Maple Leafs Will Need Some Defensive Load Management Next Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs had eight NHL-caliber defensemen on their roster at the end of this past season. With cap restraints, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas probably won’t be able to afford to keep all eight of those players for the upcoming season. 

What Maple Leafs Defensemen Might Leave?

Assuming the Maple Leafs can re-sign Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, the way we look at it, the most likely players not to return are either Justin Holl or Ilya Lyubushkin. That leaves the team with Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Mark Giordano, (in addition to Sandin and Liljegren), plus either Holl or Lyubushkin as the seven defensemen on the roster. 

Mark Giordano Toronto Maple Leafs
Mark Giordano, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Giordano (at 38 years of age), Muzzin (at 32), Brodie (at 31), and Holl (at 30) are all older players. The only one of them who played in all 82 games this season was Brodie. Odds are, at their age, none of the older players will be physically able to play every game next season, remain 100 percent healthy, and be able to play the game to the best of their abilities over the 82-game regular-season grind. 

Considering Game Management for the Maple Leafs Defensive Corps

Game management is a term that has crept from other sports, like basketball, into the NHL. It is used regularly when talking about NHL goaltender workloads. Maybe it’s something the Maple Leafs should consider when dealing with their aging defensemen. 

Related: Maple Leafs Re-Signing Giordano Sends Messages to Team & League

If Rielly (at 27), Sandin (at 22), Liljegren (at 23), and if Lyubushkin returns (at 27) all stay healthy, all these players should be physically capable of playing 82 games. Of the four, Rielly is the only player whose abilities might dictate he should play every game. Even then, he’ll most likely go through some minor injury issues during the season. When he’s healthy however, he should play.  

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Whoever the other six defensemen are could all play a platoon situation where each of them could sit out a game if they have any nagging injury or just for game management.  

For Game Management to Work, It Must Come with a Team-First Mentality

If the Maple Leafs are to finally get past the first round of the playoffs this upcoming season, every player needs to be on board with a “team-first” mentality. Having Giordano in the fold should help energize that ethos if it wasn’t already present. Personal goals and records need to go out the window, although that’s probably an easier sell for defensemen than for forwards. 

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The Maple Leafs are at the point where they should be able to win the majority of their regular-season games with any six of the above defensemen on the ice. Keeping all seven at their peak physically all season and going into the playoffs next season should be the priority.  

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Being willing to sit out an occasional game even if you feel capable of playing should be a part of that. The only thing that matters is getting into the playoffs, which this team should be able to do easily. Then the task is winning in the playoffs, which as Maple Leafs fans know is more difficult

Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner Celebrate a Goal Against the Lightning, they just needed a few more
(Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Running a full “platoon” idea on defense could go a long way to accomplishing that goal.

Learning to Play Both Sides on Defense

One further step “out of the box” relates to which side each defenseman plays on. Right now Brodie is the only defenseman on the team comfortable playing both sides. The other seven defensemen are seen as exclusively one-sided or the other. 

Muzzin, Giordano, Rielly, and Sandin are lefties; while, only Liljegren, Holl, and Lyubushkin are righties. If one of Holl or Lyubushkin doesn’t return, that leaves four players who are exclusively left-side players and only two right-side players. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ D-men Liljegren & Sandin Are Ripe for Offer Sheets

Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe might have to experiment by moving one or more of the lefties to the right side. He has an experienced player in Brodie who would be capable of helping other left-handers learn to play the right side. 

Taking the Next Step with These Maple Leafs Core Players

All in all, if the Maple Leafs want to finally take the next step with the present core players, it may take some original thinking to accomplish it.

[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.]