It’s almost always hardest to discern what an organization is thinking about its lineup in the opening few weeks of training camp, though that doesn’t stop us from guessing. Strange lines are cobbled together, weird special-teams units are built, and making sense of why certain groups are practising together is mostly a fruitless endeavour.
What’s often happening is a team will have a set of internal priorities heading into training camp, and it has to see to each of those items while time allows. For example, if they’d like to get a look at a recently drafted player, it may seem like that player is being given a ton of opportunity to make the team … but, in fact, the team simply knows he’s going down soon anyway, so they may as well put that player in a position to succeed and get off to a positive start.
What looks like opportunity is sometimes just a result of shuffling to see something else. Looking at the Leafs this pre-season, they seem to be trying some stuff, to say the least.
Now, how to make sense of it?
I don’t have exact answers as to why William Nylander is lining up at centre, or Auston Matthews is killing penalties, or Morgan Rielly isn’t back on a power-play unit that’s been top-two in the league two years straight.
To understand why stuff like this happens in the pre-season, it helps to do what some teams do: start at the end, and work backwards.
Imagine we’re standing together having a conversation. It’s June 17 of 2024, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are celebrating their first Stanley Cup in 57 years.
What would’ve had to go right to get to that moment? What would have changed from previous playoff runs?
The obvious answer is that the Leafs’ star players would have played like stars for a consistent stretch of playoff hockey. Who knows what would’ve changed to make that so — age and maturity, frustration, or just sheer luck — but they would have to get hot and stay hot (at least a couple at a time) for the entirety of the playoffs.
Beyond that, though, the Leafs would also have shown more physical pushback, right? Guys like Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi would have been hard to play against in a playoff series, and maybe Ryan Reaves wore down the opposing D in his limited minutes.
They would’ve got offensive contributions from a third line, which hasn’t happened in the past. The power play would’ve come up big in big moments which, while better last season, wasn’t without its failings (two goals in their final seven playoff games). The goaltending would have to have been rock solid, too.
Everything has to go right to win the Stanley Cup, and many great teams never get there. The Sedin-led Canucks teams didn’t, the great Thornton-Marleau Sharks teams didn’t, and it felt like the Tampa Bay Lightning would fall into that group … until they won one and then went on to get a second. The Leafs will join this group of non-winners if they don’t figure it out quickly here.
So if you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs, the goal for the season isn’t trying to win as many games as you can in October. They’ve had regular-season success. Rather, it’s how do you have the most success in late April, May, and June?
And so now, we head back to those “strange” roster decisions they’re making in the pre-season.
WILLIAM NYLANDER AT CENTRE
I’m sure if you’re Brad Treliving you’ve assessed the Leafs roster and said something like this: “Love our 1C in Matthews, I’m OK with (and we’re kinda stuck with) Tavares as another centre option, but we need another top-end centre to compete with the best teams.”
And so, you start considering how to acquire one. Those considerations are happening during the tightest salary cap moment in NHL history, with over two-thirds of the league within $1 million of the cap. And then you factor in that nobody wants to trade you a good centre, let alone a young one. And then you consider that it’s going to cost you a guy like Nylander, who just scored 40 goals in his age-26 season, and you start to wonder … hmm. Could we solve this problem ourselves?
There’s plenty of talk about Nylander’s contract and how it plays into this decision (including that you don’t mind paying $10 million for a top-end centre, but you’d prefer not to pay that to a winger), but in the end it might be Toronto’s best hockey option as well.
And so, when you look ahead to that fantastical Stanley Cup win we mentioned earlier, Willy as a line-driving centre in the post-season sure would go a long way towards getting you there, wouldn’t it? If it all clicked just right?
JOHN KLINGBERG ON THE POWER PLAY
The past two seasons have seen the Leafs finish No. 1, then No. 2 in the league in terms of power-play conversion percentage. They’ve been really good with Morgan Rielly out there. That said, it’s hard not to feel that a PP unit with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander would have success with most defenders.
To that end, it doesn’t feel like their success has come on the back of Rielly’s work. Last season, the Leafs were third-last in the NHL in shot assists from defencemen on the power play, which is to say their trigger pulls rarely came from something created by their D.
By some rate stats, Klingberg was 13th in the NHL in PP shot assists. But he’s also a dual threat because he was fourth among all defencemen in PP shots per 60 with 14.1, where as Rielly’s 5.8 ranked 63rd among eligible D.
I recognize “more action from the point” may not be seen as a positive with that group of forwards on the ice, but I think the idea of forcing opposing defences to take the point threat more seriously will just create more room down low for the forwards to thrive.
And more appealing than any of that is that Klingberg finished first in the NHL last season in zone-entry carries (per two minutes) on the power play. If he can simply get the Leafs in and set up more than Rielly could, the forwards will have more opportunities to score.
While you can say the Leafs have “been near the top of the league” on the power play and settle for that, you can also recognize that you finished over six per cent behind the best team in the league last season, so there’s room to get better. Given the Leafs’ elite talent and top-heavy roster construction, this is an area they should dominate. Despite being OK last year in the playoffs, their full playoff past isn’t littered with power-play successes. At least trying Klingberg is a smart way to kick off the year.
MATTHEWS KILLING PENALTIES
Special teams can sometimes dominate playoff games and when that happens it can prevent elite skill guys from getting into the flow, or leave them stuck to the bench in big games. And given that the Leafs’ lost some PK forwards, you could see why Sheldon Keefe would want to use Matthews on the PK at times. He’s got great hockey sense (like Marner), and a great stick (also like Marner), so you could see them both killing their opponents’ offensive possessions and creating some chances the other way.
Whenever you find yourself thinking “we need to acquire players to do X” it’s worth considering if your current talent can handle it, much like Nylander playing centre.
(Note: I’m looking into Matthews’ success in the first shift after killing a penalty, as they may be giving up on an area where he thrives. Stay tuned for that research.)
In each case here, you can see how the Leafs are looking towards the end of the season, hunting for areas where they could have problems, and then trying to patch those holes before they even get there. For many of these adjustments, they simply can’t be made in March at the trade deadline if you want relative success because you need reps. There’s no substitute for real game experience. For the changes above, a full season of reps is the best bet to allow those players the chance to succeed.
This applies all around the league. Changes are harder to make with teams jammed against the cap, so they are all trying to solve their own problems internally. The start of the season is always a little ugly as mistakes are made and lessons are learned, but for the best teams, those lessons can provide the education needed to get through the toughest moments late in the spring.