With the final month of the season officially underway, eyes are turning towards what we have all been waiting for since last year’s postseason debacle: Leafs playoff hockey.
One of the common themes under the current coaching staff at playoff time has been overloading the first line — or sometimes top two lines — with the ice time. In the first round last season, Mitch Marner averaged 24:43 per game (coming off a season in which he led all forwards in the league in time on ice per game), while Auston Matthews averaged 23:53. Zach Hyman was next at 22:51.
Before you point to the John Tavares injury to explain the uptick in ice time, a look at the 2020 playoffs reveals Matthews averaged 25 minutes per game against Columbus. Marner played 24:39 per game followed by Tavares at 22:42.
Last summer, I looked at how Cup-winning teams allocated ice-time among their forwards. I’m not going to rehash it now, but I will highlight: The highest average time-on-ice-per-game figure among Cup-winning forwards over the past 12 years belongs to Anze Kopitar, who averaged 22:03 per game when the Kings won their first of two Stanley Cups.
This season, we are seeing some wrinkles in what’s happening with the Leafs’ ice time. Marner (20:44) and Matthews (20:26) have both seen their ice time per game reduced this season. Tavares is playing about 10 seconds less per game – so, basically the same – while William Nylander has gone from 16:36 per game to 18:15.
Beyond the top four, there are four additional forwards averaging over 15 minutes per game in Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, David Kampf, and Ilya Mikheyev. Last season, the only other forward to average over 15 minutes per night beyond the top four was Zach Hyman. Had Nick Foligno managed to stay healthy, he would have given them a sixth 15+ minute forward. Similarly, with the current group, if Ondrej Kase could stay healthy, you could argue that he would be knocking on that door, too.
One might argue that some of the leveling out is circumstantial. Mikheyev is healthier and much more effective this season; Bunting and Kampf are new to the team (also, one forward of note ice-time-wise, Zach Hyman, is not on the team anymore). Kerfoot is playing better this season, which leads to more ice time.
I don’t think the massive TOI for the team’s top players was all circumstantial, though. it was very clearly a big part of how the coaching staff believed the team should be managed. When Sheldon Keefe was hired, he immediately noted that he wanted his stars to play more:
“It’s a philosophy for me. I just think we want to get ahead in games, and want to set our team up for success, so getting those guys out is important for us. And we trust our team and we trust our bench, but I think they all recognize the difference-makers that need to be out there.”
This season, there’s a different tune in the air. Keefe has tried to split up the stars across three lines multiple times. The first time he tried this, he noted:
“At five on five, for the most part, we’ve got two or three lines, and your top three lines are all going to play about the same. It’s on me to manage the minutes. There’s no demotion here for anybody. This is about spreading out our lineup and something we haven’t really done in my time here.”
Clearly, he is trying to spread out the minutes among the forwards a bit more this season while keeping Matthews and Marner at more manageable workloads. Perhaps part of their strategy last season was shaped by the shortened schedule, so they were not as worried about gassing their young stars, whereas this season is a full 82-game grind. At times, they did look exhausted last year in the playoffs, though, as Keefe put massive responsibilities on those two. Much like with Edmonton, it contributed to a first-round exit and the stars did not perform to their talent level.
What’s transpired this season with the line configuration is arguably a happy accident. Back in January, Sheldon Keefe declared what the team’s “optimal look” was (frankly, it was disappointing to hear him make such a grand proclamation with so much season left to play). Due to injuries, followed by a brief Matthews suspension and the Tavares – Nylander duo not exactly lighting it up, the team has reconfigured their forwards, leading to some interesting developments.
It is too early to make any grand proclamations or definitively describe this experiment as a success, but the early returns, at minimum, give the Leafs a new wrinkle. They were genuinely impressive in two wins against the Panthers and Bruins. Nylander appears much more engaged as the undisputed leader of his line. Tavares appears much more at home with another grinder on his line. Against Carolina and Dallas when Matthews was suspended, the Leafs played two of their best games of the season as they were forced to shuffle their lines completely.
Keefe will also reunite lines at key times throughout a game to change things up and throw out different looks at the opposition. This is the kind of creativity in deployment that throws other teams off.
There are subtle shifts that have been occurring over time: playing the stars a little less, balancing out the lines a little more, and asking the stars to elevate the mid-tier talent. It remains to be seen if it will work come playoff time – or if they will even stick with this approach (old habits die hard) – but so far, the Leafs are shifting players around and aren’t simply relying on a line or two to carry them.
– Over the last six games, the Leafs have given up four shorthanded goals and scored four shorthanded goals. At this point in the season, and with Kase out, they have turned to David Kampf, Mitch Marner, Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, and Pierre Engvall to perform as regular penalty killers. Three of those players are burners (and two of those have size to boot), while the other two have high-end instincts.
The biggest thing that stands out is just how aggressive they are when pressuring all over the ice. Even if a team manages to gain the zone on them, the forwards apply constant pressure on the half-wall and are regularly rotating to have someone pressure the puck while the other backfills by covering up passing lanes.
– Pierre Engvall winning a series of battles and taking a hit to spring Ilya Mikheyev on a shorthanded breakaway against the Jets was arguably his best play as a Leaf.
The overall package of size and speed with a hard shot has always been apparent, but the consistency was not. Keefe called him out regularly and was quick to make him a healthy scratch early on his career – and this was a player he was familiar with having coached him in the AHL.
Maybe that has played a part, or maybe he just naturally matured as a player this season, but Engvall has been consistently good for a long stretch of time now. His ice time has risen with that good play – in January, he averaged 11:51; in February, it was up to 12:11, and in March, he was at 13:15.
– I did not think Timothy Liljegren had that type of one-timer in him. Yes, the game was all but over and it was a nothing power play, but there was some oomph behind it and he beat the goalie cleanly. He has a rather quiet and effective 20 points in 50 games in his rookie season. Over the past two seasons with the Marlies, he played in 61 games and put up 41 points. There might be a little more offense here than meets the eye.
– The Leafs are now up to 10 players with double digits in goals. The other teams in the league that can also say this are Carolina, Colorado, Columbus, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh. The only team with more double-digit goal scorers is the Florida Panthers with 11 (I am counting Claude Giroux, but even if you don’t, they had Frank Vatrano in double digits prior to trading him).
Morgan Rielly and David Kampf are each at nine goals as well. Last season, they likely would have capped out at 10 had it been a full season, so there’s a bit more scoring depth this season compared to last.
“We had a lot of discussion about that today. We have liked the way those pairings have gone for us, and yet we do, with Giordano’s arrival, want to get a feel for different things to be prepared for whatever might come our way in the playoffs or down the stretch. We have to make sure we continue to monitor that. We are running out of games here.
We will expect to go back to what we had previously, but we are having daily discussions on it. Muzzin’s return is going to force us to change some things just like Lyubushkin being out changed some things. Some of that will happen naturally. We do want to get some looks at some different combinations as we get going here, but for tomorrow, I think we will settle back into what we had.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the defense pairings
I have to imagine the Leafs are hoping to get Jake Muzzin back as soon as possible to really start moving the pairings around. The current group, as noted above, has a pretty clear set of pairings at the moment unless they want to ride out the Mark Giordano – Justin Holl pairing.
It might seem like they had a bad game against Winnipeg, but after the first period (especially after Giordano got torched by Blake Wheeler), they did start to settle down. Pairings don’t always click the second they are put together. It does take some time.
“We’re Toronto…We’re kind of known as the center of the hockey world. When I used to play the Leafs, I wanted to crush them.”
– Wayne Simmonds on teams getting up to play the Leafs
It’s only logical – there are so many NHL players that grew up in Ontario and return to play in front of friends/family. Even if they aren’t playing against the Leafs in Toronto, they know everyone is watching back home.
“You feel the atmosphere and energy and that ignites you … you just feed off the energy of the crowd. That’s what makes it so special playing here.”
– Auston Matthews on creating special moments in Toronto
I thought the crowd was great in this game, and part of was the energy of the fourth line in particular. It really only takes a hit or two for the crowd to pipe up in Toronto — the energy just stems from there. It felt like the physicality got them going, Auston Matthews started dancing, and the outcome from there was inevitable.
Tweets of the Week
Here is all 50 of Auston Matthews' goals (so far) this season for your personal enjoyment: pic.twitter.com/YeiBWH8pdt
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 1, 2022
The release stands out, as everyone well knows, but the one-timer is such a good development in Auston Matthews’ game. That was not something he turned to with such confidence earlier in his career.
There’s one other goal he mixes in on occasion that I think he can get more juice out of: his wraparounds, which includes coming out on his backhand. He’s so quick with it, and he gets a lot of heat on his shot along the ice. It’s a tough one for goalies.
Matthews finished March with 13 goals in 12 games.
Alex Steeves became only the third #Marlies rookie to score 20 goals in a season with his EN goal to seal the win. That's 3 players since 2005. Connor Brown and Josh Leivo are the others. Leivo holds the rookie record for goals with 23. There are 14 games remaining.
— Todd Crocker (@ToddCrocker) March 30, 2022
As the Leafs experiment with a bunch of options on their fourth line, I really think this kid is going under the radar as a plausible option. Yes, there are recall-limit rules, but the Leafs have used emergency callups a number of times already to bring up players not named Alex Steeves. If they wanted to, they absolutely could have given him a reasonable look by now. If not this year, it’s only a matter of time until he gets one.
This is really all Wayne Simmonds has to do to keep his place in the lineup for the playoffs.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) April 1, 2022
The same goes for Kyle Clifford here. It’s nice to have a fourth line getting the building going and giving the team a bit of a morale boost. Matthews quite visibly gets pumped up when teammates are hitting and the crowd starts making noise.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I like the defense pairings given the current personnel. I completely understand running with them, especially when the Leafs are about to play two top teams. At some point, though, I would like a longer look at Mark Giordano – Justin Holl. If you can’t count on Jake Muzzin to return and give you much, I think this duo has a chance to be a solid shutdown pairing in the playoffs (even though I have liked Giordano – Liljegren).
That tough minute pairing is so important. TJ Brodie – Justin Holl has shown well and it’s a nice option to have, but I can’t help but think you’ll eventually want Brodie back with Morgan Rielly. If they return to Rielly — Brodie with their current group, what are the options for a shutdown pairing at that point? Giordano – Holl is the most logical to me.
2. I think, rather quietly, Justin Holl has done a really good job for months on end now in a tough-minute role, and it needs to be recognized. He plays against the other team’s best every night. He is on the penalty-killing unit. He plays no easy minutes and has seen his partner shift around throughout the season (which was partly on him, to be sure). There should be no talk of Holl as the odd man out. On penalty-killing alone, he is locked into the lineup.
3. I think I would be interested in seeing a Kyle Clifford – Colin Blackwell – Wayne Simmonds line just to find out if they can be thrown together on occasion to create energy and change up a game. I don’t think they can play every night, but I’d be curious to see get a look. I think they have the potential to cause some chaos on the ice.
They have some pieces to sort out on this fourth line, and some time to do so. I do think it’s important they figure it out. Blackwell looks like he should be a regular. The other two spots are up for grabs. I would give Jason Spezza an early nod at this point — he has been excellent in the playoffs as a Leaf — but as noted, there’s still time to decide.
4. If Kyle Clifford plays about once a week, I think he’s actually quite effective in that game. When they play him in a number of games in a row, his play falls off pretty quickly. As a depth guy, that’s fine; they can use that to their advantage at times.
5. If Jack Campbell is up to it, I think I’d give him three of the next four starts. It’s important to get him in a groove and rolling heading into the playoffs. He needs to play regularly to make that happen.