The first eight games of the season left a lot to be desired. Considering the schedule the Leafs were handed we should be talking about a 6-2-0 Leafs team instead of a 3-4-1 team, that needed a comeback overtime win to defeat the 0-5-2 Chicago Blackhawks.
While the forward group has certainly taken plenty of heat in the past couple of weeks, the blueline hasn’t done particularly well either.
The Muzzin and Holl pairing has been especially bad, while the Sandin and Dermott pairing has been one of the bright spots for the Leafs in the early days. As Nick Richard wrote in the article linked above, Muzzin has had his share of issues, but the other half of that pairing, Justin Holl, has arguably struggled more. And after Holl getting an earful from Auston Matthews on Wednesday night, the Leafs felt comfortable with spicing up their pairings, and giving Holl a paid night off work.
The third pair is Liljegren-Sandin
Holl appears to be the 7th D at Leafs practice @TSN_Edge
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 29, 2021
Those are your new look pairings for the game Saturday night against Detroit, and arguably if you are going to try something new out, why not do it against the Detroit Red Wings, who despite a 4-2-1 start we should be jealous of, are a team destined for the draft lottery.
The new pairings result in everyone getting paired with someone new, and it’s probably worth going pairing by pairing to make sense of it.
Sandin-Liljegren is probably the most straight forward of the pairings, and certainly a unit you don’t mind as your third pairing. Sandin and Liljegren spent plenty of time together with the Marlies, and as the most sheltered group they pose the least risk to Toronto’s blueline experiment. Both players seem to be celebrated for their offensive game, but during their time with the Marlies have rounded out their defensive responsibilities. We’ll see what they look like against NHL competition, or at least against the Red Wings.
Muzzin-Brodie looks like an attempt to get Jake Muzzin back on track. There has been a lot of suspicion that Muzzin is hurt and playing through something, but we also can’t ignore that his cumulative injury history of recent years combined with his 32 year old body might be entering a decline, or at the very least he’s taken enough of a step back that carrying a struggling Justin Holl can no longer be part of his workload. Throughout Brodie’s career it seems that everyone who plays with him starts looking better, and Brodie might be the key to getting the best of Muzzin.
Rielly-Dermott might be the most interesting experiment of the bunch. Dermott seems to be a polarizing player amongst Leafs fans, but he has consistently shown that he is ready for work beyond the bottom pairing, and he’ll get another look at that tomorrow night. The drop off from Brodie to Dermott in terms of ability and defensive hockey sense will be noticable, and I’m assuming we might see Keefe be more active in putting this duo out against the 2nd/3rd lines more frequently than the top unit because of it. As for Rielly, with his new contract in hand and his commitment to being a Leaf for life, it will be interesting to see if he can handle some increased responsibility in his own zone with Brodie deployed elsewhere.
Notes from #Leafs practice:
▫️ Justin Holl will be a scratch on Saturday
▫️ Petr Mrazek is healthy and ready to play, he’ll start vs. Detroit
— Danielle Emanuele (@dee_emanuele) October 29, 2021
In addition to the defensive changes, we’ll see the return of Petr Mrazek tomorrow night, and while Jack Campbell carried the Leafs through Wednesday night, it is nice to get another look at the 1B in the tandem, and hopefully be set on a path of 82 games of consistent goaltending. (I know, a boy can dream.)
Mrazek getting to play against the team that drafted him should hopefully give the Leafs a little boost, or at least it will give the game a little more narrative.
The forward lines remain unchanged from Wednesday night, and presumably they will be what we see from the Leafs until the next scoring drought.