It doesn’t seem like a stretch to call Jake Muzzin the Leafs best defenseman so far this year. If you are not willing to grant me that, would you at least agree that the bulk of the defensive heavy lifting falls on his shoulders?
Of the Leafs every game defensemen he has the lowest number of shot attempts against per 60, and in fact, only Rasmus Sandin and Kevin Gravel had less while playing against noticeably different competition in a limited capacity. Other than Cody Ceci, no other defenseman has seen as much penalty kill time, and is the team leader in shorthanded blocked shots. He also has allowed 5 fewer shot attempts per 60 on the penalty kill compared to Ceci, and is the team leader in that area among defensemen with more than 7 minutes of penalty kill icetime.
So when you see tweets like this…
Babcock said he has no update on Muzzin. #Leafs
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) October 30, 2019
It’s hard not to hit the panic button. Of course there are other tweets that fight my chicken little tendencies…
Morgan Rielly (undisclosed) and Jake Muzzin (charley horse) both absent from #Leafs practice. Several forwards are dressed in defenceman-black today, which is intriguing.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 30, 2019
A charley horse sounds a lot more reasonable, but now I’m terrified about what’s happened to Rielly again. When the Leafs have been struggling defensively and Andersen isn’t into his performing miracles form, I’m going to overreact.
Replacing Muzzin is an impossibility, and one that becomes even more difficult when factor in things like the cap situation and the very real possibility that Morgan Rielly might also miss some time. The Leafs blueline has never been a beacon of hope for the Leafs, and it’s about to get a whole lot worse, so what happens next?
Life with Rielly
Well, for good or bad that probably means the Rielly & Ceci pairing is safe. This is generally a bad thing, but in times of uncertainty, it doesn’t seem like it’s the time to mix things up.
#Leafs lines at practice:
Spezza (Rielly placeholder)-Ceci
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 30, 2019
Similarly, the Dermott and Holl pairing is something I would love to see have the chance to blossom and turn into something wonderful. Keep them together and let them transition into a bonus top four pairing over time, and essentially be less than surprised that over the next few games they look like the best defensive unit.
Finally that brings us to what to do with Barrie. Well, I’d start with jacking up his power play usage because you are probably going to want to put Rielly out on the ice in a lot more 5v5 situations than you normally would. I’d also look at who makes the most sense as a partner for him out of Marincin, Gravel, and Sandin. The lack of Muzzin in the lineup opens up the possibility to use Sandin more and in different roles so it might be worthwhile to at least let him get some time over the next few games before deciding on the lesser of the Marincin and Gravel evils.
Arguably Gravel is the better option over Marincin, at least in the small samples of preseason and Gravel’s one game this year.
All of that being said, ties do go to the veteran, and we could see Martin Marincin pull top four duty.
Life without Rielly
All signs point to Rielly never practicing again but also never getting to skip a game and get healed up. So he’ll probably be playing again this weekend. He might get an extended stretch of days off to rest and that might do the trick. However, there is the chance that Rielly and Muzzin could both be out at the same time and the Leafs are left with this…
We’ve finally reached the point where the right side of the blueline is the strongest for the Leafs. Mission Accomplished Dubas!
Alas, dressing Spezza with Ceci doesn’t seem like the best fix, and something significantly different might need to be tried.
Haha, yep. I hate Cody Ceci playing on the Leafs just that much I wouldn’t use him even with Rielly and Muzzin out. In fact, why am I not calling up Liljegren to play instead of Marincin? Anyway, adding a dose of reality back into my suggest, assume I’d have Gravel or Marincin with Ceci on the third pairing.
What it more likely would look like…
In this scenario I would expect that Dermott and Holl would play a lot more, and perhaps Babcock would even find situations to get Ceci and Barrie on the ice together (there’s some halloween nightmare fuel for you). There really isn’t any way of feeling good about any of that, it really would take a Sandin recall to keep people off the ledge.
There is a practical side to the Sandin recall over recalling Gravel, and that is that Gravel is close to the point where he’d require waivers again if demoted and Sandin still has three games left before burning year one of his entry level contract. See my horrible idea is only half terrible.
This is a whole lot of overreacting and Rielly and Muzzin getting a bit of rest this week before the game on Saturday does the trick. Also Tavares continues practicing and feels comfortable returning on Saturday as well. The Leafs dress a healthy-ish roster on Saturday, which is perhaps the best roster they’ve dressed all year and take on an underwhelming Flyers team and win. Frankly this has a very good chance of happening, and perhaps there is a lesson in not always expecting the worst when it comes to the Leafs.