Lineup decisions come into focus as Maple Leafs prepare for playoffs

Toronto Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman discuss how they are using recent years of playoff shortcomings as motivation this year.

TORONTO -- The only reason this could even loosely be framed as a “decision” is because of what Frederik Andersen has meant to the Maple Leafs.

But even before you dig in to recent form, health status and playoff experience, here’s what Sheldon Keefe had staring him in the face while determining his starter for Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens:

* 17-3-2, .921 save percentage, 7.81 goals saved above average

* 13-8-3, .895 save percentage, -8.55 goals saved above average

You’d really have to galaxy-brain to come up with any sort of logic that took you to Door No. 2. Keefe walks among us here on Earth and made the sensible choice by officially naming Jack Campbell as his starter a full four days before this best-of-seven gets underway.

“It’s really just his results that he’s gotten for us, both in wins and saves,” Keefe said Sunday, by way of explanation. “The confidence that he’s built for himself and then in turn the confidence that our team has in him. He’s done a terrific job.”

Andersen remains an important player for the Leafs, which is why they prioritized getting him his first NHL start since March 19 last week despite salary cap ramifications that forced others out of the lineup.

It’s possible, if not likely, that he’ll be called on during these playoffs.

What Game 1 calls for, however, is your best available lineup and you need to only have had a passing interest in this Leafs season to understand that Campbell was the team’s top performer in goal.

Given what’s at stake, it doesn’t matter that Andersen’s knee injury opened the door for a guy who has never previously made a start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As Keefe put it: “The circumstances surrounding [the injury layoff] make it a tough decision as it relates to Fred, but obviously not an overly difficult decision as it relates to Jack and the effort that he’s put in.”

Depth is a strength of this Leafs team and the lineup decisions are starting to come into focus as they prepare for the series with Montreal. Here are seven thoughts and observations about where things stand.

1. Riley Nash left a strong impression on the Leafs during two recent playoff series as an opponent. That played a role in the decision to acquire him from Columbus before the trade deadline even though he was suffering from a knee sprain and it helps explain why he’ll make his Leafs debut Thursday centring a third line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. Nash played on the 2018 Bruins team and 2020 Blue Jackets team that eliminated Toronto from the playoffs, seeing more than 125 even-strength minutes combined and helping keep the score to 1-3 despite starting almost every shift in the defensive zone. With the Leafs he’ll handle similar defensive responsibilities, plus a penalty killing role, while giving Keefe the sort of bottom-six look he’s yearned for all season.

2. Rasmus Sandin is gaining the trust of the coaching staff. Squeezed out of the final three regular season games because of cap constraints, he was returned to the third pairing alongside Travis Dermott and given a spot on the top power-play unit. Keefe appreciates Sandin’s ability to stay calm when pressured by opponents and the puck-moving skills he brings with the man advantage. The Leafs are returning to two balanced units with their struggling power play and Sandin could further solidify his spot in the lineup by finding success as the quarterback for the newly minted Auston Matthews/Joe Thornton/Mitch Marner/Zach Hyman forward grouping.

3. Zach Bogosian intends to play against the Canadiens in Round 1. Sunday was his first practice with the team since suffering a shoulder injury on April 20 -- a positive step even though the veteran defenceman wore a no-contact red sweater. Bogosian was basically a full participant in drills and took his usual penalty killing reps during special teams work. Said Keefe: “He’ll just continue to progress, but I certainly think he’ll be an option in the series.”

4. There’s no thought about easing Zach Hyman back from his sprained MCL. He was returned directly to the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner despite last playing on April 18. In fact, Keefe spun Hyman’s injury absence as a positive because it kept the notoriously hard-working winger from overdoing it down the stretch. That trio produced dominant results across 289 minutes this season -- including 63 per cent of the expected goals and 72 per cent of the actual ones -- and will soak up a huge part of Montreal’s matchup efforts. Hyman brings the will that helps accentuate that top line’s elite skill. “I’ve been skating and trying to stay in game shape, so I’m just excited,” he said. “I’m ready to get going.”

5. Regarding the power play, which remains a huge area of emphasis/concern after producing just five goals in the final 29 games, Keefe wants his players to view the post-season as a fresh start and clean slate. The second power-play group at Sunday’s practice featured Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, John Tavares, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds -- although Keefe mentioned that he might still opt for a more top-heavy group in certain situations. There was a video session in the dressing room before some pre-practice reps led by assistant coach Manny Malhotra. The areas of emphasis? “I think just moving the puck quicker, getting more shots, just playing with a lot of confidence,” said Rielly.

6. Keefe is loaded with replacement options at forward when injuries or underperformance hit. Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall both played a regular role for the Leafs during the regular season and are due to be scratched to start the playoffs, while Adam Brooks will join them in the player’s suite following a pretty strong cameo over the last month. Denis Malgin is also back in the fold after spending the year in Switzerland.

7. While Montreal loaded up on veterans who already have a Stanley Cup on their resumes, the Leafs largely opted for greybeards still chasing that prize. The fourth line of Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds features 308 games of playoff experience and zero championship rings -- adding an extra layer of desire to the group. Asked what he’s learned about the challenge ahead, Thornton said: “Really you’ve just got to ride the waves. Take it really one shift at a time, one game at a time and kind of separate from game to game. This is going to be a fun time of year.”

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