Maple Leafs’ Ideal Defense Includes Splitting up Muzzin-Holl Pair

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t had the start to their season that they or their fans wanted. After a 2020-21 season that had so much promise ended in the most embarrassing possible way, the hope was that the Maple Leafs would come out guns blazing in 2021-22 to show they meant business after suffering their fifth straight first-round exit.

Evidently, it’s been the opposite so far, as the Maple Leafs have started their season with a record of 3-4-1. While this isn’t the worst record to have through eight games, they have looked horrible in their losses, and the lack of production from their highest-paid players has been the primary concern and the most glaring reason for the team’s rough start.

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On Wednesday, they snapped a four-game losing streak against the winless Chicago Blackhawks, with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares each tallying a point. While this is a step in the right direction, this still wasn’t the best game the Leafs have played and there’s still work to do.

Last week, I wrote a piece on why the Maple Leafs had to mix up their top six. They did so ahead of Monday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, and they looked better in those two games. But there are still some changes that should be made, and the biggest one, in my opinion, is shuffling the defensive pairings.

Maple Leafs’ Muzzin and Holl Must Be Split Up

I wrote a takeaways piece following last Saturday’s embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and one of my key takeaways was that the pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl needed to be tinkered with. And on Wednesday night, that was apparent once again. It’s weird writing this right now, seeing that for the better part of 2020-21, this pairing was often the Maple Leafs’ best.

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But as it stands right now, the two defensemen are hurting each other instead of complimenting each other. It became apparent at certain points in 2020-21 that Holl was a completely different defenseman and often struggled more when he wasn’t paired with Muzzin. This season, Muzzin has had his own struggles through the first eight games, which just makes it that much more detrimental to Holl’s game.

In the video above, Holl and Muzzin both let Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat sneak in behind them, leading to the 2-0 goal. Holl was caught at center ice when defenseman Seth Jones sprung DeBrincat with the lead pass, and Muzzin’s lack of footspeed burned him so that when DeBrincat received the pass, he was long gone. Perhaps the pairing is something the Maple Leafs could revisit in the future, but I think both players need a change of scenery for now.

Maple Leafs’ Dermott Deserves a Promotion

Travis Dermott found himself in a little bit of an awkward spot in training camp. The Maple Leafs are nearing a point where they have started giving 2017 first-round pick Timothy Liljegren some regular looks in the NHL, and at the time, Dermott’s job was the easiest one for him to take. So, head coach Sheldon Keefe had a conversation with him regarding his role.

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And so far, the Newmarket native has risen to the occasion. He hasn’t really had a bad game so far this season (he was spared a spot in the lineup for that loss against Pittsburgh), and he’s looked much more defensively sound this season. He left a bad taste in Maple Leafs fans’ mouths when he gave the puck away in Game 6 of the 2021 playoffs resulting in Montreal’s overtime goal, and so far, it looks like he’s taken that mistake to heart. Dermott has a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 58.4% through the first eight games of the season, which is second-best among Maple Leafs’ defensemen behind only Morgan Rielly (58.5%).

Travis Dermott Toronto Maple Leafs
Travis Dermott, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While he’s been quiet offensively, he’s taken on a role where he’s been doing all the little things right, which is what you want out of a defenseman. He made an incredible defensive play defending a 2-on-1 against Ottawa on Oct 16, laying down on the ice and swiping his stick behind him to block the pass. While that was only one play, it serves as a testament to how he’s played all year.

Maple Leafs Defensive Pairings Proposal

You probably noticed that I didn’t mention Rielly or Brodie in any of my proposed changes. That was intentional. I think, so far, Rielly has looked much better to start this season than he did in 2020-21 or 2019-20. He seems to be playing with a little bit more confidence, and despite the odd gaffe here and there, he’s looked much more comfortable. Both Rielly and Brodie are mobile, and the latter is the perfect compliment to cover the former defensively.

With the top pairing remaining intact, I’d like to see the Maple Leafs try Muzzin and Dermott together on the second pair. While Muzzin has struggled so far this season, his track record indicates that he’ll snap out of this funk sooner rather than later, so I don’t see any benefit in putting him on the bottom pairing, especially not with the money he’s making.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin Could Benefit From Playing Alongside Travis Dermott (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Meanwhile, putting Dermott on the second pairing gives the Maple Leafs a mobile option, which they don’t have when Holl is there. Dermott has experience playing on the right side despite being left-handed. His mobility should take some pressure off Muzzin and let him focus more on the defensive side of the game instead of making unnecessary moves with the puck.

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That leaves Holl and Rasmus Sandin as the bottom pair. And I think we can see a similar dynamic between these two as we’d see with Muzzin and Dermott. Sandin has looked very good this season and has more or less shown the Leafs that he’s not going to be going back to the American Hockey League (AHL) anytime soon. And I think, seeing Holl’s lack of speed in recent games, having somebody mobile like Sandin next to him could benefit both players.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Not only will these new pairings freshen up the back end, but it also opens the door for Liljegren to get some games every now and then in favor of Holl. While benching Holl, who’s making $2 million on the season, would be a rather tough look, I think he could use a game off here and there. And like I said, the Leafs can’t be wasting Liljegren on the bench all season.

No Harm in Maple Leafs Trying Something New

In the piece I wrote last week about altering the top six, the lines I suggested featured a top line of Auston Matthews centering Michael Bunting and William Nylander and a second line with John Tavares centering Mitch Marner and Alex Kerfoot. The Maple Leafs actually adopted these exact combinations and snapped their losing streak using them.

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If anything, this should show that as important as it is to let these players develop chemistry with each other, there’s no shame in tinkering with what you’ve got, especially this early on in the season. Will the Maple Leafs try something new on the back end? I don’t know. It took them a few extra games after my last piece before they changed anything. But I think the defense could use some tweaks here and there. And seeing that the season hasn’t gone exactly as planned so far, there’s certainly a little extra justification for it now.

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