Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas made it abundantly clear, that defense was going to a be a priority before the trade deadline.
Dubas stood by his promise, bringing in Ilya Lyubushkin from the Arizona Coyotes and veteran defender Mark Giordano from the Seattle Kraken. While they were moves that needed to be made, many wondered if they would pay off. Well, with the trade deadline gone, the Maple Leafs are starting to see the early returns from their deadline acquisitions.
Fitting In Better Than Expected
While there’s more of a sample with Lyubushkin’s 17 games as a Maple Leaf than Giordano’s five, the two trade deadline acquisitions have done an exceptional job since coming over. They’re both providing the strong defensive play that they were looking to address for some time.
You’re seeing the composure and calmness on the backend that wasn’t there previously. While the defense struggled at times this season, they’re bringing that mentality to the backend as they push to make a run in the playoffs. While the points aren’t there, they’re definitely doing a great job on the other side of the puck getting in on the offense as they’re very productive at five-on-five.
You would expect Giordano to have more of the offensive upside to his game, but Lyubushkin has been a surprise as he’s showing an aspect to his game that he really isn’t known for. The stability that they bring shows an impact, being it shutting things down defensively or engaging on the attack. Even the physicality has been amped up since they’ve been acquired, perfect for when things start to get gritty in the playoffs.
Lyubushkin Complements Rielly on Top Pairing
While many expected Ilya Lyubushkin to be a strong and steady option as a third pairing defender, things have a taken a turn for the better as he’s been seeing quite a bit of time with top defenseman Morgan Rielly. Playing with top defenders isn’t new to Lyubushkin as he’s seen his fair share of minutes with Jakob Chychrun on the Arizona Coyotes before being dealt.
That fact that he was able to play top minutes gave the Maple Leafs a lot of flexibility in terms of his place during the lineup. In 17 games with Rielly, Lyubushkin has looked pretty solid in terms of forming a dynamic first pair. As a pair at 5v5, the two have a 53.11 Corsi For percentage, a 59.26 scoring chances for percentage and a 60.47 high danger chances for percentage when they are on the ice.
While many may point to Rielly being a major factor, Lyubushkin has done a fine job in getting in on the offense and shot generation. We’ve seen him join the rush and carry the puck in as he has good mobility, making smart pinches along the boards, cycling the play effectively and walking in for a shot on net. While the points aren’t there, Lyubushkin is certainly not a hinderance when he is on the ice.
He was mainly brought in for his defensive play and we’re seeing it first-hand why he was acquired. We saw how well Rielly played with someone with a strong defensive mindset in T.J. Brodie, and it’s translated with Lyubushkin on the right side. However his physicality, which has been his strength throughout his career, has been on full display. It gives the top pair a new found element as he is first in hits with 55 since being acquired on Feb.19.
Seeing Lyubushkin starting to thrive in an important role and be utilized as Rielly’s defensive partner is a great thing. They’re starting to read each other extremely well as Rielly has another reliable defender as his partner if he engages on the rush.
Giordano Perfect Role Model for Liljegren
While many were hoping for a Brodie and Giordano reunion, it just wasn’t possible given the injury situation to Jake Muzzin and Rasmus Sandin. However, there seems to be some promise with Giordano on the third pair as he has been on Timothy Liljegren’s side since being acquired.
Liljegren stated according to TSN that he had instant chemistry with Giordano in their first game against the New Jersey Devils. Giordano was equally impressed with the little things that Liljegren did with the puck, his positioning and his confidence. Even though they’ve played meaningful minutes in four of the five games, both seem to feed off each other and have developed a strong third pairing for Keefe.
Both have looked strong in their short stint together, even against some tough competition against the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins. Against the Panthers, Giordano and Liljegren had a 60 CF% and a 69.23 SCF% when they were on the ice at 5v5. The strong play continued against the Bruins as they had a 73.68 CF% and dominated the scoring chances department with seven for and 1 against when they were on the ice.
With the new found dominance as a potential third pairing heading into the playoffs, this pairing gives a great balance in terms of the chances in the offensive zone, but also being reliable to defend in tough situations. They do a great job in defending against the rush and starting to clear bodies out in front of the net in order to deny those second chance opportunities. In addition, they haven’t been afraid to play physically as Liljegren leads the team in hits with 12 and Giordano is fourth with seven since his first game against the Devils.
You can see the similarities in Liljegren’s game when comparing Giordano’s play throughout his career. They both display the smarts and attention to detail whenever they’re on the ice. Liljegren has been developing into a two-way, mobile defenseman.
He had some hiccups this season as a rookie, but that was to be expected. Having Giordano at his side, he’s learning from one of the best in the league as he continues to grow and learn. What better way to do that than with a former Norris Trophy winner. Depending on how the injury situation on defense plays out, Keefe definitely has an option to go to if and when he needs it. Even better, maybe he gets extended beyond this stint with the Maple Leafs.
These pairings may not be something down the line however, the fact that Lyubushkin and Giordano are doing exactly what they were brought in to do is a great sign that this team is on the right track. Defense becomes increasingly more important in the playoffs.
Now that the Maple Leafs have two options that they can move up and down the lineup, they’re able to fit in whoever they’re paired up with.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.