News broke early on Nov. 14 that the Toronto Maple Leafs would be without the services of defenceman Jake Muzzin for the foreseeable future. While he continues to deal with a cervical spine injury, the Maple Leafs announced that the soonest he would be re-evaluated would be in late February.
In the meantime, the Maple Leafs also announced that defensive specialist TJ Brodie would also be out for a two-week period dealing with an oblique injury — similar to the one that John Tavares suffered during preseason play.
While the news seems grim for the Maple Leafs, there is a silver lining to this news as the Maple Leafs blue line was somewhat overcrowded following the returns of Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn from their respective injuries. Some might argue that it forces the Maple Leafs to continue to play Justin Holl with every growing mediocre performance, but it’s also a chance for them to see just what they have within the organization.
Maple Leafs’ Muzzin’s Return Questionable
As of now, it’s being reported that Muzzin is out indefinitely. While we don’t want to speculate on the future of the Maple Leafs defenceman, he’s dealt with head injuries over his career and after reporting that he had some back issues since he was young, this injury certainly is concerning for the player, his family and the organization.
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While there’s no concrete news regarding Muzzin’s immediate future, Mitch Marner did have this to say about his teammate’s news, according to Terry Koshan, “When you get news like that, it’s pretty emotional. It was just him and me in the room when he told me, and it’s a sad thing. Like I’ve said before, there are a lot bigger things here than hockey and playing this game, and that’s your family.”
Certainly Muzzin’s return to the game would be ideal for the Maple Leafs, but at this time continuing his playing career seems to be up in the air with his health being the priority.
Muzzin’s Absence Opens Door For Organizational Replacement
As mentioned, there is a silver lining to the situation. While it’s not ideal to lose a player of Muzzin’s stature, the Maple Leafs still have games to play and need players to fill in that big gap on their blue line.
The trade market seems to be the go-to for most discussing the recent news surrounding the Maple Leafs and while the team does have options when it comes to moveable assets, the Maple Leafs would first like to look within the organization to fill the void — and rightfully so.
With Muzzin — and for the time being Brodie — out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs have an opportunity to see what they have organizationally. That experiment, let’s call it, starts with Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. Some would argue it further extends to Holl and what he can provide for the team in this somewhat dire time.
But let’s first start with the two Swedes. Their development paths have been slightly different with Liljegren spending some more time in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, but as we’ve seen over the past couple of season they could both have roles in the future of this organization.
On a fully stocked back end and coming back from his injury, Liljegren has started the year playing just five games for the Maple Leafs thus far. Still the 23-year-old tallied his first career two-goal game earlier in November and still called it his worst game because of a miscue inside his own blue line earlier in the game.
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Still, Liljegren has shown promise playing alongside Mark Giordano to close out last season and in the early parts of this season regardless of who his pairing is. That said, the pairing of Liljegren and Morgan Rielly has been impressive in their small sample size this season. In nearly 63 minutes together this season, the two are tied for tops in the league in all situations for expected goals against (xGA) at just 1.89.
When it comes to the Maple Leafs and players with 80 or more minutes played in all situations, Liljegren is tops in xGA at 3.79 and seventh on the team in high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) at 60 percent.
There has been a lot of conversation on whether or not Liljegren should get some opportunities on the top pairing and on the power play — a conversation that will surely continue to heat up as he shows more prowess at the NHL level.
As for Sandin, he is one of three Maple Leafs defensemen to play in all 16 games for the Maple Leafs this season. With that, Sandin has the eighth best Corsi For Percentage (CF%) on the team at 55.20, the seventh best goals for percentage (GF%) on the team at 58.52 which is the best amongst the team’s blueliners. He’s also sixth on the team when it comes to scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) at 59.47, another spot he leads all defensemen on the team.
While their overall point totals haven’t exactly dictated success, the Maple Leafs as a whole have been off to a slower start offensively with only three defensemen getting in on the goal scoring to start the year.
Still, the loss of a player like Muzzin opens the door for the Maple Leafs to really look within their organization to find his replacement and for now, it offers a great opportunity for these two young players to play big minutes and develop while at the NHL level.
Benn, Mete Among Candidates for Ice Time
The Maple Leafs also have two veteran options to fill the hole left by Muzzin — both of whom were acquired during the offseason for instances like this. Both Benn and Mete have been given opportunities to start the year, and while Benn scored the game-winner in his Maple Leafs debut, Mete has shown glimpses of stability in his five games for the club this season.
Related: Maple Leafs’ 3 Trade Targets to Replace Jake Muzzin
As for what they bring to the Maple Leafs lineup, Mete is more of the puck-moving option that gives the team an option for breakout plays in their own end. Even for his size, he plays a slightly hard-nosed game in the corners and isn’t afraid to engage in the defensive zone to retrieve pucks.
That said, Benn might be the option that this team continues to look at. While his debut with the team might suggest differently, he’s not an offensive option and instead plays a similar game to that of Muzzin — physical, difficult to play against and more of a stay-at-home type of defenceman.
Benn played 17 minutes in his debut with four hits and three shots. It’s certainly not enough to go on, but if he can play a tough, shot-blocking game for the Maple Leafs, he could fill in nicely without forcing the Maple Leafs to go out and make a major play on the trade market.
Understandably, none of these options satisfy the Jacob Chychrun desire that exists within much of the fanbase, but it does give the Maple Leafs a chance to evaluate what they have. After all, draft and development has been a major issue for this team over the years especially on the back end and in net. This provides them with a much-needed opportunity to see where they stand on that front.
Even if the organization explores what they have within to start, the trade market isn’t going away and they could go that route if it doesn’t work out with the four options currently have. But don’t fret if they Maple Leafs don’t jump to trading for Muzzin’s replacement right away – especially with their cap constraints and Muzzin’s future still up in the air.
Advanced stats retrieved from Natural Stat Trick.