Why Maple Leafs will try to win Cup without a ‘shutdown pair’

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs' win over the Florida Panthers, including how the Maple Leafs showed they could score on one of the NHL's best defences while also matching their grit.

TORONTO — With the Toronto Maple Leafs snug in a cozy playoff position and just eight dress rehearsals dotting their April calendar, Sheldon Keefe still has time to figure out a top shutdown pairing. 

You know, that stingy and stout minutes-munching defence duo of coaches’ fantasies that can staddle the boards and lock down a lead, frustrate the opposition’s elite forwards and kill a critical penalty in a postseason series or four.

Thing is, the realistic head coach has watched his defence corps close enough and compiled a large enough sample size to understand that he doesn’t have a traditional one-two, all-situations, no-worries punch on the back end.

As a result, the offensive-minded Maple Leafs will be banking on depth and diversity when the Florida Panthers or Boston Bruins or whatever other Eastern powerhouse carries the puck across their blue.

“I don’t think we’re going to be in a situation where we have a shutdown pair. We’re gonna have six defencemen that will be dressed each night, that are going to be able to compete and play in different situations against different players,” Keefe explains. “It’s gonna be by committee, both the D that are on the ice, but it’s the group of five working together.”

And furthermore: “I don’t know that we’ve ever really been in that shutdown type of pair. I don’t know if we’ve ever really been there.” 

The ghosts of playoffs past might recall the Jake Muzzin–Justin Holl combo eating a ton of tough playoff minutes, but injuries ended two of Muzzin’s Leafs post-seasons prematurely, and now both are gone.

T.J. Brodie — once the club’s poster-boy for defensive consistency but recently a healthy scratch — has been tasked with difficult forward assignments for most of his Toronto tenure, but his trust took a hit in Round 2 last spring when he and then-playoff-newbie Jake McCabe got caved in by the Panthers.

Keefe’s new plan is to not force-feed one unit those pressure-packed D-zone starts but rather spread the burden. 

The emergence of physical, stay-at-home Simon Benoit helps. So does lefty McCabe’s newfound comfort patrolling the right side and the sturdy trade deadline acquisitions of Cup winner Joel Edmundson and penalty-killer Ilya Lyubushkin. 

All of them are tough men who prioritize stuffing cycles over secondary assists. None are true top-pair talents. But with No. 1 Morgan Rielly as well as Timothy Liljegren and (if needed) Conor Timmins offering complementary skillsets, there may be strength in numbers.

“We’re a by-community group, and I don’t expect it to be any different,” Keefe explains. 

“If we’ve learned anything, we’ve got nine defencemen who can all play and can do a good job for us.”

That realization arrives as a product of misfortune.

A rash of injuries and failed pair experiments have forced unlikely candidates into harder and more minutes than the club may have anticipated.

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Defencemen not expected (ready?) for prime special teams assignments or to skate on their weak side have been asked to do so out of necessity.

Only three Leafs defenders will reach the 65-games-played mark this season; none will play 80.

Rielly, who is expected to return from his minor upper-body injury Wednesday versus Tampa, has been the busiest of the bunch. But even his 23:49 average time on ice ranks only 22nd leaguewide.

Veterans McCabe and Brodie are the only others skating 20-plus minutes, while Toronto has six defencemen averaging between 15:53 (Timmins) and 19:40 (Liljegren).

Who says the middle class is shrinking?

“What we like is, we’ve got options,” Keefe says. “I don’t think there’s a clear pairing that you’d say absolutely needs to play in this situation. I think the group is optimized when they’re sharing the responsibility.”

The hope is all this flexibility and experience and growing trust can elevate the sum of the parts.

Our best guess at the Leafs’ Game 1 defence lineup, healthy willing, places a butcher on each pair and keeps Benoit, Timmins, and Mark Giordano ready for the smallest hiccup or injury:

Rielly – Lyubushkin

Brodie – McCabe

Edmundson – Liljegren

Seldom is the by-committee D a blueprint for a championship run — the 2006 Hurricanes and Kris Letang–free 2017 Penguins pop to mind as exceptions — but the Maple Leafs are so dangerous offensively that they’ve hummed along nicely despite their 17th-ranked goals against (3.09) and 21st-ranked penalty kill (77.6 per cent).

Ultimately, Keefe says, the six defencemen he taps for Game 1 will be determined by health and Toronto’s yet-to-be-known Round 1 opponent.

“The time we have left will help us make those appropriate decisions,” he says. 

Regardless of who gets chosen, the early scratches will be relied upon at some point.

If this team wants to go deep, it will lean on its depth. The committee won’t stop at six.

One-Timers: Considering Ilya Samsonov’s lack of luck against Tampa Bay and the fact he’s played two consecutive games, Joseph Woll is the smart bet to start Wednesday versus the Lightning…. Mitch Marner (ankle) may miss a 12th consecutive game as Keefe says the club is leaning more toward a Saturday return for him in Montreal…. The Maple Leafs cancelled Tuesday’s practice and instead did more video work in the name of rest and recovery with an eye on the postseason. “We’ve felt like the more rested team in the games we’ve played of late,” Keefe said…. How did Rielly suffer his upper-body injury? Nothing major. Nothing I want to get into,” he replied. ‘Tis the season of secrets.

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