In scrambling Maple Leafs defence pairs, coach Sheldon Keefe hopes success shakes out

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Mark Giordano puts the number of defence partners in his 19-year career “somewhere in the 20s … no, it’s probably way higher. You’d have to go through every (1,100-plus) games I’ve played.”

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Bottom line, he understands Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe could never expect to use the same six blueliners with the same partners in all 82 games.

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Three games into the new season, with 13 goals against Toronto, is not all down to mismatched defence pairs, but there were new Keefe-directed combos on Wednesday, prior to a five-game trip.

The new twists the staff tried late in the 4-1 loss to Chicago — newcomer John Klingberg with Giordano and the latter’s usual partner, Timothy Liljegren, moved over with Jake McCabe — stayed put at practice, beside the venerable Morgan Rielly-T.J. Brodie duet.

“You’re trying to find the right mix, trying to give (pairings) time to breathe,” Keefe reasoned. “But you also need to perform well and get good results. That’s the balance.

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“Rielly-Brodie has been consistent, the one that’s played the most. Gio-Lilly have comfort together. Klingberg coming into the mix changes things up for McCabe, who is somewhat new here as well (late last year).

“We’re working through that and I think you’ll see (assistant coach) Mike Van Ryn use different guys in different spots.”

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Free-agent signing Klingberg was a needed veteran addition in the wake of losing Luke Schenn and Justin Holl, but was brought in more as an offensive specialist, specifically a harder power-play point shot. He has been very clear that rock-em, sock-em hockey is not his calling card, but compatibility had yet to click with the more physical McCabe, thus the changes.

“Different guys have different strengths and there are differences when you play with a left-handed or right-handed guy in the way you pass,” the southpaw-shooting Giordano said. “Otherwise, a lot of it is communication.

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“You like to think you can play with anyone but, in saying that, certain guys for whatever reason, seem to have good chemistry together.

“Maybe more so on the back end rather than forwards. You get used to a guy’s tendencies and the really good pairs play usually are together more than a season.”

Giordano was with Brodie in Calgary for many years and though Keefe had that as a plan after Leafs acquired Giordano at the 2022 trade deadline, Brodie already was hitting it off with Rielly.

“Most of the time you will see D pairs hanging out together a lot,” Giordano added. “Brodes and I are still tight off the ice, have dinners where you talk about stuff. About hockey a bit because certain things from a game will come out, but also (family) stuff and stuff from around the league.

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“That’s important, too.”

Giordano moves from one Swede to another, Klingberg with a couple of inches on Liljegren.

“Klingberg plays to his strengths, skates really well. For me, it’s how he makes those little plays under pressure. Those are big on breakouts. Sometimes they go unnoticed.”

Giordano looks forward to the coming five-game trip from a total team-bonding perspective.

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“We’re getting our combos set and have to get used to things and each other,” he said. “But it has to happen quick, because every game in this league is important now with how good teams are around you.”

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Already thing on the depth chart on defence, the unfortunate lower-body injury to Conor Timmins took him out the picture during training camp when he was leading the NHL in pre-season scoring.

Simon Benoit, the only extra player the Leafs are carrying with their salary-cap woes, could play on the trip after the Florida game to add some bite.

“I need more practice time,” former Anaheim Duck Benoit admitted after staying out with assistant coaches such as Mike Van Ryn the past few days. “Once I get the chance, I’ll do my best to make it count.

“Mike has a lot of experience, he knows how to be efficient out there and is working on my little details, being reliable, touches with the puck and improving a couple of aspects of the game.”

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