Answering the Maple Leafs Big Questions on Defense

The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to be in scramble mode in regard to which defensemen to play where and with whom. Questions arose months ago about the Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin pairing, as both players struggled badly throughout the season. Holl has gone through two stretches where he was a healthy scratch, and Muzzin hasn’t seemed his usual self at all. 

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The left side seemed pretty solid, with Morgan Rielly, Muzzin, and Rasmus Sandin as their top three players on the depth chart. The right side, with T.J. Brodie, Holl, and Timothy Liljegren, didn’t seem as strong. Travis Dermott, a left-hander who has seen time on both sides the past two seasons, does not seem to have Sheldon Keefe’s confidence to be anything more than a number seven depth piece.   

Maple Leafs’ General Manager Kyle Dubas Made His First Trade Move

Kyle Dubas magically “pulled a bear out of his hat” (see link above) and not only shed the Maple Leafs of Nick Ritchie’s albatross of a contract but acquired right-handed Ilya Lyubushkin in the deal. Lyubushkin is a player who helps strengthen the right side. Furthermore, his numbers indicate that he could potentially fit into the Maple Leafs’ top four. At the very least he was a solid defensive upgrade on the bottom pair. 

Jake Muzzin’s injury threw a wrench in whatever the Maple Leafs’ plans were when he went down with his second concussion in a month and was placed on Long Term Injury Reserve. That left the Maple Leafs much weaker on the left side for at least a month, and possibly longer. 

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Muzzin’s injury has forced Keefe to put the pairings in a blender to see what their best combinations would be. He moved Brodie back to his natural left side and paired him with Holl. This move has seemed to have rejuvenated Holl’s game. In the three games since they were united Holl has five points and is plus-4. 

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Brodie himself has added a point and is also plus four. That pair has also drawn the toughest defensive matchups. They faced off against Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the Capitals game where they were a plus two combined, while Ovechkin and Kuznetsov were a combined minus eight. 

The Success of the Maple Leafs’ Pairings

Since the Maple Leafs acquired Lyubushkin, his primary partner has been Sandin. In their four games together, Sandin had two points and was plus-three while Lyubushkin added a point and was also plus three.  

While those two combinations seemed to work out well, it left Morgan Rielly with the option of playing alongside either Liljegren or Dermott. Rielly and Liljegren played alongside each other for two games; and, while it wasn’t a total failure, playing with a rookie seemed to limit Rielly’s effectiveness. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During the last game, Keefe decided to try moving Sandin to his wrong side and pairing him with Rielly. While the move seemed to work in the first period versus Buffalo, as Sandin scored a goal, it quickly went downhill from there. Sandin and Rielly were on for three of the Sabres’ five goals. When Keefe was asked post-game if he would use Rielly and Sandin together again, his reply was a straight forward “Probably not.”

What Are the Best Maple Leafs’ Defensive Options?

So where does that leave the Maple Leafs as far as options on defense? Earlier in the season Rielly and Brodie were playing great together. Rielly was having the best season he has had since his 72-point, 2018-19 season. Brodie was noticeable for breaking up numerous potential scoring plays by the opposition, something a defenseman doesn’t usually get noticed for.

On top of that, they were playing twenty-five-plus minutes a game, and that extra time didn’t seem to affect their effectiveness at all. One option would be to reunite those two players.  

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On the downside that would break up the Brodie-Holl pairing that has been so effective. Sandin and Holl have had some success together and could be an option, but that would leave two right-side players to fill the bottom pairing in Lyubushkin and Liljegren.  

Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
Rasmus Sandin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another option might be to try Lyubushkin alongside Rielly. Lyubushkin’s strong defensive game could offset Rielly’s offense-first mentality. That would leave the Brodie-Holl pairing together to play the tough defensive assignments, giving the Rielly-Lyubushkin easier opposition.

Sandin and Liljegren would comprise the third pair. The two have had a lot of success, and chemistry, playing together for the Marlies in the AHL. They’ve also continued their strong play together when paired in the NHL. 

Tonight’s Maple Leafs Defensive Pairings

At Friday’s practice, Sandin was absent due to the non-covid related illness that has been going through the Maple Leafs’ locker room. As a result, Keefe had Liljegren back playing alongside Rielly, Brodie remained with Holl, and Lyubushkin and Dermott were the third pairing. Keefe stated after practice that Sandin will be a game-time decision for tonight.  

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Interesting that coach Keefe had Liljegren and Rielly together. He’s been trying partners for Rielly for a while now. Also interesting that Lyubushkin has been moved down to the team’s third-pairing. The game tonight could be a revelation. There are still moves to be made.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]