The Leafs have gone from having Mo Rielly to having no Rielly. Folks…
Alright, now that my general awfulness is out of the way we can focus on how the Leafs blueline which wasn’t particularly good to begin with now has the interesting challenge of playing without their top two defensemen in Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly.
Morgan Rielly has been slated as eight weeks at minimum he’ll be out, which would take him to March 9th as his return date. Recognizing that not all broken feet are equal, we know that Jake Muzzin also broke his foot and was listed as week to week. Using the Rielly timeline and going back to Muzzin’s date of injury on December 27th, we’d be looking at a possible return date of February 21st as the earliest. Interestingly enough, just in time for the trade deadline (please note I very much want Muzzin re-signed and the Leafs without him has only increased that feeling.)
Long and the short of it, the Leafs are incredibly short staffed, especially on the left side, which is terrifying given that the right side needed propping up from the left side to begin with. The state of the blueline without Rielly and Muzzin is damned interesting, and that’s why we’re going to break down the situation a little.
The recalls of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are absolutely the correct first steps to be taken. Before completely panicking and either overpaying in the rental market or building a blueline off of waiver claims it makes sense to see what the Leafs have in two talented young defenders that are already penciled into every single 2020-21 Maple Leafs lineup in existence.
Easing them in to the bottom of the lineup is the necessary approach, so that still leaves a pretty significant gap when Muzzin and (arguably) Rielly are the top two defensemen in the organization at the moment.
There is little doubt that improved play from Tyson Barrie especially will be required, and while it’s debateable how much more can be given from Dermott and Holl who have already taken significant strides in their time as Leafs, it seems like leaning heavily on them is still preferable to expecting anything beyond minute eating from Marincin and Ceci.
As for other internal relief options, well, Kevin Gravel remains an option, albeit not a great one, same with Jordan Schmaltz and perhaps Teemu Kivihalme has become the favourite for the next time it hits the fan. With the recalls of Sandin and Liljegren, the defensemen with the greatest amount of time spent with Keefe have all found their way to the NHL.
Trade Market Relief
I’ve looked at this a couple of times on this site in the past week. Most recently regarding Elliotte Friedman floating that the Leafs have kicked tires on Brenden Dillon and prior to that some speculation on the rental market which led me to believe the best defensive names available to the Leafs might be Dylan DeMelo (Sens), Dan Hamhuis (Preds), Brenden Dillon (Sharks), and Ben Hutton (Kings). To say that any of these names are particularly compelling beyond moving them ahead of Marincin and Ceci on the depth chart is an understatement.
I left out Alec Martinez, on purpose since his price tag from a cap standpoint probably put him out of consideration for the Leafs, but additionally thanks to Pierre LeBrun we know the price to acquire him might be too high as well...
LeBrun notes that Martinez should be appealing to teams in need of defensive help considering he can play at both sides of the ice and a two-time Stanley Cup champion. He points to the Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets as teams who could who pursue the 32-year-old.
Martinez has one goal and six points in 29 games this season while averaging 20:58 of ice time. LeBrun cites an Eastern Conference team executive who believes the return for Alec Martinez could be a second-round pick and a prospect.
That’s a steep price to pay for a rental and while I’m sure they’ll have to walk back their asking price a little, that would be a difficult pill for the Leafs to swallow, even if it could mean reunited Muzzin and Martinez down the stretch.
I instead offer up the Martinez asking price as the question for whether the Leafs are wise to considering chasing relief in the trade market. Someone like Brenden Dillon could very likely cost around the same, and with the Leafs only scheduled to pick once in the first 62 picks of the draft, maybe sacrificing the future to keep Kevin Gravel off the roster doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Backing to working with what the Leafs have
Sheldon Keefe says the elite teams in the NHL don’t get fazed by major injuries. They believe they’re an elite team. Important for them to face the adversity and find a way. They won’t tweak their system or philosophy based on Rielly/Muzzin injuries. Just need to execute better
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) January 14, 2020
The struggles of Tyson Barrie certainly don’t leave Toronto with as much as they thought they had, and perhaps that needs to be the starting point of how the Leafs get better is through Barrie being his best. Or at the very least, Barrie working with someone who can help him be his best, and as much it probably pains a lot of people, until Rasmus Sandin has a bit more time in the NHL, the best partner option probably is Martin Marincin.
The Dermott and Holl pairing seems to be pretty much set as something that will continue indefinitely, as it’s worked well enough and they know what they are doing together. On a bubble team they can function as a passable 2nd pairing, but on a team with strong defense they’d be a third pairing. All things considered, passable 2nd pairing is the best we can hope for, even if the ask might be that they are the top pairing if Barrie can’t get his shit together.
That leaves Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Cody Ceci. Everything about this group says that if the Leafs are going put their best foot forward in this both Sandin and Liljegren will have to succeed. And while Liljegren won’t be playing against New Jersey, the idea of the Marlies Swedish duo playing together soon, as the sheltered third pair probably gives the Leafs their best chase at getting out of this injury situation in a playoff spot.
Where does Ceci fit in? Ideally where he should have been throughout the season, and that’s in the pressbox, but that’s not the reality of any of this. As Dubas has stated previous, Ceci’s numbers aren’t bad, and in fact they’ve been on a steady increase since he’s been sheltered on the third pairing first with Dermott and then with Marincin. Reality is that Ceci will likely remain a staple of the third pairing, and we will see him with a carousel of partners, including situation where we see either Ceci or Liljegren playing on the left side.
Somehow all of this still seems preferable to overpaying for another team’s third pairing defenseman.
Who needs to step up the most?
Well, honestly if Frederik Andersen could go back to stealing games (or even help keep the Leafs in games) that would be a significant step in the right direction. That might be a lot to ask of a guy who has seen the third highest amount of shots in the league this year, but the reality is that he’s better than the past month and half of hockey show him to be, and if skipping the All-Star game or rolling the dice on Hutchinson a couple more times than the Leafs would like to get a 100% Andersen back, that could bail out a blueline in desperate need of help.
Beyond that, it’s all about steering into what does work for the Leafs, and there’s something to be said to playing to your strengths instead of trying to fix your weaknesses, and perhaps an even more aggressive offensive strategy will help the Leafs. It should create a bit of a comfort zone for offensively inclined defensemen like Barrie and Liljegren, but using the forwards for shooting instead of backchecking seems like a much more realistic ask of this Leafs roster.
This probably isn’t going to sink the Leafs, and they’ll find their way into the playoffs. As much as Rielly has been a key contributor to the Leafs and one of the top defensemen over the past few seasons, there is also little doubt that he’s struggled this year. Not to the point where his absence won’t be felt, but enough that the most optimistic takes can believe that Sandin can fill the void of his absence.
The real issue remains the absence of Jake Muzzin, who also might not have been having the best season of his career, but also he wasn’t struggling so heavily that giving his ice time to Martin Marincin should appeal to anyone.
The idea of shuffling deckchairs by sending out Tyson Barrie at the trade deadline to find a better fit might also be on hold given the current situation. The treatment of pending free agents Ceci, Barrie, and Muzzin will all likely be impacted by these injuries, and if there ever was an intent to shop them, they all just became internal rentals.
While the idea of handing the reigns of the Leafs entirely over to offense seems like the last best option, it still seems that the Muzzin and Rielly injuries are the possible final nail in the coffin of the Leafs playoff hopes if they can’t figure it out. The Panthers presently sit one point back of the Leafs with a game at hand, the Leafs are tied with the Flyers for the last wild card position, two points back of the Hurricanes and two points up on the Blue Jackets. They are 100% going to have to fight their way out of this season, and where they sit on the February 24th trade deadline will be telling.
It has 100% been a tough year for the Leafs. They’ve canned a coach who was creating a dysfunctional atmosphere. They’ve dealt with injuries to Tavares, Marner, Dermott, Hyman, Johnsson, Mikheyev, Muzzin, and Rielly. They’ve seen Freddie Andersen steal November only to disappear in December and January. It’s been weird, but not in a good fun way.
The Leafs have the talent to pull themselves out of this, and Moneypuck is still giving them a 78% chance of making the playoffs. A revived Leafs team in March that will see the return of Muzzin and Rielly will give them a good push down the stretch. Ilya Mikheyev returning for the playoffs will be a nice addition as well, and there’s nothing wrong with getting Sandin and Liljegren ready to play in the NHL to see if they can hold down the jobs and give the Leafs an extra edge in April.
In short, there is no reason to lose hope, but the Rielly injury certainly makes the next couple months tougher than anyone wanted them to be.