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Toronto’s Short Bench and the Disappearance of Connor Carrick

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Leafs coach Mike Babcock has leaned ever more heavily on his stars, at forward and on defence.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Combing through the aftermath of Game 5, we can find several points of interest. The Leafs’ power play entries failed them, and cost them a shot at a winnable game; there isn’t a clear consensus on low hits, but Nazem Kadri’s on Ovechkin was probably bad. When Frederik Andersen is on his game, the Leafs have a solid chance to beat any team in the NHL—by contrast with Game 4, because when he isn’t, they don’t.

One thing that really stood out to me, though: Mike Babcock has shortened his bench. Let’s look at the defence, then the forwards.

Carrick disappears

As you probably are aware, towards the end of the regular season, the Leafs’ defence chart looked like this:

Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev

Morgan Rielly - Connor Carrick

Matt Hunwick - Roman Polak

This wasn’t set in stone, and the third pairing played significantly on the penalty kill. But it made sense and it allowed every defenceman to play his natural side. A bunch of things happened in the course of the next two weeks:

  • Nikita Zaitsev got injured at the end of the regular season
  • Martin Marincin came into the lineup, while Roman Polak took more responsibility
  • Roman Polak got injured in Game 2
  • Nikita Zaitsev returned from injury for Game 3, but has looked shaky, possibly indicating a troubled recovery

You would think all these openings on the right side would make room for Connor Carrick, as the only 100% healthy RHD left in the lineup.

Connor Carrick played 6:31 last night.

Some of this is penalty killing; Mike Babcock does not use Carrick for this, preferring to rely on the bigger and more defensively dependable Marincin. But Babcock has basically stopped using Carrick at even strength, too; he played less than two minutes in the entire third period last night.

The rest of the defence group, obviously enough, has been rising in ice-time as Carrick has fallen. Jake Gardiner, who played on an effective pairing with Carrick most of the year, has clearly taken hold as the definitive 1D he’s so often accused of not being; he’s played at least 25 minutes every night. Meanwhile, Morgan Rielly and Matt Hunwick have reprised their pairing of 2015-16, but more effectively this time, operating well behind the Matthews line. Marincin still has his many detractors and his puck-handling is never going to be relaxed, but he’s performed competently, and his PK work has at times bordered on heroic.

And Carrick...is just kind of there. He got turnstiled by Andre Burakovsky for a chance in the second period, and that seemed to be the end of Babcock’s patience with him. The small-sized Carrick has been physical and chippy as ever, taking a couple of penalties and making smart passes, but his coach—who trusted Carrick most of the year—doesn’t think he can rely on Carrick in this series.

It’s been taken as a given in expansion draft speculation that the Leafs will protect Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and Carrick with their three slots. I would still bet heavily on that being the case; Carrick is a young, capable puck-mover who shoots right. But with Babcock turning back towards Martin Marincin in the most important games of the year, you start to wonder whether CC’s stock is falling internally, and how that affects the organization’s plans going forward.

The third line is used less and less at 5v5

All year, the Leafs’ line of James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner has been used to maximize its offensive chances, often feasting on weaker competition. But the Leafs kept up a very balanced rotation among their top nine. This series, at even strength, an imbalance has developed: Mitch Marner and JVR are now distinctly third-line wingers in 5v5 usage, going up primarily against the Caps’ Eller unit.

Marner has still had his moments of glory, especially on the power play, but he seems to be labouring noticeably in this series at times, and the rumour is he isn’t 100% healthy. More and more, Mike Babcock is counting on the Matthews line to carry the offensive load at even strength, while Kadri and Komarov take the dirty work defensively. As for the fourth line—Kasperi Kapanen, despite some memorable moments, is still clearly a 4RW, although some of that is that RW is the Leafs’ deepest position. If you’re going to use him or Marner more, you have to decide who you’re going to use less; considering William Nylander has probably been the Leafs’ best player this series, and Connor Brown’s job involves some tough defensive work, there isn’t an obvious move there.

Moving to a more traditional lineup structure isn’t a problem, but after the unusually egalitarian ice-time breakdown of the regular season, the coach is clearly starting to lean more heavily on particular players. The Matthews line is now indisputably the Leafs #1—even if they already were in some ways, it’s become much more pronounced. Ultimately, if Toronto is going to pull this out, it’s going to be off some very heavy work from the top unit.

Poll

What’s the biggest usage change Mike Babcock should make in Game 6?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Play Connor Carrick more
    (119 votes)
  • 29%
    Play Mitch Marner more
    (410 votes)
  • 17%
    Play James van Riemsdyk more
    (240 votes)
  • 22%
    Play Kasperi Kapanen more
    (314 votes)
  • 22%
    Keep things about the same
    (308 votes)
1391 votes total Vote Now