How Will the Maple Leafs Survive Morgan Rielly’s Injury?

Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the New York Islanders in overtime by a score of 3-2. Although the Maple Leafs dominated the game, they made a couple of costly mistakes that gave the Islanders too many second chances to win. Credit the Islanders with grinding out a victory.

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For Toronto, John Tavares and Auston Matthews scored and Mitch Marner’s assist extended his 13-game point-scoring streak. Erik Kallgren played well, until he made an errant pass, and made 21 saves for his team. The biggest issue was that the team made mistake after mistake in overtime, and the result was predictable – another overtime loss. 

It was the team’s fifth overtime loss of the season. Given their firepower, that’s an odd statistic.

The Maple Leafs Deserved Better, But …

After the game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe shared “We played a good hockey game. We deserved better.” 

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He’s probably right. This was one of those games when the team deserved a better fate than to be at the wrong end of a 3-2 score. Over the course of the game, they dominated. According to the website, the Maple Leafs limited the Islanders to only five High-Danger Chances at five-on-five. 

Their mistakes did them in.

The Bigger Problem Right Now Is Morgan Rielly’s Injury 

The problem the team now faces is that their number one defenseman Morgan Rielly was injured in an awkward collision with Islanders’ forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period. Not only didn’t Rielly now return, but we found out this morning that he won’t be returning for a while.

After the game, Keefe reported that Reilly would have imaging done today to determine the extent of his injury. When Keefe was asked about the potential of losing Rielly, he noted ”It’s tough. We’re already missing guys and Morgan is so important to our team.”

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Morgan Rielly, Better than Fans Think

This morning that potential became a reality. After imaging, Rielly was placed on LTIR (Long-Term Injured Reserve). Now the Maple Leafs have a problem. The blue line has already been hit by a number of injuries, and there are likely few options to cover these. 

Jake Muzzin is out indefinitely. TJ Brodie’s oblique injury is not responding well to treatment and his rehab is taking longer than expected. Now Rielly’s knee injury puts him out for at least 10 games and 24 days. 

Maple Leafs Internal Moves to Cover Rielly’s Injury

For the short term, the Maple Leafs have promoted a couple of defensemen from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies soon. Coming from the Marlies are Victor Mete and Mac Hollowell. Filip Kral might not be far behind.

Filip Kral Toronto Marlies
Filip Kral, Toronto Marlies (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Mete has NHL experience. Hollowell was yo-yo-ing between the NHL and the AHL all last weekend. He has yet to make his NHL debut, but could. Kral played two games with the big club earlier this season.

Right now, the team’s defence is likely made up of Mark Giordano and Justin Holl as the team’s first pairing. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will likely jump up to become the second pairing. Finally, my call is that Victor Mete and Jordie Benn would become the third pairing. 

Now What for the Maple Leafs?

What do the Maple Leafs do at this juncture? In the coming days, it would seem that the trade rumours will heat up. Does the news about Rielly put a rush on things? Who out there could fill the bill?

Related: Morgan Rielly is the Maple Leafs’ Undisputed Best Defenseman

There have been rumours that the Maple Leafs have already been seeking options since Muzzin went down. Do they speed up that process or try to ride out the bumpy road that will come from the Rielly injury?

Although the team won’t be able to count on Muzzin or Rielly over the foreseeable future, the good news is that Brodie’s injury won’t keep him out for the long term. Does the team panic and make a trade out of weakness, or do they cover from within? I think they will choose the second option.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Still, the search continues. Elliotte Friedman in his 32 Thoughts reported, “All I’ve heard from the Ducks is Toronto having some interest in Frank Vatrano, which I think makes a lot of sense, left-hand shot, a guy can score, but someone said to me they can’t even do at 50%, it’s 1.8M, it’s not something they think they can fix.”

Friedman also noted that the Arizona Coyotes Connor Timmins might be a trade target because he played with Sandin when they were both with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds.

Will the Maple Leafs Make a Trade?

I don’t think the Maple Leafs will make a trade now. Rielly’s LTIR forces him to miss 10 games and 24 days, and the team can cover that with the players they have. As I noted, both Hollowell and Kral are in-house Marlies’ options.

The team also might seek out Danny DeKeyser, who’s a 32-year-old free agent defenceman who played 10 seasons and 547 games with the Detroit Red Wings. DeKeyser was on a PTO both with the Vancouver Canucks and with the Marlies. He could fill the void over the short term until Rielly is back.

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This is not a time for panic. Instead, the Rielly situation becomes an opportunity for the team to step up internally to cover for these injuries. If they can, and I think that’s possible, it might be a galvanizing opportunity for this team to come together toward a push forward.

For a recent example of how a team can have a tough season yet come out on top, all the Maple Leafs have to do is look to the city’s Toronto Argonauts who won the Grey Cup last weekend. The Argos’ season was far from smooth but they overcame adversity to prevail against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. 

The Maple Leafs’ defence is down to its bare bones with the Rielly injury, and the situation is difficult. However, this is not the end of the world for this team.