Leafs’ Comeback Requires Lineup Change

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first two games of their quarterfinal playoff series against the Boston Bruins could not have started any worse. From a costly suspension to Nazem Kadri that still has two games remaining to Boston’s playoff leading 12 goals scored, nothing has gone their way and many are beginning to question how much oxygen remains in the Leafs’ playoff tank.

Surprisingly poor goaltending, lack of efficiency on special teams, little production from their elite players… the list for what needs to change if the Leafs want to survive and hold their own in this series resembles a metaphorical scroll that stretches across the floor. The main issue extends to the defensive unit and changes seem needed for a bounceback.

Put Carrick Into the Lineup

Defensively, the Leafs have been an utter disaster. At one point or another, every Leaf defender has been caught significantly out of position, turned over the puck, or watched as the Bruins pushed a puck past one of their sprawling goaltenders. They have left Freddy Anderson out to dry on countless occasions.

Travis Dermott, the 21-year-old who spent the majority of this season in the minors, has probably been the Leafs best defensive player thus far. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev, all who at one point have been considered key parts of the Leafs defensive future, have appeared overpowered by the Bruins.

If the Maple Leafs want to comeback in this series, shifting up the defense is the ideal place to start. Carrick played over half the season with the Leafs before falling out of the lineup to make way for Dermott but a set of fresh legs could significantly help the Leafs get to where they need to be. Keeping up with the Bruins and staying in position could be helpful.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Connor Carrick
Connor Carrick might be the fresh set of legs the Leafs need to keep up with Boston defensively. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Carrick was far from perfect during his time with the Maple Leafs this season. Carrick’s ability marks him as an average, mill of the run defender through and through. His offensive ability is nothing to write home about, nor does he categorize as a lockdown player that can shut down star scorers; the kind of players that have tormented Toronto to start the series. Still, a set of fresh legs might be exactly what is in order for a Leaf bounce back.

Who Sits Out?

Benching players is never an easy task. There are evidently options on this team that could help the team by taking a break from the playoff hockey but who best fits the profile?

As poorly as both Gardiner and Rielly have played, the Leafs benching either of the two is highly unlikely. The pair both add an offensive element the Leafs absolutely will need to move up the ice and generate an attack. Roman Polak, a physical player who was highly criticized  while racking up penalties in the middle of the season, has settled into a role as a decent last unit defenseman. With Dermott playing better than the Leafs other defenders, he clearly is not an option.

That leaves two candidates as stand outs to be replaced by Carrick. The aforementioned Zaitsev has arguably been the Maple Leafs’ very worst defender to start the series. Zaitsev’s performance in game two was insurmountable for the Leafs; on the ice and humiliated for the Bruins first 3 goals and constantly turning over the puck throughout the game. To say he has looked lost in the defensive zone would be an understatement and his seven year contract has absolutely come into question as a result.

Ron Hainsey, is the other option that the Leafs likely could consider sitting. Hainsey, 37, has looked exhausted after an 80-game season. While he hasn’t been quite as bad as Zaitsev, he is a -2 on the series thus far and could probably benefit from a break more than anyone else defensively.

Ron Hainsey Maple Leafs
Could Ron Hainsey use a break during this playoff stretch? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Zaitsev’s upside, an upside that presented him with a seven year deal worth $31.5 million, is likely why keeping him in the lineup makes sense. Having Zaitsev in the final pairing where he takes less ice time may be a helpful change that allows for him to bounce back and create offensive chances for a team that desperately needs it. Hainsey can’t provide the same ability and the Leafs are aware of that.

Additionally, as the Marlies get ready for a postseason, a more “sexy” but unlikely call-up could be Justin Holl. Holl, 26, played twice for the Maple Leafs this season, becoming somewhat of a sensation by scoring in both games becoming the first defender in Leaf history to do so. He was a plus-5 when on the ice in those appearances but after an incredible season with the Marlies, it is more likely for him to stay in the minors as they chase the Calder Cup. With how poorly the Leafs have played, maybe he could be a spark they need. Regardless, making a change defensively will be important for this Maple Leafs team if they plan on turning this series around.