafs, a number that would be ninth in the NHL among defencemen who’ve played at least 25 games. That’s closer to four hits per game.
When you zoom out on these two guys, here’s how I see it for the Leafs:
Liljegren is younger, improving almost every game, and seems far more capable of breaking a game open with an offensive play. He drives play, and the Leafs want to play at the fun end of the rink. The counter to that is I’m not sure the Leafs need him to try to do anything offensively (they do not rely on his offence), and sometimes he gets so far up in the offensive zone I worry about the play turning quickly back the other way against the elite teams. When the Leafs have had post-season heartbreak in the past, it’s been young guys like Alex Galchenyuk and Travis Dermott on the wrong end of whoopsies.
Lyubushkin is considerably worse statistically, and to the eye-test, seems more prone to allowing the opposition attempts on a goalie the team isn’t yet sure they can trust. I’m not sure “he gets stopped sometimes” is a great fit against the Tampa Bay Lightning or Boston Bruins. But he is someone the opposition has to look out for, and over a seven game series, you can see Lyubushkin as the one doing the wearing down rather than getting worn down.
My conclusion as of today is that Liljegren has just been too good to take out. The team is winning while he’s playing a lot and contributing, and he’s even killed penalties the past two games while Lyubushkin hasn’t.
My pairs to start the playoffs would look like this, though I’d be quick to get Lyubushkin back in:
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Giordano – Liljegren
None of this mentions that Rasmus Sandin is back skating too, and could be an option for the Leafs as well. But with four left shots in the lineup in Rielly, Brodie, Muzzin, and Giordano, Sandin’s path back in is a lot tougher to see.
So what do you say. In the playoffs for the Leafs, should it be Liljegren or Lyubushkin?