Projecting the Maple Leafs playoff lineup: Who should play in Game 1?


Here’s the thing with Game 1 lineups: They’re just that — Game 1 lineups. They might change by Game 2.

Take the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward lines, for instance, in Game 1 of the first round against Tampa last spring.

Line LW C RW

1

Bunting

Matthews

Marner

2

Tavares

O’Reilly

Nylander

3

Aston-Reese

Kämpf

Lafferty

4

Kerfoot

Acciari

Järnkrok

A lot had changed by Game 2:

Line LW C RW

1

Järnkrok

Matthews

Marner

2

Kerfoot

Tavares

Nylander

3

Knies

O’Reilly

Acciari

4

Aston-Reese

Kämpf

Lafferty

That doesn’t mean the Game 1 lineup doesn’t matter — far from it! It’s a window into what the coaching staff believe is their optimal lineup, at least initially.

Weeks away from the start of the playoffs, what that lineup will look like feels like a giant mystery for the Leafs.

Here, we try to untangle it all.


Forwards

The underlying numbers for the current top line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Auston Matthews and Max Domi are strong enough that Sheldon Keefe and his staff have to at least ponder the idea of keeping them together when Mitch Marner returns.

The Leafs are generating about five expected goals per 60 minutes with that line on the ice, the No. 1 mark of any unit in the league that’s played at least 80 minutes. But of course, it’s only an 85-minute sample. And I find it unlikely that when the chips are down and the games really count, Keefe won’t have Marner back alongside Matthews.

It’s not just Marner’s ability to create tasty shooting opportunities for Matthews. It’s the defensive value he brings to the line.

Consider these numbers from Jan. 1 onward (when Marner’s game really took off):

Per 60 mins Matthews w/ Marner Matthews w/o Marner

CF

66.8

71.2

CA

49.7

54.2

SF

33.0

34.4

SA

18.2

26.0

GF

3.6

5.0

GA

1.5

2.5

xGF

3.1

3.4

xGA

2.2

2.4

Yeah, the offence is similar (and even a little better), but the defence takes a hit. The added defensive value with Marner means more utility for the line in the playoffs.

With Marner there, Keefe can stuff his top line in the defensive zone anytime he likes and/or play them against anybody.

With Domi in the right-wing spot instead, he’ll be more careful. The Bertuzzi-Matthews-Domi trio has an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 71 percent. Keefe has shied away from matching the line against other top units, which means other (lesser) lines have to shoulder more of that burden. (The benefit, of course, is Matthews starting in the offensive zone more often.)

John Tavares’ unit saw primary duty opposite the Nikita Kucherov line on Wednesday night (and did a fairly good job).

Assuming Marner rejoins Matthews then for Game 1, who joins them on left wing?

Keefe can go in a lot of different directions, from Bertuzzi to Domi (who can play both wings) to Matthew Knies and maybe even Calle Järnkrok. Knies’ role has shrunk in recent weeks, though, as fatigue appears to have set in and Järnrkok is an injury question mark.

Which makes Bertuzzi and Domi the likeliest candidates.

The Leafs’ first look at Bertuzzi with Matthews and Marner didn’t go well (though it was a hit statistically, oddly enough). However, that was during Bertuzzi’s uncomfortable early days with the team. He’s come around in a big way since then, cashing in on his opportunities around the net.

Domi has spent only the odd shift with both Matthews and Marner.

Play him there in Game 1, and Keefe can drop Bertuzzi back into action with Tavares and William Nylander. That was the Leafs’ most dangerous trio in the first half of the season when Nylander was really cooking.

Domi – Matthews – Marner
Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander

With Marner there, Keefe might be more inclined to use that unit against anyone at any time, with Domi’s defensive limitations covered up by two Selke Trophy-level defenders.

Also, in theory, pairing two A+ passers like Marner and Domi with an A+ shooter like Matthews makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, the line could become predictable, with Marner and Domi both inclined to pass and pass again before thinking to shoot.

The other, thornier, issue with keeping Domi up top: Who centres the third line in his place? Not trading for a top-nine centre at the deadline left the Leafs with no clear option.

USATSI 22936901 scaled


Will Keefe slot Domi up top with Matthews or at third-line centre? (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Of late, since Domi moved up the lineup, Keefe has leaned on Pontus Holmberg for the role. It’s been an up-and-down experience. The line of Holmberg, Knies and Nick Robertson played about 10 minutes against Tampa. Expected goals were 13 percent.

Now, maybe when Järnrkok is healthy, he knocks Robertson out and the Leafs can try to create a line with modest two-way potential.

Holmberg is essentially a rookie, though. Will Keefe be comfortable having him lead a line in the playoffs?

Another option: Build a dependable defensive line captained by David Kämpf and … ? That’s the problem. Järnkrok fits the bill. Will he even be ready to play in Game 1? And if he is, who’s the third wheel there? If it’s Connor Dewar, what becomes of the fourth line?

Play Bertuzzi on the top line, however, and Keefe can move Domi back to the 3C gig he’s held for most of the year. The most successful and long-lasting of those combinations featured Järnkrok and Robertson on the flanks.

Robertson is more of a break-in-case-of-emergency option at this point. But what about Knies?

Bertuzzi – Matthews – Marner
McMann – Tavares – Nylander
Knies – Domi – Järnkrok

Or, if Keefe wants to play Järnkrok on the Tavares unit, he could move Bobby McMann into that spot.

McMann has fit in well with Tavares and Nylander, especially given the more onerous matchups that line has been taking on here recently. Though he doesn’t offer much in the way of playmaking, he brings some power to the line, some muscle on the forecheck.

The sample size is still quite small — about 74 minutes — but the Leafs have outscored teams 6-2 in the McMann-Tavares-Nylander minutes while winning about 60 percent of the expected goals. They’ve lined up for more defensive zone draws (28) than offensive zone draws (26).

That leaves a fourth line featuring Kämpf and two of Dewar, Holmberg or Ryan Reaves. Dewar feels like a lock at this point because of his penalty killing.

Holmberg brings more speed, versatility and general usefulness than Reaves. But it’s hard to see Keefe turning his way in Game 1 over the uber-experienced and competitive Reaves, especially with the way the 37-year-old has turned things around in the second half.

This construction makes the most sense to me:

Bertuzzi – Matthews – Marner
McMann – Tavares – Nylander
Knies – Domi – Järnkrok*
Dewar – Kämpf – Reaves

*Holmberg if Järnkrok is unavailable

Defence

The situation on D might be even murkier, primarily because of TJ Brodie’s decline and the subsequent uncertainty on where (or whether) to play him.

The coaching staff seemed to offer a window into where they’re at with Brodie in Morgan Rielly’s return to the lineup on Wednesday night: Brodie was dropped to third-pair duty with Conor Timmins. And yet, Brodie still led the team in five-on-five minutes and played around 20 minutes overall, trailing only Rielly among the D.

Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin feel like a lock for Game 1 action, and the more Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit hang out, the more likely they are to team up when the postseason begins.

McCabe and Benoit had the primary assignment against Tampa’s top line on Wednesday night. They weren’t the first option for that kind of duty after the trade deadline. Benoit wasn’t even in the lineup at that point.

Brodie’s struggles, coupled with injuries, have led the Leafs back there and away from the Brodie-McCabe pairing that once looked like their best and only hope for a shutdown pair.

The dissolution of that pair is what led Keefe to suggest this week that the Leafs would have no specific matchup pair in the playoffs and would use all three pairs in the effort against top lines. (Take that with a grain of salt. The coaching staff will always prefer one unit above the others.)

USATSI 22938571 scaled


Brodie has struggled this season but has a reservoir of experience that could be helpful in the playoffs. (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Keep Benoit with McCabe and Lyubushkin with Rielly and suddenly the Leafs have two spots for Brodie, Joel Edmundson and Timothy Liljegren — assuming the latter two are healthy.

Edmundson feels like a lock if he’s available.

The Leafs traded for him for a reason: For his size, his experience, his edge and his penalty killing.

Which would force a choice between Brodie and Liljegren.

Liljegren played some of his best hockey of the season with Edmundson. He also found his way out of the playoff lineup in each of the previous two seasons.

As much as Brodie has struggled, I still find it hard to imagine the 33-year-old not being in the lineup for Game 1. He still has a huge reservoir of experience and the veneer (albeit one that’s shrinking) of dependability. Rielly was the only Leaf defenceman to play more than Brodie (over 23 minutes per game) in last year’s playoffs.

Unlike Liljegren, he also plays a prominent role on the penalty kill.

However, that would leave the Leafs with five left shots and force one of Brodie or Edmundson to the right.

Brodie went from being a permanent RD to a non-option there in a matter of weeks. Do the Leafs want to move the slower-footed Edmundson over instead?

They might not have a choice. Unless, that is, they’re prepared to scratch Benoit, or Brodie (or Edmundson, I suppose), and vault Liljegren’s right shot back into the mix. That was clearly what the coaching staff had in mind in the immediate aftermath of the deadline.

And that construction still feels like a legitimate Game 1 possibility:

Rielly – Lyubushkin
Brodie – McCabe
Edmundson – Liljegren

Keefe and his staff could also opt to swap Brodie and Edmundson or keep Brodie out initially and keep the Benoit-McCabe pairing alive. (Edmundson looked great in a brief spin on the No. 1 penalty-killing unit, making Brodie’s absence there tenable, in theory.)

Rielly – Lyubushkin
Benoit – McCabe
Edmundson – Liljegren

Some of this will depend on health. Just as much will depend on how the coaching staff feels about Brodie heading into Game 1.

Goalie

Is this race over? It’s feeling more and more like it is. (I wouldn’t rule anything out with how things have gone in the Leafs’ crease this season.)

Joseph Woll played exceptionally well in Carolina on Mar. 24 (41 saves) and looked like he might pose a late challenge for the Game 1 gig. But he has, for the most part, been just OK since he returned from a high ankle sprain. In eight starts, he has a 3-5-0 record and an .887 save percentage.

He’s given up four or more in four of those outings, including a not-so-great outing against Tampa in which he was outplayed (as many are) by Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Ilya Samsonov, meanwhile, is 16-4-1 since Jan. 1, with a .912 save percentage. Barring an injury or a complete unravelling in his final few starts of the regular season, Samsonov looks like he’ll be the guy in Game 1.

After that, as with everything else here, well, that’s TBD.

Game 1 projection

Line LW C RW

1

Bertuzzi

Matthews

Marner

2

McMann

Tavares

Nylander

3

Knies

Domi

Järnkrok

4

Dewar

Kämpf

Reaves

Pairing

LD

RD

1

Rielly

Lyubushkin

2

Brodie

McCabe

3

Edmundson

Liljegren

Goalie

1

Samsonov

— Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey

(Top photo of Auston Matthews and TJ Brodie: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)





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