While the Leafs did enjoy a bounce-back win on Tuesday evening, it came at the expense of Jake Muzzin who left the game early.
Late in the third period, Muzzin was cross-checked by Pierre-Luc Dubois and as he fell to the ice, his head and neck were knocked back after colliding with Oliver Bjorkstrand’s leg. He was unable to get up on his own power and was eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher following a 15-minute delay.
Here's the cross check from Pierre-Luc Dubois on Jake Muzzin. No penalty for Dubois. pic.twitter.com/AMdu7lFuU4
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) August 4, 2020
In the fallback of this gut-wrenching injury, fans wonder how the Leafs will adjust their lines for Games 3 and 4. This depends on what Sheldon Keefe will be looking for on his blue line for however long Muzzin is gone. Does he want to implement a player who can impact the game offensively or can provide value on the penalty kill?
If the answer is the former, then Rasmus Sandin makes the most sense. He showed promising progression during his second tenure with the big club and was thrusted into big minutes when they had Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci on IR. The only thing that could give Keefe pause is his age and inexperience, but Nick Robertson showed that a rookie can provide value without having an NHL playoff game on his resume. This would present a great opportunity for Sandin to determine his spot in the lineup for next season with so much uncertainty with which pending UFA defenders will remain in Toronto for 2020-21.
The Leafs did take three penalties in Game 2 and were able to kill off all of them thanks in part to Muzzin’s play. Keefe may value a player who can help fill the void on the penalty-killing unit, which means Martin Marincin would be the guy that slots in. He has the size and reach to disrupt possession and can easily box out opponents in front of the net. Marincin’s value isn’t as strong in other areas of the game, so he would likely be implemented in a sheltered role and only getting real minutes should Toronto find themselves down a man.
Either direction fills a certain need and would give the Leafs some good stop-gap options as Muzzin recovers. I would personally prefer the nod be given to Sandin as his impact on the game is more substantial than Marincin’s and would likely fare better as a result. Though I would understand why the Leafs would go with the latter instead given his value when the team is shorthanded. Regardless, the likes of Calle Rosen and Timothy Liljegren (who is currently not listed on the Leafs roster) won’t be considered unless there are further injuries down the line.
Make no mistake though, Muzzin’s absence from the lineup leaves a big hole on the back end that has long been at the ire of the fanbase. One of the biggest consequences of this is the shutdown pairing of Muzzin and Justin Holl will be split up for the time being. Which raises another question: what does the shutdown pairing now look like?
My best guess is we could see Holl partnered up with Travis Dermott as the two have played solid hockey in nearly 350 minutes at 5v5 from the 2017-18 season to now. Keefe has a good understanding of what the two can provide when sharing the ice so he might give them the task of shutting down the Blue Jackets’ star players. While the Leafs could slot Rielly beside Holl, it could come at the expense of some defensive structure which is critical with Toronto trying to contain Columbus’ blue-line.
Here’s how the Leafs defence may look heading into Thursday night’s game taking everything into consideration:
Travis Dermott – Justin Holl
Morgan Rielly – Tyson Barrie
Rasmus Sandin/Martin Marincin – Cody Ceci
We have seen flashes of Rielly and Barrie working well together, which would make for a pairing that is garnered more towards offensive zone time. Cody Ceci could also benefit from being in a limited role and could work well with either of the fringe defenders being considered for a spot. In all, this has the potential to be as effective as the pairings used prior to Muzzin’s injury.
So how long will Jake Muzzin be ineligible to play? The Leafs PR announced following the game that Muzzin was sent to the hospital and was responsive. As a result, the Leafs will likely be without him for Game 3 and 4 at a minimum, and the entire playoffs in a doomsday scenario.
If Muzzin leaves the "bubble" (aka the Phase 4 Secure Zone) to be hospitalized, it'll take four days at least to be cleared to return to play pic.twitter.com/mRFyW0FkJL
— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) August 4, 2020
No matter which route the team takes in regards to the lineup, they will no doubt miss Muzzin’s presence on the roster. It may be for the short or long term, but the Leafs do have plenty of worthy candidates to fill the gap for however long the 31-year-old is absent from game-action.
Get well soon, Jake!