Mark Giordano, Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

As we all know by now, there is no single recipe to follow when it comes to building a Stanley Cup winner. Championship teams come in all shapes and sizes.

While there are general commonalities among them, the formula for Cup success is by no means an exact science.

We aren’t here today to tackle a subject so vast, though. Instead, we are going to look at one fairly obvious characteristic of every Cup winner, one the Leafs are trying to piece together at the moment: a shutdown pairing on defense.

At forward, a team can attack the tough matchups in all sorts of ways: a combination of lines and looks, a pure checking line, a head-to-head matchup of best-on-best, a zone-matching scheme — you name it. On defense, it is much less flexible. At the end of the day, a team needs to designate one pairing as its shutdown duo.

Rather quietly, in the past two playoffs, Tampa Bay’s shutdown pairing was Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak. In years prior, the Blues leaned on a Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko tandem. Washington rode with Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. During Pittsburgh’s repeat Cup wins, it was a paring of Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey (!) proceeding Dumoulin and Kris Letang.

It is among the most thankless jobs in the lineup, but it is one of the most vital roles to fill effectively if a team plans to go deep. Someone needs to play against the opponent’s top lines. At a minimum, they can’t get absolutely lit up on the scoreboard in the process. As we can see in the names listed above, the pairing doesn’t necessarily need to feature a superstar or even what most fans call a “number one defenseman.” Of course, a high-end goalie always helps, too.

In the past few years, the Leafs have relied on pairings revolving around Jake Muzzin to fill this role. When Muzzin has played, he has generally been excellent prior to this season. With Muzzin injured heading into this trade deadline, the Leafs needed to acquire a legitimate defenseman to give themselves more (and better) options. They ended up accomplishing that with the acquisition of Mark Giordano.

Since then, we have seen the Leafs experiment with the makeup of the shutdown pairing. I suspect they understand the need here and are preparing for any number of playoff possibilities. They can’t get caught with their pants down — again — when they are looking at a potential Boston – Florida – Tampa Bay/Carolina – Colorado pathway.

They have tried TJ Brodie with Justin Holl. They have moved up Mark Giordano to play with Justin Holl. They tried Muzzin with Holl and then Muzzin with Brodie. Early in the season, Rielly and Brodie were taking on some of those minutes as the Muzzin – Holl pairing struggled out of the gate. At times, Rielly – Ilya Lyubushkin will receive some looks simply because they play so much with the Auston Matthews line.

As we head down the stretch, the Leafs are clearly trying to figure out the best possible combination, but the nice thing is that they have a number of options to play with. There are all sorts of variables to consider: the uncertainty of Muzzin, the up-and-down play of Holl (who has generally been good in 2022 and has a very strange whipping-boy status going on at the moment), the question of which way to optimize Brodie (left or right side, alongside Rielly or not), and acclimating Giordano to the team in general (he played on Seattle this season – imagine going from that to this).

So far, the approach taken has made sense. The Leafs’ coaching staff is trying all of the possible combinations, but they aren’t going to simply unite a pairing, strike instant magic, and ride off into the sunset with it. Pairings need at least some time to learn each other as well as some rope to make mistakes and learn from them.

10 games is plenty of time to sort this out, but there is some urgency based on how quick they have been to pull the plug or mix things up. Once the playoffs start, there is almost no margin for error given their round-one opponent.

There aren’t too many things for this team to sort out at this point, but this is a big one and one worth watching down the stretch. It’s a role that doesn’t receive nearly the love and attention it should, but it’s crucial for any team with designs on a deep playoff run.


Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

–  I wasn’t overly concerned with the blown lead against Florida; it’s going to happen over the course of the season. I do think there was a concerning trend rearing its ugly head in that game, though. There was talk of the team being out of gas towards the end of the game and overtime – and it certainly looked like it for Auston Matthews at the end there. He played 24:41 that night. Mitch Marner played 25:18.

There were a ton of penalties in the game and each played over seven minutes on the power play. That’s why John Tavares played over 23 minutes as well. On the flip side, the entire fourth line played under seven minutes each, including a team-low 5:52 for Colin Blackwell, who scored in that game and was playing just fine.

At the same time, Pierre Engvall played just 12 minutes, Alex Kerfoot was at 13:59, and William Nylander played under 18. This came on the second half of a back-to-back. It’s just one game, but this is the kind of pattern that has gotten them into trouble before: overloading their stars, not establishing four lines, and fizzling out as games wear on.

In the playoffs, a team plays every other night. They were up 5-1 at one point in this game. The ice time shouldn’t be that lopsided.

–  On a related note, Mitch Marner is currently on a three-game run of playing a ton of minutes: 25:18, 24:09, 23:56. Some will argue it’s because he plays every situation – which is great that he can – but they have to look at ways to preserve him and bump the ice time down a tad where possible.

Brad Marchand is easily capable of playing every situation as well, but he averages 19:16 per game. In the playoffs, each team plays every other night. As we looked at just last week, the Leafs are generally playing their best as a team when they distribute the ice-time reasonably versus loading up their stars with mega minutes.

–  I thought it was one of the better one-timers we’ve ever seen from Morgan Rielly against Dallas. It is amazing how far his shot has come since he entered the league. He rather quietly has 10 goals this season, which is the second-highest of his career.

Rielly won’t come near the career-high 20 goal season he scored in the 2018-19 campaign, but he has an outside chance of reaching his career-high 72 points from that same season as he has 61 points with 10 games to go.

Since March 15, Rielly has 15 points in his last 13 games.

–  That was a big rebound game against Montreal for Erik Kallgren following what transpired in Florida. The Leafs will finish the season with 10 games in 18 days; they need to have some confidence to turn to him for at least a few of those games. They can’t overload Jack Campbell (who is apparently still less than 100%) heading into the playoffs.

–  Through three games since returning, Jake Muzzin has averaged 19:39, scored a goal, and launched 10 shots on net. It is taking time to work through the right pair combinations, but Muzzin, in isolation, has generally looked fine. He isn’t shying away from contact, he’s moving around fine on the ice, and he definitely isn’t afraid to shoot the puck or join the play offensively. He is a huge wildcard with his health, but the early returns since he came back are flashing some promise.


Toronto Maple Leafs celebration
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

“They checked the heck of out of us in Toronto. We were not connected – something we talk about all the time. We didn’t have the will they had that game. Tonight, we have to make sure we bring more will and determination.”

– Andrew Brunette before his Panthers team played the Leafs

It’s a bit of a feather in the Leafs’ cap that the Panthers came into the game with this mentality and then proceeded to get run over through the first half of the game. Ultimately, they came back and won, but if you’re Florida and you’re playing a team that played the night before, you’re at home, and you’re facing a team you should be motivated to beat after the last meeting, and playing against a third-string goalie…

There were concerns for both teams (some were noted above for the Leafs), but if I had to pick between the two, I’d be more concerned on the Florida side of things in that game.

“His pace that he plays with — anything good that happens for Miky is because of his skating. He backs people off. He gets in behind people. He drives the puck up the rink. He has really increased the pace of play for that line. That is a big piece of it.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on Ilya Mikheyev’s fit with John Tavares and Alex Kerfoot

So far, they’ve only played about 74 5v5 minutes together, but in those minutes, they are ahead in every meaningful category, including outscoring opponents 4-1 while on the ice. It has been a solid line.

I guess the question concerns the expectations/hopes for the second line. They aren’t exactly leaping out as a high-end scoring line, and they are not ideally suited to be a checking line with John Tavares as the center. They fall somewhere in-between and generally win their minutes. As has been suspected for quite some time, Tavares looks comfortable playing with checkers that rely on forechecking and cycling.

“I think I always knew I had it in me. I just didn’t really ever trust it, believe in it. And when it starts going in, then you start believing a lot more. You start trusting yourself a lot more and get yourself in opportunities (to shoot). From that point on, it makes the goalie play more honest with you. It gives you other options and other guys to pass the puck to and get a chance to score.”

– Mitch Marner on his improved shot

There’s no question Mitch Marner’s shot has improved. He’s shooting and scoring more than ever before. The confidence is there.

It will be interesting to see if it translates to the playoffs and if teams will be as comfortable daring him to shoot as we have seen in previous playoffs. My guess here is that he will still need to make teams pay a few times before they really tighten up on him.

Tweets of the Week

Auston Matthews is king, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: AP Photo/Jason Behnken

An incredible accomplishment and one for the Leafs history books.

I thought this was completely ridiculous and something that the league needs to address. Animosity is good for the game. Part of the pitch for this division playoff format is supposed to be that it drums up rivalries – yet you can’t chirp between the benches? What are we doing here?

The Leafs have more or less done everything we could ask of them in the regular season at this point. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to the playoffs, but their special teams are elite, they defend well, they can obviously score, and they are having a great regular season in a very tough division. I’m not sure what else we could really ask of them through (almost) 82 games.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

Toronto Maple Leafs, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev
Photo: Canadian Press

1.  I think I would keep experimenting with the defense pairings at this point. At the end of the day, similar to what I noted above, I think it has to revolve around the shutdown pairing. They have seven — arguably eight depending on Rasmus Sandin’s ability to return and get his game back up to speed — NHL defensemen that can be considered regulars. You can put together two pairings that work beyond the shutdown pairing, with any number of combinations. But that shutdown pairing needs to be dialed in first.

2.  I think I like the look of John Tavares on one line and William Nylander on another. For reasons documented here so many times, they don’t tilt the ice together at the level we should expect. This is a different look in the flow of a game, but they can always unite them in certain situations (they are really good together during 4v4 play, for example).

3.  I think I wonder what it would look like to have Colin Blackwell center William Nylander and Pierre Engvall instead of David Kampf. He just brings a little more offense to the table.

That would leave Kampf to form some sort of line that won’t get scored on alongside some combination of Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, and Kyle Clifford, which… isn’t great. But I wouldn’t protect my fourth line over the prospect of improving my third line.

4.  I think the Leafs’ 5v3 against Montreal, even though William Nylander hit the post, was disappointing and a little purposeless overall. It should run through Auston Matthews, for obvious reasons. Morgan Rielly ended up launching the most shots on net on that power play.

The Habs cheated toward Matthews, which is fine, but if the one-timer isn’t there at all, give Matthews the puck, let him wind up with speed, skate downhill, and shoot it. He will find a lane on his own with the puck on his stick because he is Auston Matthews.

5.  I think I would be looking to put together a third pairing of penalty killers. Pierre Engvall has flashed really well shorthanded, but over the past five games, he’s playing just under a minute on the penalty kill. The Leafs are really focusing on the David KampfMitch Marner and Alex KerfootIlya Mikheyev pairings.

Marner is too good on the penalty kill to take him off of it completely, but they can shave the minutes down a bit with other options. Colin Blackwell has shown reasonably there as well. If nothing else, it’s good to have options. Low key, this is an area where Ondrej Kase’s absence hurts.