The debate began as soon as the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched their spot in the playoffs last week. What decisions should head coach Sheldon Keefe about his lineup approaching the start of the playoffs?
Keefe had much to consider as soon as his team punched its ticket for the right to compete for Lord Stanley’s coveted cup. How much should he play his top players, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner? Should they sit out for games down the stretch? What about defensemen Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, and Mark Giordano? Does aging, but important second-line centre John Tavares, need a breather? Is the risk of injury to a key player worth it in a regular-season game with little meaning? Also, starting goaltender Jack Campbell is coming off an injury and still working to find his early-season form.
With the playoffs just around the corner, Keefe has no shortage of difficult decisions to make. To date, he is pushing all of the right buttons.
Sheldon Keefe Has the Right Approach To His Decisions
Unlike his predecessor, Mike Babcock, Keefe seems more open to discussions and taking suggestions from his players.
Matthews has been busy filling the net and setting team goal-scoring records. A sixty-goal season (or more) is not out of reach, along with potential back-to-back Rocket Richard trophies as the league’s leading goal-scorer. He also just became the third Maple Leaf to reach one hundred points in a season.
Marner has been the league’s hottest point-getter for the past 3 months and is also on pace to achieve the magical hundred-point milestone. Rielly recently set a personal best for assists in a season. As competitors, these players want to play right through to the finish and see what they can accomplish. Keefe seems to understand his players’ perspectives.
Keep the Momentum
For the most part, Keefe has his team playing well and will want to try and carry that momentum into the playoffs. The Leafs are currently in a position to have a home-ice advantage in the first round. Unlike the two prior seasons, fans will be in attendance at Scotiabank Arena and home-ice advantage should mean more. Should a Game 7 be necessary for round one, hosting it on your home ice is always the preference.
Professional athletes are creatures of habit. Having some players in and out of the lineup in the final few games is enough to throw them off of their routines. For players used to being in the lineup every night suddenly sitting out could disrupt their rhythm. The first round of the playoffs is not the time to be searching for proper timing between linemates or defence partners.
In addition, the Leafs’ power play has ranked at the top of the National Hockey League for most of the season. Recently, however, it is in a funk. The power play has only scored once in its last eighteen chances. It is utterly important to get his unit rolling again. That can’t happen with key players watching from a players’ box upstairs.
Keefe is demonstrating a good understanding of other options at his disposal for managing his lineup.
During the last handful of games, he has been rotating fourth-line players such as Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Colin Blackwell, and newcomer Nick Abruzzese. This allows veterans Simmonds and Spezza to rest, while also seeing what Abruzzese can add to the lineup. Keefe will also get to see which combinations of these players might work best for the different styles of opponents that the Leafs will see come playoff time.
Keefe is also managing his group of defensemen well. Easing Muzzin back into the lineup after his concussion is wise. Rotating his depth defenseman in and out of the lineup is something Keefe has done all season. Continuing to do that in the final eight games is a wise choice.
The Best Choice
The best choice for Keefe in the final few weeks of the regular season is to manage his players’ ice time. Let Matthews, Marner, and Rielly continue to play and stay sharp. Their on-ice minutes can be scaled back when they are playing non-playoff teams. They will appreciate their coach letting them achieve new personal milestones.
Also, seeing Marner, Matthews, and other top players laying it on the line with them during the final games of the season will only add to the team’s chemistry. This is a team that seems to enjoy playing with one another. It has had a regular season to be proud of. The Leafs have demonstrated that they can compete with anyone.
Keep putting them in, coach Keefe. Let them play.