Maple Leafs News & Rumors: A Youthful Defense & Thornton in Toronto?

It’s really quite simple. The Toronto Maple Leafs won’t catch either the Boston Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top two spots in the Atlantic Division. And, given the number of points teams in the Metropolitan Division have racked up, both wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference will come from that division. That means either the Florida Panthers or the Toronto Maple Leafs will end up in third place in the Atlantic Division. And that one team will get into the playoffs – the other one won’t.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Marner, Korshkov, Hyman, Spezza & Muzzin

The Feb. 27 game in Florida is a showdown. Coming into the game, the Maple Leafs have played 64 games and have 74 points. In comparison, the Panthers have played 63 games and have 72 points. That’s about as close as it can get.

The teams have played twice this season and the Panthers won both. Can this third meeting be different? Already, the Maple Leafs have done something good on this road trip by beating the Lightning on their home ice 4-3 two nights ago. However, that victory came at a cost as stalwart defenseman Jake Muzzin took a puck off the hand and suffered a fracture. The defensive corps is hurting.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said it straight: “The circumstances are obvious. Not much more needs to be said. It’s a big game.”

As both teams get ready to do battle, in this post I want to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date on news and rumors emerging from the team.

Item One: Jake Muzzin Is Out 4 Weeks

Speaking of Muzzin, early on Wednesday morning his hand was X-rayed and the news wasn’t good. It showed positive for a fracture and he’ll face four weeks off the ice to heal and rehab that broken hand.

Related: Florida Panthers Have Plenty to Be Thankful For

Muzzin’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the team as it attempts to push towards the playoffs. It also means that the Maple Leafs are now playing without their top-two defensemen in Muzzin and Morgan Rielly (who’s out with a broken foot). Martin Marincin and returning Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies player Calle Rosen (who was just brought back from the Colorado Avalanche in a trade for Michael Hutchinson) will fight for ice time until Rielly or Muzzin return.

Item Two: Can Calle Rosen Break into the Maple Leafs Lineup?

You have to think the Maple Leafs are playing too many young defensemen before they hoped to. With all the injuries, the team’s defense is led by Tyson Barrie (who’s played 548 NHL regular-season games), Martin Marincin (who’s played 222 games), Travis Dermott (with 151 games), and Justin Holl (with 75 games). They now have two rookies in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, and a 16-game veteran in Calle Rosen. It’s a pretty inexperienced defense.

Toronto Maple Leafs Nikita Zaitsev Calle Rosen
Former Toronto Maple Leafs defencemen Nikita Zaitsev and Calle Rosen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

But that doesn’t seem to bother head coach Sheldon Keefe, who knows these young defensemen well from his days coaching the Marlies. Keefe’s attitude about the defensive crisis seems to be, “What crisis?”  – at least publically. And, on Tuesday night against the Lightning, the team’s defense held in there. In the third period, Sandin and Liljegren played quite well. Holl and Dermott became the shutdown pairing until the win over the Lightning was a done deal.

Rosen was called up from the Marlies, which seemed almost perfect for Keefe who noted: “There’s a lot of familiar faces for me. Bringing Rosen back is pretty close to the Calder-champion defense. That’s the good thing, my comfort level in these guys, my confidence.”

Related: One for the Ages: Steve Thomas’ 2002-03 NHL Season

Keefe also added that, if Rosen hadn’t been included in the trade to the Avalanche with Nazem Kadri, “he’d have had a really good chance to play in the NHL this season (with the Leafs). We added him for depth and now you’re going to need him. Now other guys have taken on big minutes, big responsibilities and they’re ready for more.” (from “No choice for Leafs but to go green on the blue line,” Lance Hornby, London Free Press, 02/26/20)

Item Three: Tyson Barrie Had 2 Assists in Lightning Victory

Against the Lightning, Tyson Barrie scored two assists. He’s now the senior member of the team’s defense. The 28-year-old Barrie had played four straight games without a point in mid-February but now has totaled four assists in his last two games.

Tyson Barrie Toronto Maple Leafs
Tyson Barrie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Although fans (myself included) typically envision Barrie shooting from the point, he’s always been an assist guy. He’s already recorded 30 assists this season (the sixth season in a row he’s hit that mark) and he only needs eight more over the last 18 games to make 40 assists for his third straight season. He currently has five goals and 32 assists on the season.

Item Four: Joe Thornton to the Maple Leafs Next Season?

In his 31 Thoughts post on Feb. 26, Elliotte Friedman spent a lot of time writing about Joe Thornton. One thing he believed was that Thornton really wanted to move to a Stanley Cup contender at the trade deadline. Friedman added that, if Thornton didn’t believe the Sharks would contend in 2020-21, he would move to a team that would contend. Friedman specifically noted the Maple Leafs.

Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In fact, Thornton told reporters, “It would have been nice to at least have a chance.” He specifically reported that he’d been in the hunt for a Stanley Cup for 22 seasons and wanted another chance. There were reports that, unlike his teammate Patrick Marleau who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, few contending teams called about Thornton. One team that was rumored to have called was the Maple Leafs.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Defense Troubles Signal Alarm Bells

Friedman believed the Maple Leafs considered adding Thornton at the deadline. However, after the team’s devastating loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, general manager Kyle Dubas didn’t see a short-term fix as an answer. Instead, he threw the onus back on the team to dig itself out of the hole they dug themselves into.  

What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?

It’s pretty clear what the Maple Leafs have to do. That starts by beating the Panthers on Thursday night in Florida. Stringing two solid games together hasn’t happened recently with this team, but they’re capable.

Related: Remembering Borje Salming: “King” of Maple Leafs’ Defensemen

We’ll soon see if Dubas’ wager that the team can emerge from the doldrums makes sense. If not, it’ll be a long offseason for Maple Leafs players and fans.

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