Sheldon Keefe says Leafs won't enter playoffs with true shutdown pair

Ryan Smitheram
April 2, 2024  (9:54)

Timothy Liljegren and Joel Edmundson try to box out a pair of Flyers in the Leafs' defensive zone
Photo credit: Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe revealed on Monday that the team does not plan to enter the playoffs with one defined shutdown defensive pair.

After Leafs GM Brad Treliving had passed on Chris Tanev at the trade deadline, some felt as though he may take a run at acquiring Noah Hanifin. That did not occur, though, after the Vegas Golden Knights put together the winning bid to land the pending UFA defenseman from the Calgary Flames.
Thanks in large part to a lack of assets, as well as an unwillingness to part with a 1st-round pick or one of Easton Cowan or Fraser Minten, Treliving was unable to swing big. However, he did bring in some quality pieces to address very visible roster needs in right-shot defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, 6-foot-5 penalty-killing defender Joel Edmundson and a defensively responsible forward in Connor Dewar, who can also contribute on the penalty kill.
The blueline was Treliving's biggest priority next to signing Auston Matthews and William Nylander to extensions this year, but something that will have to be addressed in the upcoming off-season when teams have a little more financial flexibility and a new crop of free agents to try and court.
Ahead of yesterday's victory over their likely first-round opponent, the Florida Panthers, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was asked who he'd define as the team's official shutdown pairing for the playoffs. The Leafs' bench boss revealed that he does not believe the team has one.
"I don't think we are going to be in a situation where we have a shutdown pair. We are going to have six defensemen who are going to be dressed each night and are going to be able to compete and play in different situations against different players. I don't think we are in a shutdown pair type of situation as a group. It is going to be by-committee both with the D on the ice but also the group of five working together.

I don't know if we have ever really been there with the shutdown type of pair. Muzzin and Holl kind of played a lot in that situation. Brodie has played a lot of tough competition all the way through his time here. But we are a by-committee group. I don't expect it to be any different."

As Keefe mentioned, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl were essentially the Leafs' shutdown pairing when both were healthy, but they weren't necessarily classified as that. Unfortunately, Muzzin's career appears to be over after a suffering a neck injury he suffered early last season in a game against the Arizona Coyotes. As for Holl, he took the money and ran to the Detroit Red Wings, though Leaf fans weren't too heartbroken over his departure.
This season, the pairing of Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit has looked like the closest thing to a true shutdown pairing when used by Keefe, but as the playoffs grow closer, he continues to tinker with the pairings, using all nine of the Leafs NHL defensemen on the roster in an attempt to find his optimal groups. Of course, injuries have played a role there as well.
According to Naturalstattrick.com the Leafs' defensive pair that has the lowest expected goals against in a minimum of 120 minutes together is the pairing of Conor Timmins and Simon Benoit. That pairing, however, is an unlikely combination once the playoffs start as Timmins is viewed as the seventh, eighth or even ninth defenseman.
The second and third best pairings have Timothy Liljegren paired with Jake McCabe and T.J. Brodie. Considering Liljegren has been called out at times for his poor defensive play and simple mistakes, he appears to thrive playing more minutes against tougher competition. You don't need analytics or advanced stats to tell you that, though, as the eye test over his most recent stretch before his injury confirmed that.
Keefe also told the media that the plan is to have the defensive group do it by committee. The acquisition of Joel Edmundson from the Washington Capitals gave the Leafs another defensively sound option on the left or right side. Edmundson adds plenty of bite to the bottom pairing and he's a veteran that has the ability to play against top opposition without being flustered. He and Liljegren formed a very solid third pair for Keefe and the Leafs in their limited look before both defenders were lost to injury. While those injuries are unfortunate, it gives the other defensemen an opportunity to show what they are capable of without worrying they will come out of the lineup because of one mistake.
If the playoffs started today, the Leafs would be without three of their top-six defensemen as Morgan Rielly is also currently out with an injury - though he appears to be on the cusp of a return, and not a moment too soon. You want your top guys available for the playoffs. In the Leafs' case, however, having a large group of capable NHL defensemen that can play a stretch and help the team win means that Keefe will not have to do as much micromanaging during games. It will still happen depending on game situations, but it will give him the opportunity to monitor the minutes of his regulars better – something that he has been more mindful of this season than in the past.
Leaf fans may be concerned about the "defense by committee" approach, but they shouldn't be. The Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups just a few years ago without having a legitimate shutdown pair, proving that it is doable if everyone buys in.
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Sheldon Keefe says Leafs won't enter playoffs with true shutdown pair

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