The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t really make a big splash in free agency before the season started, but it’s not hard to see who their most valuable signing of the offseason was. After swinging a trade with the Seattle Kraken in March 2022 for defenseman Mark Giordano and forward Colin Blackwell, the team managed to bring back the former on a ridiculously cheap two-year deal worth $800,000 annually. Considering his namesake in the league and the minutes he still plays at his age, it’s safe to say that this is about as heavy a discount as you can get for someone like Giordano.
So, that was the team’s most valuable off-season addition. Now, let’s take a look at their most valuable in-season addition so far. Six weeks ago, the Maple Leafs acquired 24-year-old defenseman Conor Timmins from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for American Hockey League (AHL) forward Curtis Douglas. To say they’ve gotten their money’s worth so far is an understatement. In 12 games with the team so far, the former Soo Greyhound has ten points, including his first NHL goal which came Sunday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Timmins’ play so far is creating a great problem for the Maple Leafs. They already have six capable NHL defensemen, and with his injury history and lack of experience in the league, you would think that the St. Catharines native would be an easy candidate to sit. But, with his production so far, it’s nearing the point where the team may be hurting themselves by keeping him out of the lineup. Considering the overbearing workload Giordano has had to deal with so far this season, the answer could be sitting right in front of them.
Mark Giordano – The Workhorse of the Back End
I’m sure that before the season started, the Maple Leafs didn’t envision using Giordano as much as they have. With a 1-2-3 of Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, and Jake Muzzin, the presence of Justin Holl (who they tend to use in heavy minutes), and Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren looking to take a step forward, there really didn’t seem to be a need to rely on him for top minutes.
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Of course, fate would have it play out otherwise. They were already set to start the season without Liljegren, who was recovering from a hernia, and then the injuries started piling up. First, it was Muzzin, who suffered a neck injury in the fourth game of the season and hasn’t played since. Then it was Brodie, then it was Jordie Benn, who was filling in for injured players himself, then it was Rielly. All of a sudden, the Maple Leafs had a depleted defensive corps with almost all of their veterans out, and just like that, Giordano’s role became that much more important.
If you look at Giordano’s game log, you can pinpoint when his role increased. Up until the day Brodie got hurt, which was Nov. 11 against Pittsburgh, he was generally playing between 17 and 20 minutes a night. Over the next 12 games, his average time-on-ice (TOI) kicked up to 22:28, with his season high of 25:08 coming on Dec. 3 against Tampa Bay. Brodie returned five days later, on Dec. 8 against the Los Angeles Kings, and from there his ice time dipped back down to normal.
At 39 years old, I’m confident in saying that the Maple Leafs weren’t signing him to play upwards of 20 minutes every single night, but when push came to shove and the team needed somebody to step up and take a big chunk of the workload, their most experienced veteran stepped up and did the job. While it’s great to know that Giordano still has it, they also need to make sure they’re keeping his legs fresh for the playoffs. This is where Timmins comes in.
Maple Leafs Can Benefit From Increased Minutes for Timmins
I know that 12 games isn’t a big enough sample size to judge it by, but when your rookie defenseman is producing at a near point-per-game pace and providing solid defense along the way, it all of a sudden becomes far harder to justify scratching him. But who are you going to scratch for him? You’re not benching Rielly or Brodie with the money they’re making. Sandin and Liljegren have both taken a step forward and are beyond the point of riding the bench due to inexperience in my opinion, and even Holl, who’s been a scapegoat for the defensive corps all season, has stepped up massively in the absence of injured players.
That’s where I land on Giordano. And before I get into this, understand that I’m not calling to bench him night in and night out or turn him into a seventh defenseman. He still has a big role on this team to play and they are better with him in the lineup. But, if you’ve watched the games recently, you can see that there have been some signs of burnout. He was on the ice for three of the five goals the Kraken scored in Thursday night’s 5-1 rout over the Maple Leafs, and his legs haven’t looked quite as vibrant as they were in the first few months.
If Timmins keeps this play up for the rest of the season, I’d imagine the Maple Leafs would want to re-sign him, which shouldn’t be difficult considering his lack of experience in the NHL. Assuming this happens, it’s easy to foresee him taking a larger role with the team in place of Holl, whose contract expires at the end of the season. If this is the plan for him, then there’s nothing wrong with him sitting a game here and there, or even playing every other game assuming there are plans to get him into the lineup full-time. And, at this point in time, giving Giordano some extra time off can only help his case for the playoffs.
Maple Leafs Need to Keep Defensive Corps Healthy
The Maple Leafs made the best of their situation early this season, and then some. In the time without all of Rielly, Brodie, and Muzzin, they went 6-0-1 and only allowed 12 goals over that span. It’s worth noting that they were also without Jordie Benn for six of those seven games. But, as impressive as it was that they were able to not only hold their own but excel as well, they can’t expect that it will be like that every time they have a depleted back end. And any time you have an opportunity to keep your veterans fresh and play your thriving young players, you should take it.
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For what it’s worth, I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with throwing Holl into that mix every now and then. You can also expect that other players will get banged up here and there again too. Not to the extent that they’d have to miss time, but enough where they could use a game off, like Brodie did on Sunday against Philadelphia. The bottom line is, they should be utilizing their entire defensive corps instead of trying to keep a firm six, and the greater odds of a healthy back end are just icing on the cake.