Projecting the Leafs' top-6 defensemen to start the playoffs

Mike Armenti
April 16, 2024  (11:06)

Morgan Rielly shoots a puck in the offensive zone for the Leafs
Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing a bit of a dilemma as we approach the 2023-24 Stanley Cup Playoffs this weekend. They have nine NHL defensemen on the roster, but presumably only six can suit up for Game 1. Sheldon Keefe has some important decisions to make.

Last season, the Maple Leafs rolled into the playoffs with ten NHL defensemen on the roster. This season, Brad Treliving's Maple Leafs have taken a similar approach, carrying nine. Depth is a vital component to playoff success, as we've seen year in and year out for as long as anyone can remember. The Leafs are going to have to rely on more than just 6 defensemen if they go on a long run, so having 9 bodies on the back end will certainly be an asset. As far as who might begin the postseason in the top 3 pairings, though, is the big question.
<3>Which blueliners can we expect to be in the Leafs' top-4 when the playoffs begin?
It's very likely that the top-4 are already set in stone. Sheldon Keefe and company seem to really like the Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin pairing, and rightfully so. Rielly and Lyubushkin have shown a great deal of chemistry and have publicly stated that they enjoy playing alongside one another, so that one seems to be a likely pairing for Game 1. It's when we get below that top pair where things begin to get a bit more murky.
We know that Jake McCabe is going to be in the mix, 100%, so we can narrow our focus to the final 3 spots. Obviously, with the Maple Leafs having given up assets to acquire Joel Edmundson, the hope is that he's going to be a finalist to be in the lineup. The odds are probably more favourable that he's in there, given his playoff experience, his 6'5, 221-pound frame and his physical brand of hockey. Having a Stanley Cup ring certainly won't hurt his case. These are pretty much the names that The Hockey News' David Alter believes are locks to play as well. This leaves us with a few names to ponder over.
Timothy Liljegren has been a project for the Leafs for a number of years. A high projected draft pick who fell to the Leafs at 17th overall back in 2017, the team has given Liljegren every opportunity to take a step and prove that he belongs. Unfortunately, unless he's been thrust into a top-4 role with a lot of offensive zone time, he hasn't exactly jumped off the page as a difference-maker. The fact that he's a right-shot defenseman may be his ticket to a spot in the lineup for Game 1, but I'm not sure his play will be the reason he ends up in the main group, at least to this point, if he is on the opening night roster when the playoffs begin.
T.J. Brodie is in the final year of a 4-year deal, $20M deal, which he signed back in October of 2020. The hope from the very beginning was that Brodie could come in and be the solution to Morgan Rielly's conundrum at the top of the lineup. Rielly had not had a true top pairing defender to play with during his entire tenure in Toronto, and when Brodie came in, that pair seemed to be a solid one for the Leafs. Unfortunately, after 3 years of varying levels of success together, the Rielly/Brodie pair this year has been horrendous, which has led to Sheldon Keefe splitting them up and being hesitant to go back to it, save for the odd game or two here and there. Brodie has had a lot to deal with of late, with a devastating multiple sclerosis diagnosis for his wife and the death of his father, which hasn't helped with his mental game. Age catching up with him has also been a factor. He just looks like he's a step behind right now.
Mark Giordano is the oldest skater in the NHL at 40 years of age, and while he has played some good hockey for the Leafs this season in spurts, on the whole, he has left a lot to be desired. He's not nearly as mobile as he once was and while he can still turn it on for short bursts in the offensive zone, his productivity is down and I think we can all understand why. In the twilight of his career, Gio doesn't have a lot of time left in the league, and with injury troubles piling up for him this season and an extended layoff after the passing of his father, Gio may very well be the 7th or 8th defenseman.
Simon Benoit is perhaps the most intriguing name here. When the Leafs had acquired Edmundson from Washington, Benoit was the player Keefe subtracted from his top-6 D. The message to Benoit was to simply stay ready and keep his focus where it needs to be, which is to help the team when his number is called. Well, his number has been called again, and he's been playing very well in the top-4 alongside Jake McCabe, just like he has all year. Benoit is the 2nd youngest piece on the bubble in Toronto behind only Liljegren, but he has been arguably better than any of the 3 listed ahead of him here. My gut tells me he'll be in, but it's really tough to say for sure.
Conor Timmins is probably the 8th or 9th defenseman at this point, which is fine. He missed a lot of time this season with an injury suffered during training camp and a bout with mononucleosis. The Leafs haven't had the time to help him sculpt his game all year long, and while he's still an intriguing piece, I doubt we'll see him get into any playoff games, barring several overlapping injuries to key players within that top-6 group and a few of the bubble guys. Timmins is what he is - an offensive defenseman who may show you flashes of brilliance in the offensive zone, but who will make you cringe in his own end. Probably not who you'd want to hitch your wagon to in the postseason if you're Sheldon Keefe.

What are the most likely pairings for Game 1 for the Maple Leafs?

My gut tells me that the pairings to begin the postseason will be as follows:
Brodie and Liljegren are the two, at least in my eyes, who are essentially interchangeable. I'm sure some would rather have Brodie in than Liljegren and some would rather keep Liljegren there just for the purpose of gaining some valuable playoff experience. At any rate, this is an important year for the Leafs with a new boss taking control at MLSE. Keith Pelley has already expressed that winning is important and that an early exit could have dire consequences at varying levels within the organization, so there will be immense pressure on the D corps, whoever starts the playoffs, to perform - and perform well.
16 AVRIL   |   319 ANSWERS
Projecting the Leafs' top-6 defensemen to start the playoffs

Assuming that the Leafs' top 4 defensemen for the playoffs are Morgan Rielly, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jake McCabe and Joel Edmundson, who do you think the last 2 should be?

Simon Benoit and Timothy Liljegren20564.3 %
Simon Benoit and T.J. Brodie6821.3 %
T.J. Brodie and Timothy Liljegren123.8 %
T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano3410.7 %
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