Toronto Maple Leafs Mike Babcock Needs To Optimize Roster Usage

The Toronto Maple Leafs did not make a huge slash on deadline. The move they did make was to acquire Nic Petan from the Winnipeg Jets in return for Par Lindholm. Not that it was a bad move, but they did nothing to address their lack of physicality or the noticeable hole on the right side of their blueline. Nonetheless, the Leafs are still a highly skilled team with depth in the forward position. In order to achieve the most success with the roster they currently ice, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock will have to fully optimize his roster.

Leafs’ Mike Babcock Needs To Optimize His Use Of The Roster

It is safe to say that Leafs fans were a little disappointed with how the deadline played out. The good news is they did not make any silly trades where they overpaid for a player. The bad news is they did not get any better while teams like the Boston Bruins, seemingly Toronto’s first-round opponent, did. That being said, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas seems to very confident in his roster as it sits and says that he is banking on his team’s skill to pull them through the playoffs.

That is easier said than done since best-of-seven playoff series usually have a heavy element of physicality to them. It scares some teams and makes others smile. Toronto might be one of those teams who may feel a wee bit intimidated, but if they optimize their roster, their skill could very well carry them like the Maple Leafs’ brass thinks it can

The problem as of now

There is no hiding the fact that Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock can be a bit stubborn with his lineups. Many fans and media pundits can point to his eagerness to put Ron Hainsey on the top pairing with Morgan Rielly when he has Jake Muzzin as a means to proving this point. Babcock loves to play the matchup game and like fellow Last Word On Hockey writer and BeLeaf In Magic co-host Oscar Elieff mentioned on Twitter, the reason the Maple Leafs lost to the Bruins last year in the playoffs was that Hainsey was getting picked apart by the David PastrnakPatrice BergeronBrad Marchand line, but yet Babcock kept matching them up against the lethal trio.

Some have also made the point that Babcock underuses his star players like Auston Matthews. I am not in a position to say if that is true or not, because I believe with a coach like Babcock, fans have to let him do his thing. He has enjoyed much success and that is a good enough reason to give him the benefit of the doubt until the team slumps to the point of no return.

I personally do agree with certain moves he has made like putting Tyler Ennis on the powerplay but then again, the second powerplay unit only sees 40 seconds of time and usually creates decent scoring chances no matter what, so it is hard to attribute that success solely to Ennis.

Current lines when healthy

With Nazem Kadri out with an injury, the lineups are slightly tweaked. However, when they were fully healthy, this is what the Leafs looked like.

Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen

Zach HymanJohn Tavares – Mitch Marner

Andreas Johnsson – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander

Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierConnor Brown

Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Jake MuzzinTravis Dermott

Frederik Andersen

Suggested playoff lines

While I want to give Babcock the benefit of the doubt in the regular season, these are the lines I would like to see come playoff time:

Andreas Johnsson – Auston Matthews – William Nylander

Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner

Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Kasperi Kapanen

Trevor Moore – Nic Petan – Connor Brown/Tyler Ennis

Jake Muzzin – Morgan Rielly

Jake Gardiner – Ron Hainsey

Travis Dermott – Nikita Zaitsev

Frederik Andersen

Why these offensive lines work

First line

For starters, Marleau is a great player in the dressing room and still fairly decent for his age on the ice, but I do not think he should be playing on the first line. Johnsson makes more sense on Matthew’s left wing. He is fast, smart with the puck and can play a physical game if need be. Obviously, it makes sense for Nylander to play with Matthews since the two of them have good chemistry with each other and when they are on their game, they can be a very dominant duo in the offensive zone.

Second line

The Tavares line has essentially been the same all season and it will stay the same as long as all three of the players remain healthy. In my opinion, this has been Toronto’s best line all season long. Marner and Tavares have developed good chemistry and Hyman fits right in with them on the left wing. He can go out and get the pucks, Marner can set up Tavares, and Tavares can put the puck in the back of the net. It is true, at times Marner can be a defensive liability and that is why it does not hurt to have a good back checker like Hyman playing with him. Tavares can play a 200-foot game as well and this helps out big time.

Third line

The third line of Marleau, Kadri, and Kapanen is a good mix of speed, agility, and strength. Marleau, at times, seemed to be clicking with Kadri. Kapanen seems to be in position most of the time and can be a good outlet pass option for Kadri when the Leafs are trying to get the puck out of their zone. I do not view this as a checking line, but it is an offensive threat and a pretty darn good third line.

Fourth line

The fourth line of Moore, Petan, Brown or Ennis is not bad. The line does lack physicality but boasts in skill. Ennis has been playing well for the Leafs. Petan is a newcomer, but judging by what he brings to the table, he will be a good replacement for Lindholm. Brown has been an effective player for the Leafs throughout his career. Moore has earned his shot with the big club and can be useful in a fourth line role. He posses a lot of skill and he has shown that with the Toronto Marlies. Personally, I do not know if he will get to play in the postseason, but if he is on the playoff roster, he is worth a look on the fourth line. Babcock can pick and choose between Ennis and Brown in that case. In reality though, I do not see Moore in the picture, so I do not think Babcock will be making that choice.

Why these defensive pairings work

First pairing

If Dubas is going to go through the trouble of getting Muzzin from the Kings, it only makes sense to put him on the top pairing with Rielly. He fits in good on the left side. Muzzin, at least to me, seems more comfortable on the left side and Rielly seems to be capable of playing on the right side. I think Muzzin’s defensive mindset will work well with the offensive-minded Rielly and will give him a chance to play his game and jump in on the rush.

Second pairing

Gardiner and Hainsey make a lot of sense because Hainsey can help balance out Gardiner’s risk-taking tendencies and back him up when he is trying to make something happen. Hainsey is not the fastest of the two, but in Toronto’s situation, he is all the Leafs really have at this moment.

Third pairing

Dermott and Zaitsev would be my third pairing. I am not a huge fan of putting the two together, but at the same time, it is hard to put Dermott with Gardiner. It is tough to envision those two in the same pairing. It is not that they are bad, it is simply that they are weaker defenders, in my estimation, and in the playoffs, can be left out to dry against a team like Boston. Zaitsev is an alright defender. For most of the season, it looked like he was getting outmatched, but in recent times, he looks to be improving and more reliable for Mike Babcock. The Leafs third pairing could have been better if they could have fetched Adam McQuaid from the New York Rangers, but it did not happen and this is what the Leafs are left with.

With this bottom pairing, Zaitsev would potentially be able to work to his strengths though and break up the cycle in the defensive end. What he struggles with is exiting his own zone, which is where Travis Dermott excels. In a limited role, Zaitsev could see more success than he’s been having.

The bottom line

The Leafs are a skilled team that brings a lot to the table. Yes, it would have been nice if Dubas and co could have pulled off a more significant move at the deadline. That being said, with what the Leafs have now, it is not like they are doomed. All the Maple Leafs have to do is utilize their roster to its fullest potential. Yes, they still might be outmatched physically, but hey, this is the new NHL, speed, and skill is the name of the game… at least that is what the Leafs are banking on.

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  1. I really want to see these D pairings more than forwards. It seems Babcock is starting to optimize his forwards when playing Johnsson and Kapanen with Matthews. I would love to see Nylander back on that line as much as the next person, but he has been quite productive and dominant to say the least with Kadri, so I get not taking those two apart. Removing Marleau from the Matthews line has been good while Kadri is injured and hopefully it stays. The defense pairs are the real issue. Hainsey was exploited over and over again against Boston last year and all through this year. In a more limited role on the third pairing and a PK specialist I think Hainsey can contribute in the lineup in some way. Zaitsev has been good at breaking up the cycle in the D zone and struggles to exit the zone once he gets the puck. Dermott excels in this area and is consistently one of the best players on the team in exiting the zone. His play away from the puck can sometimes be questionable, but that’s why I think a Zaitsev-Dermott pairing would compliment each other so well.

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