How much grit does the backline have?

Photo credit:Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Bennett Jull
1 year ago
Last week we examined how much grit the Maple Leafs had up front. A day later, Dryden Hunt was placed on waivers (went unclaimed and has since played games with the Marlies), while Pontus Holmberg and Joey Anderson were called up. Both of them made positive contributions to the forward group last week. With just over a month to go before the trade deadline, the musical chairs in the bottom 6 will continue.
As the Leafs d-core nears full health (Brodie returned from injury last game, and Victor Mete is back skating), let’s take a look at the grit (or perhaps lack thereof) the Leafs currently have compared with what they had in the playoffs last season. There are many familiar faces this season, and some have continued to develop at impressive rates.
Morgan Rielly, Mark Giordano, and TJ Brodie each played 7 games last spring against Tampa Bay, while Justin Holl played 5. Combined, the four defencemen averaged 2 hits per game. Barring any injuries or trades (Holl is the only one that could possibly move), the four veterans of the group are each firmly part of Sheldon Keefe’s top 6 and they’ll be in the lineup for game 1 of the playoffs. We should expect a similar physical output from each.
The other two defencemen both played every game against Tampa Bay and were by far Toronto’s most physical players. Ilya Lyubushkin and Jake Muzzin had 28 and 25 hits respectively. Lyubushkin moved on to Buffalo, and Muzzin may have played his final NHL game (I continue to wish Jake Muzzin nothing but the best in whatever his next chapter is). Stepping in to fully replace these two are Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren. The young Swedes may not be near as physical, but they have both taken massive strides to improve this year. Both are turning into top 4, 2-way defencemen, and have improved their stocks in impressive fashion.
Jordie Benn and Victor Mete are both beyond the 7th defenceman spot when everyone is healthy. I like both, and each has shown they can still play at an NHL level. They have contrasting styles, and in terms of physical play, Mete does not push the needle. Mete stands at 5’9, and while height isn’t everything, he sticks to his smooth skating and puck-moving abilities. Benn, on the other hand, brings plenty of grit and toughness. The veteran of over 600 NHL games loves throwing his body and has no problem standing up for teammates if required. Toronto will more than likely be adding to the back end, and both Mete and Benn should find themselves even further down the lineup. Connor Timmins is currently occupying the 7th spot, and despite his decent size, he is not overly physical.
Toronto’s defence is undoubtedly less physical this year compared to last. That being said, their defensive numbers have been a pleasant surprise this season, despite losing numerous defencemen to injury. Whether or not Kyle Dubas chooses to tinker with the backline remains to be seen. There have been whispers of Jake McCabe, and perhaps between now and March 3rd, another body will be added to the backline.
Regardless of who is brought in, it’s highly unlikely that Lyubushkin and Muzzin’s physicality will be adequately replaced. While the physicality has decreased, the overall play of the backline has been a pleasant surprise this year. Does less grit equate to more success? Will Dubas add a major physical piece to the backline? Time will reveal these answers in the months to come. Most importantly, let’s hope for no more injuries!

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