Let’s rewind to a year ago.
On the day after the Superbowl last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs looked at the standings and found themselves third in their division, 15 points ahead of the next closest team in the Atlantic (Florida, Montreal, and Detroit all had 50 points to the Leafs’ 65). They weren’t officially playoff-bound, but for all intents and purposes, they were in.
For the rest of the season, the team continued to play veterans in heavy minutes (Frederik Andersen, Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau in particular), the lines stayed the same, and they traded a second-round draft pick for a fourth-line center.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Andersen and Hainsey looked worn down and their play reflected that (Marleau had a solid playoff showing). Nazem Kadri was promptly suspended and the team tried out a series of line combinations for the first time that season, a situation that was only compounded by Matthews and Nylander struggling to produce.
There was frustration with Matthews and Nylander clearly being on the second power-play unit. There was some frustration with a struggling Matthews not playing with a red-hot Mitch Marner to try to get him going.
The Leafs lost the series in seven, but they were also outscored by eight goals overall and outshot by an average of seven shots per game. Their penalty kill got scored on nearly 34% of the time.
You can argue that mixing things up down the stretch and resting players would not have made a difference, and while we will never know the answer to that, it is a question worth asking.
This season, the Leafs are in a slightly different predicament. Their division is much tighter, as they are only four points up on the first-seed wildcard team (they also have a game in hand on Montreal), but they are 11 points up on a playoff spot. Big picture, they should feel pretty confident about making it to the big dance.
Meanwhile, Babcock seems to be getting quite a bit of heat for constantly shaking up the lines. Really, there are three points here.
1) Yes, he should try a litany of combinations. Maybe Matthews and Marner will never work (they have quite literally started two games together this season), but to not try it would be bordering on irresponsible.
There will be times where they are down in the playoffs in the final 10 minutes of a game. Wouldn’t it be nice to put your two best players together in these scenarios? Pittsburgh has done this for years with Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin. Chicago would pair up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in times of need when they were at the height of their dynasty. Of course, Babcock himself played Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk together all the time. His assistant at one time, Todd McLellan, took this theory with him to San Jose and immediately paired up an in-his-prime Marleau with Joe Thornton to great results.
With 30 games to go, Babcock absolutely has time to sort things out and he by no means has to settle on lines for the playoffs anytime soon. He can wait until there are roughly 10 games left in the season to do that. That is more than enough time for the lines to have an extended run together.
2) Babcock does have combinations he knows he can rely on. Right now, he’s trying other things out. The team knows that Kadri and Marner work together, including when they were paired together this season while Matthews was injured; it was as if they never had time apart. Tavares and Marner is another pairing that has proven they are productive together – they have outscored opponents 55-37 while together at even strength so far this season. The team also knows that Hyman – Matthews – Nylander has been a strong line for two seasons together – to suggest they suddenly forgot how to play hockey together would be nonsensical (now, Nylander finding his form again is a different story).
At the end of the day, it’s not as if Babcock needs to find combinations that work; he has some in his back pocket, and often he reverts to them in the second half of games, particularly Tavares – Marner. But if he can find other pairings or lines that work when they are in a clear playoff spot and in the driver’s seat for first-round home ice advantage, by all means, that makes complete sense.
While Babcock does have some line combinations he can ultimately turn to, the reality is that Nylander has generally not been producing to the level he’s expected to and that has thrown off the balance a bit as Babcock tries to get him back up to speed. Nylander had another nice game against Anaheim, but at the end of the day, he’s playing to a 31-point pace currently; sure, he’ll bounce back and that will self-correct eventually, but it hasn’t been consistent yet. In the meantime, Babcock is trying to find things that work while balancing getting a top line player producing like one again.
3) The team has legitimately been struggling for over a month now. To keep things the same as they trudge through their worst stretch of the schedule would be more maddening.
Since the Christmas break, the Leafs are 7 – 7 – 1, and their 15 points in that time are 25th in the league (in fairness, the 15 games they have played in that time is tied for the third lowest in the league). In those games, they have only outscored opponents by two goals (helped by the Anaheim thumping), have been outshot by 11, and their power play has clicked at 10%.
Not including the game against Anaheim last night, they have struggled with a clear lack of secondary scoring – in the 14 games before that, Marleau, Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and Connor Brown all had just five points each (five total goals between those four). Andreas Johnsson also had five points, but he has missed some time, while Zach Hyman had 4. Frederik Gauthier (two points) and Par Lindholm (one point) are near non-existent offensively. The options are to keep things together and hope they work their way out of struggles, or shift pieces around and try to find combinations work. You will get mixed philosophical answers on what is the right approach there, but it would be difficult to provide concrete evidence to criticize one over the other.
There are legitimate gripes to be had – they don’t move up the ice as a team consistently, the power play has officially hit concerning status, and you can argue there have been a few too many concerning efforts (Detroit, Arizona, Florida, and Colorado games, to name a few) of late. But this idea that Babcock needs to settle on lines before the trade deadline has even passed, with just under 40% of the season still to go while in a relatively strong playoff holding? That seems to be a bit of a kneejerk, head-scratching reaction.
- The rest of this month is really going to test the Leafs and also present an opportunity for a variety of players to get into the lineup – from February 6 through to the end of the month, they play 12 games in 23 days and never have more than two days off between games. Dubas mentioned that he does think rest games — teams sitting players to rest them — will make their way to the league. Wonder if this is an opportunity the Leafs see fit to rest players on occasion.
The prime candidate for that, quite clearly, would be Ron Hainsey for Igor Ozhiganov. It would likely benefit both players to do so.
- Patrick Marleau is another strong candidate for rest – he has had some jump to his step since returning from the break (including some big battle wins leading to goals against Detroit and Pittsburgh). Seeing him after some rest making an impact again and to then play him that much this month seems… pointless.
- Nice coaching move by the Leafs against Pittsburgh putting Travis Dermott out for the one-timer on an icing offensive zone faceoff – he scored right on the play. With Muzzin in the fold, the first two games are the most we’ve seen the coaching staff really mix and match the pairings in a game that I can remember. Against Detroit, much to the chagrin of many, Hainsey ended up playing with Rielly down the stretch. I think they just wanted to ease Muzzin into the lineup and I would be surprised if that continues, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
- Towards the end of the Detroit game, Ron Hainsey got burned off the rush while he was pointing directions at teammates. All for communication, but have to take care of your job first and foremost.
- Ray Ferraro mentioned how deep the Leafs defense was sitting back in the neutral zone in the broadcast after Rickard Rakell scored for Anaheim – noticed this was more of the norm than an anomaly for the game. When Anaheim was in the neutral zone, Leafs defenders were already inside the blue line, and that’s too easy against good teams/players. You have to stand on top of the blue line and force players wide or to dump it in. Not sure why it showed up on occasion against the Ducks, but that is not normally how they play. Guess there’s something to watch moving forward.
“I don’t really think there is [one]. You got out there, you play. When Ron and I would play, oftentimes I’d end up on that side anyway. So it’s just a matter of being comfortable with your partner, talking lots.”
– Morgan Rielly on the difference between playing the left and right side
I don’t think Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin both being lefties used to playing the left could have been blown more out of proportion. Muzzin was on the right side off the faceoff on the play that setup Hyman’s game-winning goal against Pittsburgh. The puck even came to him and he made a nice play on his backhand to get the puck over to Rielly. Despite all the reports of him never having played the right side in his life, he managed to live and make a play that actually led to a goal. Imagine that.
There have been countless times where Muzzin has ended up on the right side already – particularly in the offensive zone, where his one-timer is a legitimate threat. If there is one area where he appears more comfortable being on the left, it’s defending off the rush, where he’s used to turning and throwing his body to the left of him, as Jake Guentzel and Corey Perry found out.
“I don’t see that. I thought this last little bit we have been really coming, to tell you the truth. You can say whatever you want, but I don’t think that at all. I actually thought our guys worked and tried. Any time you’ve got as much time off as both teams did, you’re not going to be quite as smooth. We’ve just got to keep battling.”
– Babcock on the team being out of sync the last few weeks after the loss to Detroit
I have zero inside knowledge on this, but I’m pretty convinced he can’t be saying the same thing to the team internally. If nothing else, the facts don’t lie and they haven’t been good lately (as noted above). It’s not cause for concern just yet, but the team can’t possibly be sitting there thinking everything is A-OK.
Editors Note: Babcock said a few days later, “In saying all that, the game against Detroit, I didn’t think we were great at all.”
“He has that experience, but I think beyond all of that, the key is his ability to play at the top end of our defense and play in all situations and play against the other team’s top players. He has proven himself over a good career now to be able to move the puck and to excel at playing against high-quality competition and being able to contribute offensively and defensively. I just thought it was a great fit for us. Knowing his character and what he is about, I just thought it would be a great fit for our locker room as well. We are very excited.”
– Kyle Dubas on Jake Muzzin
So far, Jake Muzzin has been a clear win. One thing I think he brings, which is really underrated, is life to the rink and some in-game momentum because he’s physical, it gets the crowd going and then the team gets going. I have mentioned this before as I know the fans get ripped, but as someone who goes to the occasional game, there really is very little to cheer for other than when they score. Some much-needed physicality gets the arena going.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think Jake Muzzin should clearly be a regular on the second power-play unit. He is a productive player (40+ points in three of his last four seasons), and the Leafs don’t have eight forwards that are better than that to go along with the dimension he brings with his bomb of a shot, which he demonstrated against Anaheim. That added weapon alone makes him worth playing and he is skilled enough to not be a one-dimensional shooter. This seems like a relative no brainer to me.
- I think Andreas Johnsson is obviously better than Connor Brown, but if Johnsson is going to make the fourth line dangerous and receive second power-play unit time, and Brown is going to backcheck and play defense with more talented linemates (along with pot the occasional tap-in), then it makes sense to keep them where they are. If things go south, it’s an easy switch to make in the lineup.
- I think I’d try Gardiner – Hainsey, Dermott – Zaitsev for a bit too. If nothing else, you might as well try it. I do believe Dermott will benefit from playing with a veteran like Hainsey (and I think there have been signs of this already, particularly in his neutral zone gaps), but Zaitsev still struggles often and Hainsey would still represent a more reliable option than Zaitsev to me.
- I think I’d be pretty content with this roster, but if I can find a physical forward that can play up and down the lineup and add on some of the physical elements that Muzzin has brought to the mix, that would be the ideal scenario. One player I’d take a serious look at is Patrick Maroon – he isn’t having a very productive season but he’s physical, can help the team on the cycle, and he is a proven scorer with playoff experience (27 points in 47 playoff games). He was much better last season and only cost a third-round pick and low-end prospect, so he should cost even less than that this season and the Leafs have two fourth-round picks – including St. Louis’ of all teams.
- I think that would mean one of Frederik Gauthier or Par Lindholm comes out, depending on the matchup. I’d be okay with that. Both players have been decent if unspectacular, but other than Lindholm being used regularly on the penalty kill, neither is bringing anything on a nightly basis that isn’t easily replaceable.