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Mix ‘N Match D: Which pairings make sense?

YOU GET A NEW PARTNER. YOU GET A NEW PARTNER. EVERYONE IS GETTING A NEW PARTNER!!!

Exciting times on the Leafs blue line. Gone are Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Igor Ozhiganov, Jake Gardiner, and much less ceremoniously Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen. There are a lot of new faces too. Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jordan Schmaltz, Kevin Gravel, and (sigh) Ben Harpur. Perhaps the most amazing part of all of this that Martin Marincin and Justin Holl are still here, and could legitimately be the third pairing until Travis Dermott returns.

It’s wild times, and it’s time to play defensive pairing mix and match…

So let’s start with what’s likely to happen and what’s been speculated all along…

Yep. Things don’t look any brighter for ol’ Morgan Rielly, who is still drawing in with an unfortunate pairing, while Jake Muzzin continues to hit the jackpot when it comes to his assignments. A big chunk of that reasoning comes from Jake Muzzin being an incredibly responsible defensive zone defender who can take on more offensively gifted partners, but we’ll save that discussion for now. Perhaps there is some hope that whatever it is that Jake Muzzin does, Cody Ceci will learn it, but right now all we have on Ceci is hope that he’s better than his time in Ottawa, rather than acknowledge that playing Cody Ceci so much was probably part of the problem in Ottawa.

If those first two pairings are to be taken as fact, and they probably are to start training camp, the season, and dear God, Babcock doesn’t mix up his pairings unless there is an injury and we’re stuck with his summer idea all season aren’t we? Crap. Anyway, I think my point was, we still need to figure out what the third pairing will look like, especially in the absence of Travis Dermott to start the year.

Jordan Schmaltz (who I will frequently refer to as Jaden Schwartz or Justin Schultz for the first month of the season) seems likely as the third pairing right side defender. I base this largely off of his newness, the Leafs disinterest in playing Justin Holl, and the fact that unless anything dramatically changed over the summer Timothy Liljegren is likely to at least start the year as a Marlie, even if I firmly believe that calling him up at some point is in the cards.

Choosing between Marincin, Gravel, and Harpur on the left side reminds us how important a healthy Travis Dermott is, and also makes a strong case for at least trying Rasmus Sandin in the role to start the year, but all things considered, I have to disregard what my eyes tell me about Marincin and give in to the numbers that say he’s the right choice. This is an easier decision since the eye test isn’t particularly kind to Gravel or Harpur either.

For argument’s sake, I’d keep Gravel around as the extra defenseman just because waiving Holl to spare him the press box seems like the humane thing to do at this point. He deserves a chance to play hockey somewhere this year.

Now that we have looked at what is likely to happen, let’s get a bit more weird with it because I’m pretty sure that not everyone likes the idea of top pairing Cody Ceci. Of course what I might suggest might not be all that favourable either, but screw it, you can write your own damn blog if about training defensive pairings you’d like to see. I’d probably read it.

BOOM! That’s a bit more interesting for you. Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might be a bit of offensive overload, but then again, so are the Leafs. It’s the kind of pairing that makes coaches pay attention to line matching and zone starts, but there is a little doubt about the talent of that group.

Jake Muzzin gets to spend the last year of his contract gently easing Timothy Liljegren into the NHL. This might seem less than ideal, but I bet it helps make Muzzin more affordable next season, sets Liljegren up for success, and is frankly good enough to not hold the Leafs back during the regular season.

Finally, Cody Ceci gets moved into a pairing more suited for who he should be playing against, and gives us a chance to see the limits of Martin Marincin’s statistical success while trying to carry Ceci. Looking at this group you have to expect they will see icetime together on the penalty kill, and with Babcock probably also be trotted out there to protect a lead, so why not just have them play together all the time so we know when to be disappointed. It also seems like a smooth transition for bringing Travis Dermott back into the fold, as pairing him with Ceci on the third group seems somewhat okayish.

If I was truly being bold, I would have added Rasmus Sandin to that group, but in my heart of hearts, I know I need to be patient on him even if I’m not being patient on Liljegren.

Schmaltz rounds out my group as the press box guy, but with Marincin, Ceci, and Liljegren as part of the starting group, it seems reasonable to expect the Leafs will use their seventh defensemen a bit more this year.

Thinking ahead

The thing about the Leafs defense is that of the group they currently have only Morgan Rielly is the only veteran slated to return. A return will be likely for Travis Dermott, since he’s a restricted free agent, and very possible for Jordan Schmaltz for the same reason, but not for Ben Harpur because of Ben Harpur reasons. Both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will probably need to be NHL regulars next year for the Leafs defense to work, so perhaps there’s a benefit to keeping guys who are going to be together next year playing with each other. Perhaps it’s better to see if Schmaltz can work with Rielly or Dermott, once he returns. It probably makes sense to keep Sandin and Liljegren playing together on the Marlies so they can be the lovable, affordable, bottom pairing we need them to be in 2020-21 (assuming no lockout.)

If you really want to join me in galaxy brain land we can talk about the benefits of exploring a Rielly/Dermott pairing this year, but somehow I think it’s too early to dump that on you. Gotta save some content for November.