The Toronto Maple Leafs success or failure will depend on the team’s ability to have four lines that can threaten to score and six defensemen that can hold their own. With less than a quarter of the season remaining, that depth is being tested. Injuries to Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Travis Dermott have forced the Leafs to put players in the lineup that have seen few NHL games this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Success Requires Depth Players To Perform
The Maple Leafs have been extremely healthy so far this season at least before Kadri, Gardiner and Dermott were hurt. Losing Kadri to a concussion is something Toronto can absorb for the short term. They’re strong up the middle with Auston Matthews and John Tavares ahead of him on the depth chart. William Nylander has done well replacing Kadri the past few games at centre as well.
Kadri does bring an element of grit to the lineup that many feel this team is lacking overall. Without Kadri in a seven-game series against the Boston Bruins, many will question if this team is capable of fending off a team that’s willing and able to spend the game focused on beating and wearing down their opponent.
Whether the Maple Leafs have Kadri, or any other player deemed tough enough to match up with the Bruins, the team’s success isn’t going to come from matching any team’s ability to grind out wins with physical play. No team will have enough toughness to beat up on four lines for seven games. If any do, they’re probably not going to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Bruins were able to make Matthews’ line mostly ineffective in last year’s first-round matchup, but the Maple Leafs are deeper this season. They’ll have much loved Tavares on a separate line. They’ll also have players like Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, who have both come into their own this season, to deal with.
Some of the Maple Leafs will be in tough to be effective against Boston, but that is exactly the reason Tavares was brought in. He deepens this roster so that no matter which lines you match up, there will be skilled players on the ice against weaker opponents at some point for the Maple Leafs. Those players will need to score when those chances come, but they will come. Success will depend on how capable that depth is when it matters most.
The defence is a more concerning area. The Maple Leafs don’t have the depth on defence they have with the forward group. Even before losing Gardiner and Dermott, the defence was the team’s weak point. Adding Jake Muzzin helped both for depth and toughness, but perhaps not enough. Getting offence from the defence hasn’t been much of an issue this season. Avoiding getting hemmed into their own zone and giving the opposing team scoring opportunities have been. The Maple Leafs defence needs to be able to transition the puck out of the defensive zone. That doesn’t include banging the puck off the glass and giving it right back to the other team.
Down two players, and because Mike Babcock just likes it, Ron Hainsey is getting a lot more ice time. He had over 19 minutes last night against the Buffalo Sabres, third most on the team and only a minute more than Muzzin. Much of Hainsey’s ice team is because Babcock likes him and he’s a veteran. Before these latest injuries, fans would be right to question why a slow defenceman that tends to turn the puck over by dumping it out haphazardly out of the defensive zone is playing. Now it’s because there’s no one else to play. If he’s still playing big minutes by necessity in the playoffs, the defensive depth of this team will be the main storyline of their first-round match-up.
“We feel really good about our depth on defence,” said Kyle Dubas after not trading for more defence at the trade deadline.
Justin Holl got into his first game since December against the New York Islanders this week. In a game that saw many players with a negative Corsi, Holl was a plus seven. Hainsey, if you’re interested was a negative 14. Martin Marincin is also getting game action. He’s played 12 games so far this season, and his Corsi For numbers are a respectable 52.6 percent.
The Maple Leafs claim that the depth works because the Marlies play the same style as the big club. It makes the transition easier. Theoretically, players can interchange without missing a beat. It’s the speed on the game that’s different though and players who are used to have that extra second or two to make a decision have to adjust quickly. It will only get quicker in the playoffs. Whether these players can consistently handle the speed and pressure of playoff games is very much up in the air. If Gardiner and Dermott aren’t ready for the playoffs, their absence could be what decides a seven-game series.
Few teams are prepared to lose their starting goaltender in the playoffs. The Maple Leafs are among them. Garret Sparks has a good win-loss record, but with a save percentage of .902, no one will be comfortable if Frederik Andersen isn’t able to play. Even if Andersen is healthy, the Maple Leafs may want to play Sparks from time to time to give Andersen rest. That’s if they buy into the theory that Andersen’s poor play in last year’s playoffs was due to fatigue.
Andersen is on pace to play 59 games this season. That’s seven fewer than last season. He’s not played in fewer games because of a decision made by Babcock though. Andersen was injured and out of the line up for three weeks around Christmas. Those missed games are the only reason his games played total isn’t what it was last year. Andersen will likely start every playoff game barring injury.
While injuries to key defencemen or Andersen may spell disaster for Toronto, Dubas has created a team that’s as deep as any. Even the minor move of adding Nic Petan to the lineup has already provided dividends. Petan had the game-winner against Buffalo on Saturday night.
How Dubas’ plan, which has always been about depth, works out will be clearer once the Maple Leafs win or lose against Boston. It won’t just be players like Tavares or Matthews dragging this team through a round or two. It will be about depth players not only not hindering the team, but contributing meaningfully.
Main Photo: NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – JANUARY 10: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs scores his 300th NHL goal at 7:21 of the first period against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 10, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)