The Toronto Maple Leafs have a brand new left-side defenseman. His name is Thomas James (or T.J.) Brodie. Obviously, Brodie isn’t new to the team, but he’s new to the team’s left side. And, his presence has thus far helped revitalize Justin Holl’s season.
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Who the heck knew that T.J. was short for Thomas James? Although Brodie had played exclusively on the right side in his first 107 games with the Maple Leafs, he moved to the left side two games ago. As noted, it’s been an eventful move.
The Maple Leafs’ Initial Plans for Brodie
When the Maple Leafs signed T.J. Brodie as an unrestricted free agent in October 2020, they did so with the expectation that the left-hander would be able to do the same thing for Morgan Rielly that he’d done the previous season for Mark Giordano. Brodie patrolled Giordano’s right side during the 2018-19 season and played a big part in Giordano winning the Norris Trophy at the ripe old age of 35.
Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas had been looking for a strong defensive partner to pair with the offensively-talented Rielly since the departure two years earlier of Ron Hainsey. Since coming to the team, Brodie’s done that job very well. In fact, Rielly’s having his best season since 2018-19 when he scored 72 points and finished fifth in the Norris Trophy voting.
Jake Muzzin’s Injury Changed the Team’s Plans: The New Plan Worked
Although when the team acquired Brodie, the plan was that he’d play exclusively on the right side, Jake Muzzin’s concussion and subsequent placement on the LTIR left a gaping hole on the left side of the Maple Leafs’ defense. Keefe decided to try filling that hole by switching Brodie to his natural side Saturday night and pairing him with the struggling Justin Holl, who’d been a healthy scratch the previous two games.
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Since they’ve been paired together, Holl has scored a goal and collected four assists for a total of five points and has a plus-5 rating. Although Brodie only has a single point in those two games, he’s also a plus-5.
Looking at the five-on-five numbers for those two games, both Brodie and Holl have been on ice for 92 percent (12 chances for and one chance against) of the High-Danger Scoring Chances. Brodie’s also been on for 75 percent (six goals for and two against) of the Goals and 78.3 percent (2.16 for and 0.60 against) of the Expected Goals.
Holl’s analytics are equally impressive. He’s been on ice for 71.4 percent (5 goals for and two goals against) of the Goals, and 80.6 percent (2.25 for and 0.054 against) of the Expected Goals.
Together, they’re the top two defensemen on the team in all three of those statistics. Brodie and Holl spent a lot of time playing against the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the Washington game. Both Russian players were minus-4 in that game.
Morgan Rielly Has Felt the Impact
On the downside, Rielly’s not been nearly as productive playing without Brodie. In his last two games, Rielly’s been paired with Timothy Liljegren for the majority of his five-on-five ice time. He’s only managed one assist in those two games and is zero in plus/minus.
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Liljegren’s been held pointless in those two games and has a minus-1 rating. However, some of Rielly’s underlying five-on-five statistics have been strong. He’s been on ice for 72.1 percent (31 chances for and 12 chances against) Scoring Chances and 65.2 percent (15 chances for and eight chances against) of the High-Danger Chances in those games.
Rielly plays better when he can rely on a strong defensive partner who enables him to jump into the rush and play to his offensive strengths. One possible explanation of Rielly’s reduced offense is that he might be hanging back because he’s playing alongside a rookie like Liljegren.
Newcomer Ilya Lyubushkin seems to be doing a great job partnering with Rasmus Sandin. We wonder if he could have the same impact on Rielly. To our minds, Sandin and Liljegren make a very good third pairing.
Could it make sense to play Brodie and Holl as the top pairing, Rielly and Lyubushkin as number two, and Sandin and Liljegren as the third pairing? Sandin and Liljegren have played well together.
There’s a Good Problem on It’s Way
There’s a potential problem lurking down the road, albeit a good problem. If the Brodie and Holl pairing continues to play well together, what happens if and when Jake Muzzin returns? From what we have seen this season, even when they were healthy, the Muzzin and Holl combination, for whatever reason, just was not working.
When Muzzin returns, Brodie will likely move back to the right side; and, it would make sense the way they’ve played for most of the season to put him back with Rielly. Then the question is what should the other defensive pairings be?
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Does Muzzin return to the second pairing, or should the team ease him in on the third pairing? If Muzzin plays on the second pairing, does that mean he and Lyubushkin should play together? Should Holl drop down to play with Sandin?
Is There a Chance More Changes Are Coming?
There are several possible combinations Keefe could try; and, for all we know, Dubas might not be finished making moves to acquire defensemen. We’ll see. But so far, the Thomas James move has paid dividends.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
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