5 questions Maple Leafs face as playoff push intensifies
It's not too early for the Maple Leafs to be thinking about the playoffs, as a matchup with the Lightning looms. Photo by Nathan Denette/CP.

TORONTO — As if it wouldn’t be strange enough to get dealt back to the NHL team that drafted you more than a decade later, consider the parallel universe Luke Schenn has found himself inhabiting these last few weeks.

Upon returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs' dressing room for the first time earlier this month, he immediately bumped into Nik Antropov, a former teammate from his rookie year who now works in skills development with the organization.

And after finding a house to rent for his family he soon learned that Tomas Kaberle, his first NHL defence partner, lived directly across the street.

“We’re literally neighbours,” Schenn said Wednesday. “It’s a small world. Obviously you don’t anticipate that.”

The next reminder of what’s old is new again will arrive in two-plus weeks when the playoffs open with a best-of-seven series against the Tampa Bay Lightning — the team Schenn won the Stanley Cup with in 2020 and 2021, and the team that eliminated the Leafs in Round 1 last year.

It feels a little like the Twilight Zone.

And as this low-drama regular season winds toward its conclusion in Toronto, the Leafs aren’t even pretending they’re not already thinking about the first-round series to come.

“Of course your mind wanders there,” Schenn said. “The one thing about Tampa is they always find their game and they have so many good core guys who’ve done it before. A veteran group of guys and obviously an unbelievable goalie, so they know what it takes.”

The challenge is undeniably steep.

Here’s a look at five questions facing the Leafs as they ramp up for the playoffs.

1. Who starts in goal for Game 1?

This has been a hot-button media topic for at least the last month.

It’s perfect talk radio fodder: There’s no clear right (or wrong) answer and sentiment can shift based on what happened the night before.

The decision will ultimately hinge on how much the coaching staff values Matt Murray’s extensive playoff resume compared with Ilya Samsonov’s superior form this season. It’s also notable that head coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged they’re having some discussion about the importance — or not — of home and road splits, which is telling because Samsonov has been downright dominant at Scotiabank Arena and the Lightning series is likely to start in Toronto.

Samsonov started Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Florida. He sports an 18-2-3 record and a .927 save percentage in games played at home.

Murray, by comparison, is 5-2-1 with an .880 SV%.

To receive Chris Johnston's Inside the NHL newsletter every Monday, Subscribe here.

Keefe indicated that he’ll likely use the remaining runway in this regular season to give Samsonov some additional road starts while using Murray more at Scotiabank Arena.

It’s a sign that no playoff decisions have been made just yet and that the home/road splits might play a factor in which way they ultimately go.

“It’s something that we’re looking at for sure,” Keefe said Wednesday. “I don’t know how applicable it might be beyond the regular season. You get into playoffs and such, everything kind of equalizes in terms of schedule and both teams are going through the same thing and all of that.

“It’s certainly something that has my attention.”

What often gets lost in the goaltending discussion is that the only real decision for the Leafs is who starts the first game against Tampa. From there, they can see what happens and make adjustments as necessary.

2. Where does Ryan O’Reilly best fit into this lineup?

The good news is the former Conn Smythe winner is nearly ready to return after undergoing surgery on his broken left index finger.

O’Reilly is expected to participate in Friday’s practice with an eye on playing his first game since March 4 at some point next week.

That should give the deadline rental an additional five or six games to get comfortable with his new teammates. He's dressed for eight games with the Leafs so far following a trade from the St. Louis Blues.

Finding the right fit for the man known as “the Factor” should be considered a top priority. Keefe initially deployed him as the No. 2 centre, shifting captain John Tavares to the wing, before later opting to spread the wealth across the top nine by playing O’Reilly as the third-line centre.

Ultimately, the coaching staff will need to determine what look creates the most matchup issues for Tampa. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have been on fire recently while skating with Calle Jarnkrok on the top line, but the second unit of Tavares, William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot hasn’t been overly effective.

Reintroducing O’Reilly should be a shot in the arm to the group, especially since the notorious rink rat has been able to keep his conditioning up while waiting for his finger to heal.

“I don’t know if Ryan O’Reilly is still out on the ice right now or not, but I feel like he’s been in his gear for almost three hours here this morning,” Keefe said Wednesday.

The veteran had three goals and five points in the eight games since arriving in Toronto.

3. Does an 11/7 formation make sense given the roster makeup?

Major surgery was performed on the Leafs' blue line in the run-up to the trade deadline with Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson all added to the mix while Rasmus Sandin was shipped out to Washington.

It unlocked new possibilities for Keefe, who has dressed seven defencemen and 11 forwards in nine of 13 games after going with the more traditional 12/6 formation for every game prior to that flurry of moves.

While the results are mixed — the Leafs are 4-3-2 when icing an imbalanced lineup — there’s still a case to consider rolling it out in the playoffs.

For starters, it’s probably the best way to make use of Schenn’s sandpaper in selective minutes as the seventh defenceman. They went out and acquired him at the deadline with an eye on upping the group’s competitiveness.

To receive NorthStar's Best Bets newsletter throughout the week, Subscribe here. 

And with the extra forward slot left open, Keefe can find additional shifts for Matthews, Marner and Nylander against softer competition in the bottom six. That’s a pretty nice side benefit for a team brimming with high-end offensive talent.

“I do think it keeps your best players more engaged in the game,” veteran Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice said when asked about the benefits of 11/7.

Ironically, one of the NHL’s biggest proponents of that formation in recent years has been Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Don’t be surprised if both teams try it at some point during Round 1.

4. Will the power play hold up?

The Leafs are once again among the NHL’s best regular-season teams with the man advantage — trailing well behind Edmonton’s record-setting 32.7% efficiency rate but sitting third at 25.2%.

That kind of success is expected given the team’s makeup.

Where this group has historically run into trouble, however, is the postseason, where the Leafs have converted on just 13.7% of power-play opportunities across the last two playoff series.

Given how narrow the margins were in those seven-game defeats to Tampa and Montreal, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that even one more specialty team goal could have swung things in Toronto's favour.

It remains a huge point of emphasis now, which is why an 0-for-4 night on the power play with only five shots registered against Florida takes on a little more meaning than it otherwise might.

“Not great,” Auston Matthews told reporters postgame. “Just a little bit disconnected there and maybe over-complicating things at times instead of just keeping it a little more simple and breaking them down at the start and then letting things open up.”

While there’s no point in overanalyzing each individual game, how the Leafs fare with the extra man in the home stretch could be telling. They’ll want to dial in the details and consistently create dangerous looks to ward off the possibility of a strength becoming an Achilles’ heel yet again.

5. Have the ghosts of playoffs past been extinguished?

There’s no way to answer this with any level of certainty before the dance begins for real on April 17.

But it hardly seemed like a coincidence that multiple Leafs players mentioned “confidence” when speaking about what can be gained over the eight regular season games left on the schedule.

For the core players who have tried and failed to finish off a playoff series multiple times, there is unquestionably a mental hurdle to clear this spring. The stakes are so painstakingly obvious that they need not be spelled out.

So, yeah, the Leafs are already thinking about the postseason ... because how can they not?

“We have a couple areas of our game that we want to work on, so we’re going to chip away at it,” veteran defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We’re not really too worried about comparing our style of hockey right now versus what it’s going to be in a couple of weeks.

“I think it’s more just trying to get yourself ready as an individual and get your team game to a point where you feel confident and good, and you can just go in and start playing.”

NorthStar Bets editorial Insiders have no influence, direct or otherwise, over the setting of odds advertised on our platforms.