Sheldon Keefe hopes success shows in the battling defensive pairings

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Mark Giordano estimates the number of defensive partners in his 19-year career “somewhere in the 20s… no, it’s probably a lot higher. “You’d have to go through all the (1,100+) games I’ve played.”

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The bottom line is that he understands that 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, aren’t all due to mismatched defensive pairings, but Wednesday saw new combinations led by Keefe ahead of a five-game trip.

The new twists the team tried toward the end of the 4-1 loss to Chicago — new signing John Klingberg swapped with Giordano and his usual partner, Timothy Liljegren, swapped with Jake McCabe — remained in practice, as did the venerable duet between Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie.

“You try to find the right mix and give the pairings time to breathe,” argued Keefe. “But you also have to perform well and get good results. That is the balance.

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“Rielly-Brodie was consistent, the one who played the most. Gio-Lilly comfort each other together. The addition of Klingberg changes things for McCabe, who is also somewhat new here (late last year).

“We’re working on it and I think you’ll see (assistant coach) Mike Van Ryn put different people in different spots.”

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Free-agent signing Klingberg was a needed veteran after the loss of Luke Schenn and Justin Holl, but was used more as an offensive specialist, particularly as a tougher power-play point shooter. He made it very clear that rock-em and sock-em hockey wasn’t his calling card, but compatibility with the more physical McCabe still needed to be right, hence the changes.

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

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“You like to think you can play with anyone, but when you say it like that, there seems to be good chemistry between certain guys, for whatever reason.”

“Maybe more in the back than in the front. You get used to a man’s tendencies and the really good couples usually play together for more than a season.”

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

“Most of the time, D-couples are seen hanging out together,” Giordano added. “Brodes and I still stay away from the ice and have dinner where we talk about things. A little bit about hockey because certain things come out of a game, but also (family) stuff and stuff from around the league.

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“That’s important too.”

Giordano switches from one Swede to the other, Klingberg a few centimeters ahead of Liljegren.

“Klingberg is playing to its strengths and is running really well. For me, it’s the way he makes those little plays under pressure. They’re big during outbreaks. Sometimes they go unnoticed.”

Giordano is looking forward to the upcoming five-game trip from a total team bonding perspective.

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“We prepare our combos and have to get used to things and each other,” he said. “But it has to happen quickly because now every game in this league is important considering how good the teams around you are.”

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Already a fixture on the defensive roster, Conor Timmins’ unfortunate lower body injury kept him out of the picture during training camp as he led the NHL in preseason rushing.

Simon Benoit, the only additional player the Leafs have with their salary cap issues, could play on the trip after the Florida game to add some teeth.

“I need more practice time,” admitted former Anaheim Duck Benoit after spending the last few days out with assistant coaches like Mike Van Ryn. “As soon as I get the chance, I will do my best to make it count.

“Mike has a lot of experience, he knows how to be efficient out there and working on my little details, reliability, ball touches and improving some aspects of the game.”

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