NASHVILLE — Hours before they played the Nashville Predators on Saturday evening, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said his team would try some different looks on defence in the wake of Jake McCabe’s absence.
The Leafs, with Mike Van Ryn at the controls of the defence behind the bench, were doing just that for a period and a half. Most interesting was their deployment of John Klingberg. Beginning early in the first period, Klingberg was sent out for an offensive zone draw with Morgan Rielly. And then another one, and another one after that.
All told, Klingberg hopped out for seven offensive zone faceoffs with Rielly. It was a logical way to keep Klingberg involved while he shared minutes on the third pair with William Lagesson, who didn’t play a game in the NHL last season.
Then, with about 10 minutes left in the second period, the Leafs lost Timothy Liljegren to an upper-body injury and that plan went out the window. It was next man up after that, particularly for Morgan Rielly, who played almost 28 minutes, and TJ Brodie, who logged 25.5 minutes.
Liljegren was talking to a trainer and now he’s off to the dressing room
this was the hit pic.twitter.com/4qvZI31MWN
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 29, 2023
It’s unclear if Liljegren will miss time and if so, for how long. And while Keefe said the team got encouraging news on McCabe’s groin injury — “We’re not expecting him to miss any sort of significant time” — the Leafs might still be down their No. 3 and 4 defencemen for the time being.
They were already missing Conor Timmins, their No. 7 defender who suffered an injury himself (4-6 week timeline) late in training camp.
Which means the Leafs are already digging into their depth with their apparent No. 8 in Lagesson and maybe No. 9 as soon as Tuesday night, when the Kings come to town.
It’s an early stress test for a defence that entered the season with legitimate question marks already.
The good news for the Leafs is that Rielly and Brodie are off to a terrific start this season in top-pair duty. The Leafs won almost 70 percent of the expected goals in their minutes together against the Preds. Rielly and Brodie have been on the ice for only two five-on-five goals together all season.
Expected goals are up over 56 percent.
This, while owning the top-line challenge nightly and starting a whole whack of shifts in the defensive zone; Rielly and Brodie have an offensive zone faceoff percentage of just 37 percent so far this season.
In short, they’re playing the heaviest, hardest minutes for the Leafs and succeeding. It’s been particularly impressive on the defensive side of things where the Leafs are giving up just over two expected goals per 60 minutes with the two of them out there, one of the better marks league-wide so far.
The Leafs needed at least one pair they could count on and they’ve found it in old faithful — Rielly and Brodie.
That will have to continue in the near term without McCabe and potentially, Liljegren. Their minutes figure to rise even a little higher.
Mark Giordano will also need to hold up with heavier usage. He played a season-high 20.5 minutes in Nashville and was late to Ryan O’Reilly’s stick on the power-play goal that tied the game at two.
“That’s on me, that one,” Giordano said afterward.
He also scored the Leafs’ second goal and had an otherwise solid night.
“This guy takes nothing for granted,” Keefe said. “He’s working every day. He loves the game. He wasn’t happy with how the playoffs went and I think that pushed him to have a great summer and make some changes to how he prepared.”
Among those changes is to do a better job of resting throughout the season.
“You can do a good job resting in between games, really taking care of yourself,” Giordano said at training camp. “It goes a long way.”
Keeping fresh will get harder for the oldest skater in the league as the minutes tick up. Without McCabe, the Leafs are back to using Giordano on their second pair. It’s a role he had to take on frequently amid injuries last season and one that he fared quite well in.
But this is 40 for Giordano, and he’s already playing on the No. 1 penalty-killing unit.
Can he crank it up again? Can he succeed in difficult second-pair terrain with Klingberg (who would move up in Liljegren’s absence) by his side?
The Leafs were playing Giordano and Klingberg together before McCabe’s injury. But that was in third-pairing territory, where the minutes and quality of competition are quite a bit lighter. If Liljegren remains out against the Kings, Giordano and Klingberg figure to see a fair bit of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kevin Fiala, Anze Kopitar, and Adrian Kempe. A couple nights after that, the Leafs will be in Boston where the Bruins figure to work hard to find mismatches for David Pastrnak-led groups.
The Leafs have been working hard to limit Klingberg’s exposure in the defensive zone. Even in Nashville, he lined up for only three defensive zone draws at five-on-five. Absent McCabe and Liljegren potentially for the foreseeable future, he’ll have to share more in that burden — and keep things square defensively.
All those efforts at defending better will need to pay off.
Another noteworthy change in light of the injuries is that Rielly has re-assumed a regular role on the penalty kill after starting the season ranked No. 5 on the depth chart. He might even be joined there next game by Lagesson. (The Leafs do not use Klingberg on the penalty kill and didn’t even after Liljegren went out in Nashville.)
It remains to be seen how the Leafs will navigate a call-up on the back end if one is needed and Liljegren’s injury is more of the day-to-day variety. Things are so tight against the cap that sending Pontus Holmberg down and playing a forward short might be necessary. (Fraser Minten had to go back to junior so that Lagesson could be recalled.)
Then, there’s the question of which defenceman will get that call. Simon Benoit has the most NHL experience. Mikko Kokkonen impressed at camp.
These are suddenly interesting times for the Leafs defence.
Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference
(Top photo: Brett Carlsen / Getty Images)