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Photo Credit: © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Leafs turn to Travis Dermott and Justin Holl as their new shutdown pair

The Leafs have been forced to deal with injuries on their blue line for the entire season, and after just 2 games with their full compliment of defencemen, they will again be without one of their most important players in Jake Muzzin.

All of Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci missed significant time this year throwing the Leafs defensive pairings into constant disarray. Through the turmoil, Muzzin has emerged as perhaps the most irreplaceable Leafs defenceman. Not only does he play a style of game that’s unique among Leafs defenders, but he’s formed a very effective shutdown pair with Justin Holl for much of the season.

With Muzzin again on the shelf, it looks as though Travis Dermott will be tasked with a larger role for at least the duration of the play-in round.

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Thankfully, Dermott isn’t completely inexperienced with this kind of responsibility as he and Holl spent time together on the Leafs top pair when both Muzzin and Rielly were injured earlier this season. Though the pairing wasn’t quite as successful as Muzzin/Holl, they still provided the Leafs with quality minutes against the opposition’s best players.

Pair TOI CF% xGF% GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 GF/60 GA/60
Muzzin – Holl 495.57 52.97 56.43 53.85 3.13 2.41 3.39 2.91
Dermott – Holl 297.95 50.28 51.87 47.83 2.41 2.23 2.22 2.42

In fact, Dermott/Holl suppressed goals and scoring chances against at a better rate than Muzzin/Holl but they were unable to drive play the other way with the same effectiveness. The primary function of a shutdown pairing is to do just that and the duo of Dermott and Holl did a good job of keeping the puck away from their net when they were on the ice together at 5v5 this season. 

As good as Muzzin’s numbers are, everyone knows he brings much more to this team than what his statistics show. He’s an emotional leader, able to change the momentum of a game with a big hit or lift his team with a daring blocked shot. He brings invaluable championship experience to a group that has next to none and has been a steadying presence on blue line that has been flimsy more often than not. Muzzin has been the Leafs shelter in a storm and, now, it will be on Dermott to provide refuge as the Leafs try to advance to the playoffs.

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Arguably the two strongest defensive defencemen on the Leafs roster, Muzzin and Dermott find success in different ways. Muzzin is much better when it comes to in-zone defensive coverage and stopping the cycle. He’s a bigger, stronger player who is able to clear the front of the net and separate men from the puck along the boards but he also has the ability to start the breakout with a good pass once he regains possession.

Dermott excels more in the transition game, using his excellent skating ability and gap control to snuff out rushes in the neutral zone before they get started. He’s among the league’s best at preventing opposing players from entering the zone with control of the puck and he’s no slouch moving the puck out of his end either. Those skills allow Dermott to spend less time trapped in his zone defending, but it remains to be seen if that will translate against top competition for an extended period.

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After Muzzin’s injury, the conversation was mostly centered around whether it would be Rasmus Sandin or Martin Marincin taking his place in the lineup. Sheldon Keefe has decided, at least for game 3, that Marincin is the more suitable replacement for what the Leafs will need in Muzzin’s absence. His reach and willingness to block shots will likely earn him regular duty on a penalty kill unit that now has a giant Jake Muzzin sized hole in it but I expect him to be heavily sheltered at 5v5, with Morgan Rielly likely taking shifts alongside both Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie depending on the in-game situation.

The debate over whether Marincin or Sandin should be the one to enter the lineup in place of Muzzin is a worthwhile one, but ultimately it’s a moot point if Dermott is unable to replicate some of the success that Muzzin had alongside Holl over the course of the regular season. Columbus might not have the same kind of dynamic offensive stars that the Leafs do but they will present their own unique challenges for the Leafs new shutdown pair.

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Holl will have to adjust to playing with a partner who takes more chances stepping up in the neutral zone so it will be especially important for him to not get caught up ice. Dermott will be relied upon as the primary puck handler on this pairing and decision making will be paramount for him without Tyson Barrie to defer to. Without Muzzin’s size and strength down low, both players will have to maintain good positioning to win puck battles and kill opposing possessions. Dermott, in particular, will have to make use of his quick feet and active stick to avoid being hemmed in the defensive zone. That’s no small task against a team that forechecks as well as the Blue Jackets do.

A massive blow for the Leafs as a whole, Muzzin’s injury has provided Travis Dermott with an opportunity to show once and for all that he is a top four defenceman on an NHL team. He has the tools to be successful at the highest level but the time is now for him to start living up to all the potential that has endeared him to Leafs fans and management alike. 

Dermott and Holl performed admirably when called upon earlier in the year and they have experience playing together during the Marlies Calder Cup run as well. They’ll have to find that chemistry quickly and how they handle their new assignment will be a determining factor in what is now a best 2 out of 3 series with Columbus. 

 

(Statistics from Evolving-Hockey.com,

Viz & Data from @CJTDevil and @ShutdownLine)