It seems like only last week the Leafs were feeling so comfortable in their defensive depth that they could afford to let Travis Dermott walk for a 3rd round pick (a good decision), and that they could cut Alex Biega loose from the Marlies in favour of an AHL loan of Phillipe Myers from the Predators (again, not a bad decision), and the disposal of Brennan Menell (meh.) It was shortly after those moves that the Leafs found themselves faced with a serious injury to Rasmus Sandin, coupled with the ongoing injury to Jake Muzzin, that left the Leafs with limited NHL defensive depth. Luckily it seemed that the top six were gelling.
Then Tuesday night against the Bruins occurred and we are again reminded of how fragile the illusion of depth can be. Both Justin Holl and Ilya Lyubushkin left the game and didn’t return, leaving the Leafs to play the final period with just four blueliners, a task that was performed somewhat respectably and certainly put to rest the debate on whether or not the Leafs needed Mark Giordano at the trade deadline. Still, that leads to the question of who plays if Lyubushkin or Holl can’t play.
First off, let me start by saying that at this point of the season if Holl and Lyubushkin are in any way questionable to play, they probably shouldn’t. There isn’t much of a benefit to risking making an injury worse for a slightly better regular season record. Toronto wants to finish in the best possible playoff position, but it doesn’t do them much good if the players are running on fumes or your physical players like Lyubushkin are too banged up to actually play the way you need them to. Prioritizing rest as a precautionary measure makes sense. Especially in a situation where the Leafs can use their emergency recalls from the Marlies rather than one of their four remaining callups.
The next question is who do the Leafs have left to put into the lineup? Presently they already have Carl Dahlstrom on their roster, but he might be the most underwhelming option of the bunch. From a personal standpoint, it pains me to watch him skate, but of the group, he has the most NHL experience and might be perceived as the lowest risk option of the group. Still, I’d pass. The Leafs gave Kristians Rubins a look earlier in the year, and it would be exciting to see him get another shot. The 6’4 220lb Latvian has the skillset of what the Leafs are looking for in what promises to be a physical game against the Jets on Thursday, and might be one of the better depth options come playoff time as well.
Someone like Filip Kral is an intriguing callup, as he (along with the injured Mac Hollowell) might be one of the current Marlies prospects most likely to fit into the Leafs’ future plans. His defensive game was a project when he arrived in the AHL, so whether he’s ready for the next step yet is debatable, but he’s one of the more exciting depth options to explore. On the flip side of the offensive defensemen, the best option might be Joseph Duszak, who was looking to be traded because he thinks his breakout season warrants a look at the NHL level. He’s a pending restricted free agent, so the Leafs might want to see what they have in him.
If we’re looking further down the depth options Teemu Kivihalme might have some consideration and Chad Krys is really just getting mentioned because he’s under contract with the Leafs.
The Leafs are pretty limited when it comes to inspired options, but that’s again part of the reasoning for doing right by the Leafs’ defensive core right now and getting everyone healthy. With the return of Muzzin and Sandin, the Leafs will have a very strong top eight. The fact that the Leafs are looking at numbers 9 and 10 on their depth chart and coming up with underwhelming results isn’t a huge problem, yet. The Leafs also demonstrated that they can lean on their existing defensemen a ton and limit the usage of their potential Marlies’ bottom pair. It’s not a bad situation.
So let Holl and Lyubushkin take a night off. Let’s see a Rubins and Duszak third pairing, and try to get through this last month without any further injuries. Things are bad enough in goal.