The Toronto Maple Leafs delivered perhaps their best performance of the season on Tuesday afternoon with a dominating 3-0 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Any reason to celebrate, though, was overshadowed by an apparent neck injury to defenceman Jake Muzzin, who was stretchered off the ice late in the third period.
News broke Wednesday afternoon that Muzzin was released from hospital, though he will miss the remainder of the qualifier series against the Blue Jackets.
On the bright side, it appears that the Woodstock, Ontario native avoided serious injury in what was a very scary moment for everyone involved. On the other hand, an already porous Maple Leafs defence will now have to cope without their top defender. How will Toronto patch up their blue line?
Marincin or Sandin?
First and foremost, head coach Sheldon Keefe will have to decide on who draws in as the team’s sixth defenceman, with his choices presumably coming down to stay-at-home defender Martin Marincin and 20-year-old rookie Rasmus Sandin.
We know that Keefe won’t shy away from dressing his youngsters, given that 18-year-old winger Nick Robertson has featured in the first two games of the series. But at the same time, there is something to be said for stability, consistency, and knowing what you’re getting from a player – especially on the back end – which is where Marincin may have the upper hand.
With all the injuries to the Maple Leafs’ blue line down the stretch, the smooth-skating Sandin did slide in as a regular from January onward, playing in 22 of the team’s final 24 games before the shutdown. However, the rookie defenceman never earned the complete trust of coach Keefe, playing less than 15 minutes a night. Even in those heavily sheltered minutes, Sandin never really hit his stride, putting up one goal, five assists, and mediocre underlying numbers.
On top of Sandin’s late-season struggles, the Maple Leafs are also looking for someone to pick up the slack on the penalty kill in Muzzin’s absence. Sandin doesn’t really kill penalties (at least not yet at the NHL level), while that’s basically Marincin’s specialty. Ultimately, this will be the main reason that the 6-foot-5 defender draws into the lineup for Game 3 on Thursday night.
Personally, I would love to see Sandin get some ice time in this series, both for his development and because his style of play fits perfectly with the Maple Leafs’ winning strategy from Game 2. We saw Toronto overwhelm Columbus with their skating and quick, smart passing – two things that the Swede excels at. Meanwhile, Marincin isn’t necessarily a great skater or puck-mover, so his insertion into the lineup may give the Blue Jackets an easy target on the forecheck.
Toronto could get creative and go with an 11-forward, seven-defenceman approach to allow both Marincin and Sandin to draw in and split bottom-pairing duties. The only downside of such a move would likely be removing Kyle Clifford from the lineup, which seems hard to justify after his impact on Game 2.
Who Will Pick Up Muzzin’s Minutes?
Averaging over 23 minutes of ice time through the first two games of the series, it’s clear that Morgan Rielly has been Toronto’s No. 1 defenceman thus far, especially on the offensive side of things. But even with all that ice time, Rielly and his partner Cody Ceci didn’t necessarily draw many matchups against Columbus’ top line of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Alexandre Texier. That shutdown role was left to Muzzin and Justin Holl, who played more five-on-five minutes together this season than any other pairing for Toronto. And that chemistry and responsibility won’t be easy to replace.
So we’re left with two questions – how much more ice time can Rielly eat up, and who will pick up shutdown duty?
Regarding Rielly’s minutes, I think the answer is pretty straightforward: this is the playoffs and anything goes. For the first time since maybe October, the Maple Leafs’ stud defenceman is fully healthy and skating more like his usual self. Already averaging over 23 minutes a night, don’t be surprised to see Rielly’s ice time up around 26 or 27 minutes throughout the rest of the series. After all, it’s only two or three more games and a healthy Rielly should be more than capable of carrying the load.
Perhaps the more interesting question is how the Maple Leafs will replace Muzzin’s shutdown minutes directly, and that answer is up for debate. TSN beat reporter Kristen Shilton puts forth a potentially controversial idea:
I’m not sure I see the fit myself. Stylistically the fit is a big questionable as neither Marincin nor Holl are high-end puck movers. Holl is certainly comfortable with the puck on his stick, but he’s not really expected to break pucks out as often as Rielly, Tyson Barrie, or even Travis Dermott. Marincin, as we know, is more of a defensive specialist as well, which leads me to believe that this pairing would struggle against a heavy Columbus forecheck. Given what we saw in Game 2 from Toronto, the key to beating that Blue Jackets’ attack is quick, precise puck movement, so I think they’ll be better served to have at least one puck mover on each pairing.
If we’re adopting the philosophy of one puck-mover per pairing, and assuming that Rielly will pick up even more minutes, we may see something like this:
Rielly – Holl
Dermott – Ceci
Marincin – Barrie
Alternatively, Keefe may want to keep the Rielly-Ceci pairing intact for chemistry purposes (although I’m not sure the pairing actually works that well), which would likely create a relatively sturdy duo of Dermott-Holl instead.
Regardless of what the Maple Leafs choose to do with their defence, one thing is abundantly clear: everyone will have to pick up some of the slack to make up for the absence of Muzzin’s leadership and on-ice presence.
How this patchwork Maple Leafs blue line responds could very well determine their fate in the series.
Stats from http://naturalstattrick.com/
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.