Who will be Toronto’s top six defencemen when the playoffs start?

Justin Bourne, Nick Kypreos and Sam McKee discuss how the Maple Leafs should feel the urgency to lock-up home ice advantage in the first round.

Toronto’s line combinations are yet to be determined and will change along the way, but whenever Ryan O’Reilly returns from injury “who dresses for the Leafs up front” isn’t much of a conversation. They’ll have their 12 guys, with the only complication being “Will Matthew Knies draw in over a guy like Zach Aston-Reese?” (Answer: probably.)

From there they’ll have Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg as their 14th and 15th forwards, with Wayne Simmonds available if they’re looking for a different element. Again, it’s a clean 12 with Knies providing the only real question mark when he arrives.

On the back-end, though, it’s far from clean. They made a bunch of moves at the deadline and now find themselves with nine legitimate NHL defencemen. Bigger than that is they’ve got eight guys who have a completely reasonable case for being in the Leafs’ lineup for the post-season, both when it starts and all the way through.

So what I want to do here is look at the “fringe” group among that eight, and talk our way through how the Leafs may see them, and how they may want to use them, in the playoffs.

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Here are the four names who are Game 1 roster locks:

Morgan Rielly

TJ Brodie

Jake McCabe

Mark Giordano

That’s a pretty good place to start.

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Now, how to fill in the blanks.

The remaining names are:

Justin Holl

Timothy Liljegren

Luke Schenn

Erik Gustafsson

Let’s talk about them one by one.

Erik Gustafsson

This post was almost solely going to be about Gustafsson, as I’m most curious how the Leafs see him. I imagine Kyle Dubas looked at Gustafsson as something of a fully-formed Rasmus Sandin, a veteran player less in “learning mode” who has shown that he can flat-out produce offensively.

Here’s the conclusion that’s come from some digging on Gustafsson: he’s a high event defenceman, both ways.

Now in theory, that’s fine. When he’s on the ice quite a bit happens against, but it’s more than made up for by what happens at the offensive end of the rink. In looking at per-20 stats with SportLogiq, he’s 120th among D-men in expected goals against. But when he’s on the ice, 52.7 per cent of the expected goals go in his team’s favour. He’s 30th among defencemen in expected goals for, 18th in slot passes, and 21st in offence-generating plays. Wingers don’t like defending him in their zone.

Numbers aside, Leafs fans have already seen Gustafsson make plenty of little jukes at the blue with his head up, looking for something more dangerous. And he was flawless on a recent offensive play where Ilya Sorokin absolutely stole a goal from him.

But only four D-men in the NHL have started a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone, one imagines for a reason. Gustafsson’s coaches might love him going one way, and not trust him a lick the other.

Keep in mind that right now the Leafs aren’t generating nearly as much offence as they did before the trade deadline changes. They went all in on grit and suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of expected goal, chance, and shot metrics. Do they want someone in who moves the puck, sees the ice, and creates offence? Do they see value in a D-man whose focus isn’t defence?

The question I ask you here is a more macro one, but relevant: have you ever known a coach who preferred bottom pair defenders who play that style?

…It’s a pretty definitive “no,” isn’t it?

Gustafsson has played 19:48 per game this season and is a point shy of 40. But I just can’t see him playing Game 1 of a post-season where the Leafs have gone all in on trying to be more gritty and take fewer chances.

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Justin Holl

Boy, do Leafs fans and I not agree on this guy. I’ve written about him most recently here, but I’ll reiterate that he’s a very effective defender and puck mover who’s even ramped up his physical play of late.

Holl is, in terms of player profile, the 100 per cent opposite of Gustafsson. He is a borderline elite stay-at-home defender, if you can be elite within that archetype. Holl grades out at the top end of denying controlled entries, at making outlet passes, and keeping shots against out of the slot. Even in tough minutes and starting just 28 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone (he’s started a team-leading 350-plus shifts in the D-zone this season), Holl comes out on the right side of expected goals numbers.

So swing this back around to what I asked about Gustafsson. Do you think coaches like D-men who are trusted to start in their D-zone against good players, and still see the shot share go in their favour?

Holl averages over 20:30 per game, more than Auston Matthews. The guy with the second-highest TOI among Leafs defencemen on the PK is Giordano, who trails Holl 159-to-206 in PK minutes. Holl is an integral part of a penalty-killing group that will be seventh-best among teams that make the playoffs (81 per cent success rate).

Barring a run of outright bad play, Holl is in the lineup.

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Luke Schenn

Schenn has averaged 16:42 of ice time per game so far this season, having played a good amount of that time alongside a guy who may get Norris Trophy buzz this season in Quinn Hughes. Much like a Ron Hainsey-type did for Morgan Rielly, having a dependable guy beside a skilled D sometimes allows that skilled player to be their best self.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning used Schenn en route to one of their Stanley Cups, he dressed for 11 games. But when he did, he often lined up alongside Victor Hedman for similar reasons. Schenn’s shown he can anchor a pair, and he can provide toughness while bringing a good attitude he has to sit in the press box some nights.

At this point Schenn is a wrecking ball with a mean streak and a good brain for the game who can struggle to keep up against fast players. He’s maybe the most physical defender in the league, he’s huge, and he can clear the front of the net. You trust him to prioritize playing defence. But he’s also one of the league’s weakest at defending entries against because of his skating – the word I’ve heard coaches use for this is “permissive” – and so as much as Schenn can make life miserable for players, he can make it fun for them too when they’ve suddenly got way more room than expected.

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Schenn is a little bit like a field goal kicker for me, in that he may sit around until the team needs him. But there’s a fair case to be made that the opening games of the series will be about setting the tone and tempo, and the Lightning are likely to try to physically run the Leafs out of the building. That might be just the time for a guy like Schenn. I can see a scenario where he starts in the Leafs lineup for Games 1 and 2, then draws out when the Lightning better control the matchups. (If the Leafs do go 11 and 7 for any games, it probably makes more sense to do it at home, where they can optimize zone-specific guys like Gustafsson and Schenn.)

Which brings us to…

Timothy Liljegren

There’s a lot to like about Liljegren – for example, when he’s on the ice the Leafs control 55.4 per cent of the expected goals, which is really good – but he continues to suffer from a lack of clear specialization.

He had 23 points last year and has 17 so far this time around, so you know he’s not a power play-type guy, and creating offence isn’t exactly his role. But, he can shoot it well, and can make some surprising plays here and there.

He’s not the first guy going over the boards in defensive situations either, as defending the blueline isn’t a strength, nor is battling at the net-front. But Liljegren is pretty reliable, for the most part, in his own end. Among relevant D he’s averaged the fifth-most ice time on the kill for the Leafs, about 90 seconds per game, but the presence of McCabe makes those minutes less essential and likely to decline (Holl, Giordano, Brodie, and McCabe will likely penalty kill first).

But in saying these things, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the Leafs have a reliable D-man who tilts the ice in their favour with Liljegren. He’s taken a step this season and established himself as a good player, but it remains to be seen if he’s taken a step towards “You can’t take this guy out.” Nobody expects that to miraculously happen in a first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins (if everything goes well).

It feels like this Leafs team is built to have players who don’t make back-breaking mistakes, while trusting their elite forwards to eventually find a goal. Would they be more nervous about Liljegren having an “oopsie” moment again, than creating something special in their favour? I think they’d be justified there if they were.

I mentioned I can see Schenn getting the first nod in the series, much like I can see Liljegren being the next guy to go in when the opportunity arises. Liljegren has to be their most difficult decision on the back because, again, he’s a solid defenceman.

In sum, I see the Leafs’ six playoff defencemen playing out something like this if at home in Game 1 (though, mix the pairs how you prefer):

Rielly – Brodie

McCabe – Holl

Giordano – Schenn

…With Game 3 seeing Liljegren draw in for Schenn.

We know that this is never how it goes, these tidy little plans. People get injured, some struggle for stretches of time, while others excel.

But the Leafs have options, and for a team hoping to go on a run longer than a week, that’s a good thing. Dubas has provided the tools, and now it’s up to Sheldon Keefe to decide when to use what – or rather, who.

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