The Maple Leafs’ depth and flexibility will be important come playoff time
|Toronto Star 04 May 2021 at 18:29|
But there is one other element that will be a key to any post-season success: flexibility.
With injuries mounting, the ability for players to move up or down the lineup, and in and out of positions, will be of great importance. The status of Nick Foligno, who left Monday’s game in Montreal early, will be up in the air until a prognosis is announced Wednesday.
“With the experience and skill sets of the players that we have, it gives us the ability to do that. You don’t like to do it too much, especially in a game,” Keefe said. “But we’ve got a lot of players that have played in different spots and played with different people. I think that allows the group to just press on and keep playing.”
Keefe has juggled his lines all year, sometimes by design, sometimes by necessity, creating a sense of comfort among his charges.
“It definitely helps having versatility. Injuries can happen. Lines can fluctuate from time to time,” Kerfoot said. “So I think that having lots of guys on our team who can play centre, who can play on the wing, who can play up and down the lineup, only adds to the depth in our team and the flexibility of our group.
“I think that it provides a coach with different options, but it also keeps everyone on their toes because there’s lots of guys that can come take your job at any point.”
Thus the great ongoing talk-radio and Twitter debate about who comes out of the lineup when healthy players start to return. The thing is, the injured players need to get healthy first. And the rest of the players have to remain healthy.
The Leafs ought to be thankful that their core players have been among their healthiest. Mitch Marner and John Tavares have played every game, as have T.J. Brodie and Kerfoot. Morgan Rielly has only missed one game. Auston Matthews has missed four games, though notably played with a sore wrist for a period of time, unable or unwilling to shoot the puck. Jake Muzzin has missed three games, William Nylander has missed five.
Two key cogs, Hyman and goalie Frederik Andersen, have been out long term, though both are expected back for the playoffs.
General manager Kyle Dubas deserves credit for adding quality depth players. When the Leafs lost Jake Muzzin to injury in the qualifying last year, his replacement was Martin Marincin. There are three defencemen now ahead of Marincin on the depth chart — homegrown players Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, plus Ben Hutton, who was acquired at the deadline. Travis Dermott, meanwhile, is making himself more valuable by adapting to play on the right side in Zach Bogosian’s absence.
The fate of the Colorado Avalanche last year might have been different had they not run out of goalies. Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz were gone by the third round. Colorado turned to third-stringer Michael Hutchinson.
By pure coincidence, Hutchinson is back in the Leafs system, the fourth-stringer after the deadline acquisition of David Rittich.
But it’s at forward where the Leafs’ depth is most apparent. Play around with a fully healthy lineup on a piece of paper and you will discover the team’s scratches will include some pretty good players who would not have trouble playing regular minutes on lesser teams.
A fifth line could include either Wayne Simmonds or Alex Galchenyuk with the likes of Adam Brooks and Pierre Engvall. Stefan Noesen, another trade deadline acquisition, is still waiting to get into his first game as Leaf and rookie Nick Robertson, a playoff starter last year, is on the outside looking in.
Injuries will pose a challenge to any team in the playoffs. The Leafs, with their depth and flexibility, should be able to manage those challenges.
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