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Defenceman usage during the injury disaster

How exactly are the Leafs using their bargain squad of defenders?

San Jose Sharks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images

As all Leafs fans know, the team has played the last week, comprising five games, without Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin or TJ Brodie. In that span, Jordie Benn played part of one game, Victor Mete four, and Mac Hollowell has surprised nearly everyone by playing all five decently well.

We can all tell by watching that the recipe for the defence now, post Rielly injury, is to rely on Mark Giordano. The scale of that reliance becomes clear below:

This is all-situations time, so in the “Now” portion, it’s going to be skewed by how many PK or PP minutes there happened to be more than in the “Then” portion, where more games played regularizes the average.

Rasmus Sandin actually plays less five-on-five minutes now than Timothy Liljegren, but he’s had 3.43 power play minutes per game — team leading — and Liljegren is the third most used penalty killer at only 1.16 min per game shorthanded.

The same thing is going on with Mete and Hollowell. Mete plays a little more PK, so his fewer five-on-five minutes get flipped to more in all-situations.

Starkly apparent is that the Leafs now use a completely different allocation of minutes. There are 25 defenders in the NHL who have played less than Hollowell in at least 50 minutes (about five games) of play. Carolina has a pair they play every game, and Edmonton has a pair they’ve played most games. Colorado seem to have a couple who share out the games barely playing. Tampa is using Philippe Myers about the same way as Mete and Hollowell. All of those teams have big minute top pairs who win Norris Trophies or at least play all the minutes Connor McDavid does.

Jordie Benn’s minutes did not get taken up by that third pair, they largely went towards the workload of the top four.

Justin Holl, beloved of the trade speculators, has not actually added many minutes during this emergency. He already was playing a great deal. One reason for that is that over the course of the season, Rielly has not led the team in five-on-five minutes every night, something I noticed with approval as a way to keep his workload more sensible and avoid injuries.

Rasmus Sandin might just be the real hero here, however. With an increase in minutes of over five per game, most of which is power play time, he’s been good enough, and if he weren’t, the Leafs would be struggling to hold it together.

Overall the Leafs are eighth in the NHL in power play (judging by Expected Goals, but the success % has been close to accurate all year). Their xG has actually gone up by a small, not likely significant amount with Sandin helming the power play. Their success % hasn’t been very good, but that’s what can happen in five games. It looks less well executed, which might be valid. But there is a great deal of evidence that the defender on the power play is the least important player. The death of the slapshot comes into play here. The big booming one-timer from the point doesn’t work in today’s NHL.

If you look at who the Leafs had stacked up waiting for a shot at NHL minutes, it’s clear what skills they think do work: puck skills, agility around the net, if not actual straight line speed, offensive smarts.

If the Leafs are boxing out the opposition a little less, and they may be as their Expected Goals against in these few games have been a little worse at five-on-five, that’s the price of using lower quality “modern, puck-moving defenders”. If the Leafs had a stack of simple, defensive defenders with low-quality puck skills, you have to ask yourself if the offence would be up to the task of outscoring the weaknesses of the whole group. And yet playing Jordie Benn a lot was Sheldon Keefe’s first instinct. There isn’t a coach in the NHL who wouldn’t have done the same thing.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that all three Leafs goalies have been fairly heroic as well, with Matt Murray top of the pile. As we all saw coming.

Can this go on without blowing up in everyone’s face? Assuming TJ Brodie is genuinely close to return and Conor Timmins is better than one of the current third pair, yeah, it might just last until Rielly’s return and the time of the year when trades of significance actually happen.

All that recent winning sure has helped.