When the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched the 2020-21 playoffs last week with a 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, Maple Leafs fans got a chance to peek at head coach Sheldon Keefe’s plans for the rest of the season. In Thursday night’s 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks, Keefe gave a number of regulars “maintenance” days off and dressed a load of depth players. A few Maple Leafs’ players – Ben Hutton and Timothy Liljegren, for example – made their season’s debuts.
So, over the immediate five-game future to end the 2020-21 regular season, what are fans likely to see from the Maple Leafs’ every game?
Sheldon Keefe Must Delicately Balance Work and Rest
Last week against the Canucks, Maple Leafs coach Keefe made sweeping roster changes that offered fans a very different look at the team’s depth. A number of regulars didn’t dress at all for the game, some prospects made their season’s debuts, and a number of new line combinations emerged.
The game’s result was an easy victory over a hard-working Canucks’ team that had embarrassed the Maple Leafs by winning two games in a row only a week before. In short, the new-look Leafs played well. However, such wholesale changes are unlikely to happen on a regular basis. That said, until the end of the regular season, the team’s regulars will have their minutes cut and depth players will be utilized more fully.
As Keefe reported to the media on Sunday when asked about his regulars playing, “We are also trying to be competitive, win the games, and keep the top guys in their rhythm. We don’t want to pull back too much and then you have too far to go to ramp them up when the playoffs begin.”
The Example of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner
In a specific example, over the course of the 2020-21 regular, Keefe has played the pair of his two star 23-year-old forwards (Matthews and Marner) heavily on the season. Marner has averaged 22 minutes and 22 seconds ice time per game – third among NHL forwards. Matthews has averaged a bit less and is fifth among forwards at 21 minutes and 41 seconds.
However, on Saturday’s second game against the Canucks, both Marner and Matthews had their lowest time-on-ice totals for the season. Marner logged 17 minutes and 37 seconds and Matthews logged 15 minutes and 52 seconds in the 5-1 win. Keefe noted that he was planning to balance everyone’s minutes more during the last few games of the season.
Working to Build the Confidence of the Team’s Third and Fourth Line
Keefe admitted that on Saturday he was aware of creating a more even balance of time on ice between the players. As he noted, it “was something I was trying to be conscious of.” He added a rationale for that move: he was “trying to build up the confidence of our third and fourth lines and putting them in different situations we might need them in. The pace and physicality of the playoffs are going to require those guys to play a little more and certainly play against better players at different times.”
Finishing Out the Season
The Maple Leafs end their regular season by playing three straight games against Montreal this week before heading out on the road for the last two games of the season – one in Ottawa and the other in Winnipeg. Expect Keefe to try to work to find that difficult balance between helping his team stay rested and stay ready.