I remember the 2020 playoff (play-in) series well. The Toronto Maple Leafs were the superior team and the favorite going into the bubble (the COVID-19 issues impacting the NHL’s postseason). However, the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Maple Leafs in five games to advance to the next round.
The Maple Leafs were eliminated after the tone of the series changed in Game 2. In that game, defenseman Jake Muzzin suffered what was then an undisclosed injury. (It later was revealed to be a cervical spine injury.)
Without Muzzin’s defense and physical play, the Maple Leafs were “handled.” To my mind, Muzzin’s injury in game two of the preliminary play-off round against the Blue Jackets was the key factor in the Maple Leafs loss. He missed the final three games of the series and the Maple Leafs were out.
To my memory, the loss of Muzzin was the tipping point for the team’s loss in that series. Maple Leafs fans will also remember that Muzzin was also injured during the Montreal Canadiens the next postseason. He missed game seven of the first-round series and the Maple Leafs were eliminated.
I can’t help but believe that general manager Kyle Dubas had those series in mind before the trade deadline. I also believe head coach Sheldon Keefe has that in mind as the team prepares for the upcoming postseason.
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The O’Reilly Opportunity to Build the Defense
With Ryan O’Reilly out with a broken finger, the Maple Leafs have tried to turn a problem into a solution. The problem of the past was that the team’s defense was too weak to withstand the issues presented in the postseason. Dubas, I believe, tried to fix that problem in this iteration of the team. He went out and got more experienced defensemen.
Now the practical problem is how to work these experienced defensemen into the lineup before the postseason begins. Now the current problem is how to fit all that depth on defense into game action to see how everyone works. As a result, there’s been a lot of experimenting with the team’s lineup.
Specifically, coach Keefe is trying to keep the team’s defensive depth in game shape. Before the trade deadline, general manager Kyle Dubas added veteran defensemen Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson, and Luke Schenn to the team’s roster. How do they best fit?
Now the practical task is to see who plays with whom. Can the defensive pairings develop – or do they naturally have – chemistry?
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If O’Reilly Were Fit to Play, Different Story
Had O’Reilly been in the lineup, coach Keefe would have likely tried to keep experimenting with the forward lines. However, he’s not. Hence the unusual lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
The Maple Leafs have been playing with seven defensemen in some of their recent games, as head coach Sheldon Keefe aims to keep all players involved and ready to step up in case of injuries or unexpected situations.
The 11/7 Model Is Here for the Next While
The Maple Leafs played their usual 12 forwards and six defensemen lineup in their recent game against the New Jersey Devils. However, they went back to the seven-defensemen deployment in their game against the Edmonton Oilers. According to coach Keefe, the team will likely continue this strategy in their upcoming game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Keefe admitted that the decision to stick with this lineup has to do with the injury sustained by forward O’Reilly in the game against the Vancouver Canucks. Fortunately, the injury – while not a perfect situation for the team – also creates opportunities for experimentation.
The Maple Leafs Team Is Deeper than It’s Been in a While
Compensating for the O’Reilly injury highlights the importance of having depth and flexibility in the roster. Currently, the defense is honing its depth. It’s being built to better withstand any potential issues the postseason might bring.
It seems that the Maple Leafs are using O’Reilly’s injury as a chance to focus on building a strong and adaptable defensive unit. Such a unit might be crucial for a long postseason playoff run. Who knows if or when a defenseman might go down to an injury?
The Maple Leafs Have Suffered in Previous Playoffs Because Jake Muzzin Was Injured
In the past few playoff series, losing a defenseman like Muzzin to injury put a damper on the team’s ability to survive. I believe the two series against the 2020 Blue Jackets (now three seasons ago) and the Montreal Canadiens (now two seasons ago) were on management’s collective minds.
The depth on defense this season could mean that the team is better able to handle different scenarios and challenges as they head into the final stretch of the season into the postseason. While O’Reilly’s injury isn’t perfect, it will be used to build a stronger playoff team – especially on defense.
Related: Three Takeaways from Maple Leafs’ 7-4 Win Over the Oilers
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