The Maple Leafs have officially clinched a playoff spot and are getting healthy at the right time.

Another busy week lies ahead with four games in six nights, so let’s get right into it with the notes.


TJ Brodie, Maple Leafs
Photo: Brian Fluharty/USA Today Sports

–  Since returning from a healthy scratch against Edmonton, TJ Brodie has averaged 21:07 per game in seven games and has five assists in that time. That ice time average is fourth among Leafs defensemen over those seven games. Morgan Rielly is first, Timothy Liljegren (in his two games) is second, and Jake McCabe is third. He’s also averaging 2:56 per game shorthanded on the top unit alongside McCabe.

Brodie’s spot in the lineup has come into question given his play and their acquisitions potentially pushing him down the lineup, but night after night, he’s still logging big minutes. It’s rare to see a player either healthy scratched or in the top three on defense on a night-to-night basis. 

–  Against the Panthers, Ryan Lomberg took a penalty after a questionable hit against Jake McCabe. The Leafs didn’t like the hit, and a scrum ensued. McCabe was holding back teammates, recognizing that the team was getting a power play.

One of McCabe’s best assets is his temper – he plays like he is in a bad mood – but it is sometimes a bit of a double-edged sword. Last season in the playoffs, he got carried away at times physically and put himself out of position multiple times chasing hits instead of playing within the game.

It was nice to see him take the hit with a levelhead in a big game against a rival. He’s well aware that they play the Panthers again before the end of the season (and will likely play them in the first round of the playoffs), and he’s more than capable of taking a number. 

–  When discussing the Leafs’ scoring depth a few weeks ago, we mentioned they likely wouldn’t have a 20-goal scorer outside the top four, but Tyler Bertuzzi has remained hot and is now sitting at 19 (and has already had multiple questionable goals called off).

Given his improved production, I thought we would see a notable jump in his ice time compared to the start of the season, but that’s not really the case. By month, here are his time-on-ice averages:

  • October: 15:52
  • November: 16:14
  • December: 16:05
  • January: 14:26
  • February: 16:04
  • March: 16:54
  • April: 16:24

Bertuzzi also started the season on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and played with a red-hot William Nylander for months afterward, so it’s not as if he was short-changed in terms of quality linemates. Some of it is natural regression; he was getting far too many good chances without burying early on and the bounces are finally going his way (he shot 28.6 percent in March). But he also looks comfortable and settled into the team now.

On the Matthews goal versus Montreal, Bertuzzi was very comfortable chipping the puck off the boards at the blue line and skating it in from there, swinging behind the net and trying to make a play. Early on, he was very uncomfortable carrying the puck and trying to make plays.

It’s an adjustment coming to Toronto – and it’s an adjustment playing with a linemate of Matthews’ calibre – but he looks very comfortable now. He has been the player the Leafs always thought they were getting for at least a few months in a row. 

–  Bertuzzi’s strong play – and deserved move back up the lineup as a result – has made life much easier for Matthew Knies, who is no longer being asked to play against and with elite players on a nightly basis as a rookie. That wore on him and his play sometimes, as he would struggle to get pucks out or make plays. Knies has six points in his last six games (he was only held scoreless against Tampa) despite averaging just 11:28 in that time. That’s his best stretch of production this season.

Knies’ size and skill are shining more against weaker competition. Against the Panthers, he beat Dmitry Kulikov twice for goals. Against the Canadiens, he beat Jordan Harris in front to score. He can win those matchups compared to lining up against the Gustav Forslings of the league.

–  It is very early, but in terms of configuring the lineup, we can see why the Leafs are trying to stick with Pontus Holmberg in the middle. His emergence at center would give the Leafs all sorts of options, and compared to David Kampf, Holmberg has some extra offense to his game.

Against the Panthers, Holmberg made a nice play to round the net and find Knies for an easy goal. His speed and skill are clear to see, and this was evident earlier in the season when he played wing with Matthews and Marner. He’s up to 16 points in 48 games now, all at even strength.

  Bobby McMann is approaching nearly 200 minutes alongside John Tavares at 5v5 (they are currently at 196:40). They are winning 53.98 percent of the shot attempts, their expected goals percentage is 58.43, and they are up in actual goals 13-4. They are often used as the matchup line, too (for example, against the Oilers, they played largely against the McDavid line).

McMann’s speed has really meshed well alongside Tavares—who is not particularly fleet of foot—as he’s able to get in on the forecheck and has been a really good backchecker, too. He is able to track back quickly and disrupt chances with his speed, strength, and reach. They formed a quietly productive duo for the team, and it was made even more interesting when they were kept together with Nylander, who switched off their line.


Sheldon Keefe, Maple Leafs bench
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“We can talk about first line, second line, and third line, but the way I would like it to be is that each game could be different. William’s line could be the first line tonight. When you have the talent spread out like this, it is more about who is going on that particular night. On great nights, all of them would be going, but that is the idea: you have it spread out, and you get opportunities for different lines to go.

Our fourth line with Kampf, Reavo, and Dewar might have been our best line the other night. That is really what you are looking for—to get all of your groups thriving.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on splitting up Matthews, Marner, and Nylander across three lines

This will probably fall on deaf ears with the fans and media, but Keefe is right—the lines shouldn’t be viewed as first, second, and third lines. They need a true top-nine rolling in the playoffs, followed by a fourth line. Bruce Cassidy said as much here in Toronto last month, something we’ve highlighted in this space repeatedly. 

The league’s top teams are too deep to run a top-six/bottom-six model of years past, and the only team that has won recently with a true top-six/bottom-six deployment was the Colorado Avalanche, who boasted the best defenseman in the league and arguably the best defense unit one through six overall. The Leafs obviously don’t have that luxury on defense.

In years past, the Leafs have tried to load up their top six along with a traditional defensive bottom six, and the results speak for themselves. That’s not to say this will work but a different approach is warranted. In the Leafs’ first game featuring the spread-out look, Nylander, apparently on the “third” line, led all Leafs forwards with 20:34. 

“I want to show I should be in that first game. I want them to want me in that first game.”

–  Simon Benoit on trying to cement himself in the playoff lineup

Simon Benoit has been a real breath of fresh air this season. Down the stretch, since re-entering the lineup, he has earned a start in the playoffs in the top six, but he takes nothing for granted. He had a bad camp, in part due to injury, was sent down to the Marlies, called up, and gave them no choice but to keep him around. After sticking and playing well, management added some veterans at the trade deadline, making him the odd man out. Instead of pouting, he reset his game, and when he returned to the lineup, he again gave them no choice but to keep him in the lineup. It’s a great attitude, and it’s infectious. A really easy player to root for. 

“I think that month, month-and-a-half that I was out, I used that as a mini training camp. I worked. I worked hard. I bagged. I worked on everything that I could. I was doing two-, three-a-days sometimes and just trying to get confidence back.

Confidence is a real thing. You know, that’s the first time I’ve probably gone through something like that in my career, where I just felt like nothing was going right, and I just felt like I had no confidence. I just used that opportunity to try and build it back. And coming off of the [all-star] break, it felt like my game started getting a little bit better. And then just been building on it ever since.”

– Ryan Reaves on how he turned his season around

It was interesting to hear Ryan Reaves talk about using the time off as a mini-training camp of sorts. He was a bit unlucky to start the season, but he was also slow.

Against Florida and Tampa Bay last week, he was able to get in on the forecheck and lay some big hits. Those hits and the big fights (along with the bench reactions) are getting all the highlights, but he has to be able to skate to get involved physically and arrive at defenders on time.

Reaves’ skating looks way better, and he is even making some plays with the puck to help move the puck up ice and work the cycle. He’s bringing real energy to the team, which his teammates are clearly responding to.

Tweets of the Week

Maple Leafs celebration, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, TJ Brodie
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Eight years – including the COVID-shortened season, which the NHL does count – is impressive even if the playoff success hasn’t come with it yet. If they keep getting to the dance, surely things will go their way eventually.

The Leafs are third in the league in goals per game, and two stats above help explain why—they successfully get pucks inside and generate shots from the slot. The only two teams ahead of them are the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars.

There is an argument to be made that the Leafs have the most explosive forward group in the Eastern Conference. They are the only team in the East with two players in the top 10 in league scoring, to say nothing of Marner, who might have been in that mix if not for the injury. Their team defense seems to receive most of the attention, but an explosive forward group alongside a goalie who has been excellent for two months now has been a recipe for success many, many times.

The benefits of basing the Marlies in Toronto are obvious and have been discussed for years as a selling point to sign with the Leafs – it is an opportunity to live and play in a major city, and in the case of a call-up/demotion, all that changes is which rink the player drives to on game day.

Another selling point is that the Leafs simply haven’t drafted many players over the years, and they likely won’t draft in great quantities anytime soon, either. They have drafted only 11 players in total over the past three years, the lowest number in the league. They own one pick in the first three rounds this summer, and next year, they currently only have a fifth, sixth, and seventh to their name.

It means opportunities for college players as we have seen with the Jacob Quillan signing and with trading for Cade Webber, who was wary of signing with the team that drafted him, Carolina, because of the difficult path to sticking on the Hurricanes’ defense. They have to make the best of this situation to keep the organization’s cupboards stocked, and this is one alternative avenue to getting there.

We have seen this a lot over the years, which I think is largely due to the Leafs’ playoff struggles. If they win, there is trepidation and a wait-until-the-playoffs cautionary approach. If they lose, it’s an indicator of the doom to come. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.


Five Things I Think I’d Do

Timothy Liljegren, Maple Leafs vs. Flyers
Photo: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

1.    I think there are two defense pairings more or less set in stone at this rate: Morgan Rielly Ilya Lyubushkin and Simon BenoitJake McCabe. Both pairings are coming out ahead in terms of controlling shots, chances, and actual goals. Three of those four players have been staples of the team all season, while Lyubushkin is a trade deadline acquisition who has fit in well and has a recent history with the team. That leaves one pairing to decide, and the candidates include TJ Brodie, Joel Edmundson, Timothy Liljegren, Mark Giordano, and Conor Timmins.

Timmins is clearly the ninth defenseman, as he lacks experience and struggles with aggressive forechecks even though he is obviously skilled. Giordano is almost certainly the eighth; he has been okay against weaker opponents since returning but struggled against the Panthers (he only played 13:05) and struggled last spring in the playoffs. It’s really down to selecting two of Edmundson, Brodie, and Liljegren.

Some of it will be health-dependent. Assuming everyone is available, it’s natural to gravitate towards Edmundson-Liljegren since they were paired up before their injuries. But it’s worth noting that Brodie is still a good penalty killer and has been a staple on their top unit for the past few weeks as the PK has shown real signs of life. They can’t afford for the penalty kill to struggle in the playoffs.

Similarly, there is an argument to be made for Liljegren, who provides power-play help (even if it’s on the second unit) and is an offensive contributor from the point in general, which they will need in the playoffs – to say nothing of his right-handed shot. At the same time, he has struggled when returning from injuries before, and Edmundson has playoff experience as well as a physicality that will be welcome against the Panthers or Bruins. I’d try out all three players and identify who is playing the best heading into the playoffs.

2.   At forward, I think I would keep the three-line attack together as much as possible. As Sheldon Keefe mentioned last week, they can return to Auston MatthewsMitch Marner anytime. They are very familiar with each other and don’t need reps together at this point. The same would apply to John TavaresWilliam Nylander, too. 

This is our first time seeing this type of three-line configuration, though. We can’t make any conclusions about it after one game. The potential benefits were visible as all three lines scored, but there was also an adjustment period as they tried to get into a rhythm under the current deployment. It was new to them, and it looked like there was a feeling-out process. Let it run for a few games and see if it can really click at a team level.

3.   Besides health, I think the most important thing down the stretch is getting the power play sorted. Their top unit is healthy and back together. Their one power-play opportunity against Montreal did not go well. The power play struggled through March, and they really don’t want to go into the playoffs with a unit carrying a month and a half’s worth of issues.

Their entries have fallen off lately, an area where Marner should help. I think they need to spend more time with Marner point-guarding the power play from the down-low corner, where he can set up the slot, bump it up to Nylander above him, or find Matthews cross-ice. I would also reinsert Bertuzzi as the net-front presence.

4.   I think I agree with keeping the top penalty-killing unit as David Kampf Connor Dewar as long as possible. First and foremost, they’ve been effective lately, so they have earned it. Secondly – something we have talked about for years – it preserves Marner’s minutes for five-on-five and the power play. Marner is not a big-time threat offensively shorthanded (he has one shorthanded point this season). He’s going to be part of the unit no matter what – he’s a good penalty killer – but he also doesn’t need to play massive minutes on the PK if they can help it.

5.   I think player management and rest are an important priority for the next two weeks. Starting tonight, the Leafs play six games in 10 nights to end the season, including two sets of back-to-backs. The league’s ridiculous scheduling ahead of the playoffs is a story in and of itself. The Panthers, for example, have four games left, all played at home – Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Tuesday.

There has to be some player management from the Leafs brass. They play tonight and tomorrow, and the lineup should feature fresh faces as the Leafs strategically rest players. Nick Robertson should draw in for at least two games over the next few weeks (arguably more than two). So should Noah Gregor. Ideally, Calle Jarnkrok is back at some point over the next few weeks as well. On defense, Mark Giordano and Conor Timmins should remain in the mix, and hopefully, Timothy Liljegren and Joel Edmundson will be back, too. In net, splitting the final six starts with three apiece would make sense.