Welcome to Civil Discourse, an article series where two TLN writers discuss a topic of interest rationally without resorting to personal insults. So basically the anti-Twitter.
I think we can safely say this is a nice problem to have: the Leafs have too many good defencemen. With less than 15 games left to go in the regular season, our playoff opponent still unknown, and the return of Jake Muzzin, it begs the question of what the Leafs should do with their suddenly-crowded blueline. Ryan, what are your thoughts on how things should shape up now that Muzzin is back?
I have been pretty unimpressed with Jake Muzzin this season overall. Of course, him being healthy is the best thing possible, but I’m not sure that him playing is the best thing. We know that his pairing with Justin Holl, previously quite solid, struggled greatly this year. When not with Muzzin, Justin Holl has played well, at least in terms of underlying numbers. My main thought is that if Muzzin is getting in, it shouldn’t be Justin Holl going out. The thing that’s really up in the air is how Ilya Lyubushkin can manage essentially top-pairing minutes with Morgan Rielly. What is your sense of that pairing? Are they too good together to break up?
I’ve liked Lyubushkin with Rielly: he brings a physical element that the Leafs have missed much of this season with Muzzin out of the lineup, and he frees Morgan up to skate the puck up ice. I think Lyu could be a physical difference-maker in the playoffs, kind of like a 2022 Roman Polak.
The thing is Rielly doesn’t really require Lyubushkin to be successful. TJ Brodie has been a more-than-capable partner for Rielly and would seem the most likely candidate to move back over to Rielly’s right side long-term.
Holl probably took some unfair heat for the Muzzin-Holl pairing’s struggles earlier this season due to Leafs Nation’s high regard for Muzzin, although some of it was definitely self-inflicted. Holl has really taken back his season during his time away from Muzzin and I would agree that he has played himself back into the playoff roster mix. That’s big news for the Leafs because there were times he looked unplayable earlier this season.
I honestly don’t know what to expect when Muzzin comes back. His play this season has been beneath his established standards, and I’d go as far to say he hasn’t looked the same since that freak neck injury against Columbus in the bubble playoffs two summers ago. But this guy is a leader on this team, is willing to put his body on the line for wins, and is much respected by the coaching staff. I just don’t see Keefe healthy-scratching him.
For me, that leaves four “locks” for the playoffs blueline: Rielly, Muzzin, and Mark Giordano on the left side, and Brodie on the right side. This leaves the three right-handers Holl, Lyubushkin, and Timothy Liljegren vying for the final two spots on the right side.
And we haven’t even touched on the plan for Rasmus Sandin, who should return around playoff time, who flashed top-4 abilities this season.
What a dilemma! Who are your locks?
It seemed to me at the time that Muzzin was playing his way into a healthy scratch before his injury occurred. I don’t think he’s a lock necessarily, but for all the reasons you stated, he’ll get a pretty long leash before he gets scratched. Certainly, with him being healthy, he’s going to get an opportunity to prove if, rested and recovered from his latest injury, he can be the kind of difference-making defender that he has been in prior seasons for both the Leafs and the Kings.
To me, the only true locks are Rielly, Giordano and Brodie. The next tier is Sandin and Liljegren. They’ve both been so good this year, taking huge steps from years prior. There have been times when they’ve played like the best defenders on the team, without question. That’s something that you won’t ever get from Lyubushkin or Holl, and something we haven’t seen at all this season from Muzzin.
That said, there’s a different style of hockey played with a different set of rules in the playoffs. As much as I can’t stand that fact, it’s the truth. So that’s where a player like Muzzin or Lyubushkin comes in. I don’t know how to justify fitting in both with Sandin and Liljegren playing so well. And then we go back to my original point about Holl being significantly better than Muzzin this year. It’s all a mess. But, as you say, a good mess to be in.
I think what it comes down to is the three locks I mentioned, Muzzin getting a solid run to see where he’s at, and Liljegren/Lyubushkin/Holl rotating in and out. If Muzzin continues to be as bad as he was earlier in the year, I think you have to give Sandin the reins when he’s healthy, or consider going with two right-handers on your bottom pair.
Do you think Muzzin’s experience is valuable to the point where he stays in the lineup even if he plays as he did earlier in the season? Or are you betting on him turning the boosters on when the playoffs start?
It’s interesting you bring up Sandin and Liljegren in that second tier because I agree that they have played very well this season. The Giordano-Liljegren pairing has been extremely effective since being put together, albeit in a small sample. I’d be reluctant to break that up right now when it’s working so well. I’d at least want to see how the pairing continues to fare between now and the end of the regular season. Let’s see what we have there.
Muzzin will be an interesting case study in Keefe’s/Dubas’ views on experience vs. results. I agree that Muzzin will probably be given a long leash, but just how long it should be is up for debate. We have to remember this is a guy with at least two concussions this season. Just how effective is he going to be after multiple layoffs and not much time to prepare ahead of the playoffs? And will this impact his performance to the point where tough decisions need to be made? Based on performance, he’s not been one of our best six defencemen this season. But based on track record and reputation, you’re inviting a lot of criticism if you don’t play him.
I think what I would try initially is:
- Lyubushkin stays on Rielly’s right, which has gone pretty well
- Brodie moves back over to the right side to play with Muzzin, playing the security blanket role and allowing Muzzin to defer to him to move the puck
- Holl and Liljegren do a timeshare with Giordano for the rest of this season to see who performs best with him
- When Sandin’s ready to return, he’s the odd man out on the left side until an injury occurs or someone else implodes
What would your ideal pairings be?
I think the key is to get a sense of where Muzzin is at, so I agree with keeping him in the lineup for now. There are seven healthy players who each deserve a spot, reluctantly including Muzzin. It is in the Leafs’ best interest to see if he can be the player he was. I won’t pull out the crystal ball to see how that goes but my hypothesis is that he’s the same player he was before his concussion. Who knows. Maybe it’s one of those “get hit in the head and suddenly know how to speak German” things, except the hit in the head (and the subsequent rest + recovery time) gets him back to the player he once was.
When I was discussing this on Twitter previously, I went with a set of pairings that the Leafs ended up actually using, at least for one game:
Rielly – Brodie
Giordano – Liljegren
Muzzin – Holl
There’s got to be some kind of rotation as you can’t let Lyubushkin sit out totally. It’s important to keep him game ready. There will be bumps and bruises coming down the stretch that would be good to allow players to recover from. So that’s how I would fit Lyubushkin in, whoever is banged up the most sits out. For right now, that’s probably Lyubushkin.
Thanks for doing this, Ryan. I certainly do not envy the Leafs’ coaching staff when trying to put this blueline together.
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