The Toronto Maple Leafs are most likely going to be playing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
After a record-setting season in which the Toronto Maple Leafs will ultimately finish either 3rd or 4th overall, with a points-percentage right around .700, the “reward” of having to play the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning is a joke.
The way the NHL seeds for the playoffs is idiotic and unfair, but that’s life.
Toronto will play Tampa and I think they can win – the Leafs haven’t won two straight Cups, but they have proven to be the better team for the last 82 games, and that’s got to count for something.
If the Leafs want to win, however, they’ve got to dress the right group of defenseman for the playoffs, and right now, that doesn’t include Ilya Lyubushkin.
Toronto Maple Leafs Blue-Line for the Playoffs
The Leafs acquired Lyubushkin from the Coyotes before the trade deadline, and as practically the only big hitter on the Leafs roster, he’s instantly become a fan favorite.
However, the reason he can lay so many big hits is because the Leafs have the puck less when he’s on the ice. This isn’t a good thing.
In 30 games with the Leafs, Lyubushkin has the lowest Corsi (puck possession) rating on the team’s blue-line. (naturalstattrick.com).
Only Jake Muzzin has a lower goals-for percentage than Ilya Lyubushkin, but the Leafs goalies have severely let Muzzin down, posting an 89% save percentage when he plays. The same can’t be said for Lyubushkin, as only Brodie and Sandin have received better goaltending while on the ice.
Lyubushkin has the lowest expected-goals on the Leafs blue-line.
Why would you play the player who makes your team the worst? It makes no sense.
By goals and expected goals, the Leafs are never worse than when Lyubushkin is playing.
In my opinion, the stupidest thing the Leafs could do is play Lyubushkin with Rielly.
Playing Lyubushkin wouldn’t be such a big deal if he was the team’s sixth defenseman, but Keefe’s tendency to play him with Rielly makes things much worse.
It makes zero sense to play your worst player on the top line.
Rielly has played over 150 minutes with three players, here is how they rank by goals-for percentage.
1. Liljegren 17-13 (57%) Expected Goals: 62%
2. Brodie 41-33 (56%) Expected Goals 51%
3 Lyubushkin 13-13 (50%) Expected Goals 53%
Keep in mind here that the sample size for playing with Brodie is over double the other two. When factored with the overall numbers (i.e the Leafs tend to do their worst when Lyubushkin is on the ice) it’s an easy call here: Pair Rielly with Brodie, as it puts your riskiest player with your safest, and it has a history of great results that out-perform their expected results.
Who to Dress
The top pairing should obviously be Morgan Rielly and T.J Brodie, so what’s next?
A healthy Muzzin obviously plays, and Timothy Liljegren has been your best defenseman all season. (He leads in Corsi, and is second only slightly to Giordano in Goals-for and Expected Goals-for percentages, with a much larger sample).
Therefore, the top five is pretty much a no-brainer:
Giordano – Liljegren
Muzzin – ????
That last spot? Sandin hasn’t played in weeks and is primarily a left-side player. Justin Holl and Muzzin have a history of playing super tough matchups against the best players and being successful. Holl has playoff experience and better numbers, and therefore he is in.
Finally, Holl is a way better puck handler, and on this team that’s a huge deal.
When the Leafs host Tampa, they will be tempted to put out their most physical player, but they should trust the numbers. They should also remember they’ve never lost a playoff series due to physicality, but they have lost several because they didn’t score enough.
The Leafs need to trust the numbers and the data, and ignore superstitious nonsense about how the playoffs are “a different game,” and they need to avoid succumbing to the kind of illogical thinking that often sees teams play their worst players out of a misguided belief in style over numbers.
The Toronto Maple Leafs play their worst when Ilya Lyubushkin is on the ice, so it doesn’t matter how many big hits he throws, he’s hurting the team whenever he steps over the boards.
Lyubushkin should sit. Keefe should also start playing Giordano and Liljegren as the top line, but maybe that’s another article entirely.