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Jake Muzzin’s return means a tough lineup choice for the Maple Leafs

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Photo credit:Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Barden
7 months ago
After missing the last month and a half with a concussion, it looks like Jake Muzzin will finally return to the Maple Leafs lineup when they take on the Florida Panthers.
Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe pretty much confirmed it during Monday’s morning skate in Tampa. But with Muzzin entering the lineup, there’s obviously one player who has to come out. And at this point, it’s either Justin Holl or Timothy Liljegren.
Muzzin’s eventual return will likely push TJ Brodie, who’s playing on the left side, back to the right. That, in turn, will push one of Liljegren or Holl out of a spot.
There’s two scenarios that I can go through in this article — who I think deserves to stay in the lineup versus who I think Keefe keeps in the lineup.
I’ll start off with who I believe Keefe will take out of the lineup on Tuesday night, and that’s Liljegren.
During Keefe’s availability on Monday morning, the Maple Leafs’ head coach discussed Toronto’s depth on defence. Keefe went into detail and used Liljegren’s name, but never mentioned Holl.
“Having the ability to have someone like Giordano down in that third pair right now, I think that’s fair to say, that’s as comfortable as we’ve been there,” said Keefe on Monday morning. “We’ve played well as a team defensively and even if this season, whether it was [Rasmus] Sandin or Liljegren there, like, those guys have played good hockey for us.”
Both Holl and Liljegren have played very well in Muzzin’s absence, and this decision is as difficult as any. But with Liljegren already on the third pairing and no mention of Holl on Monday, it seems like the 22-year-old is on his way out of the lineup.
Liljegren’s play with Giordano has been stellar, and sitting him over Holl shouldn’t come just because of the experience factor. You play the player who gives you a better chance to win. The pair was even put up against Tampa’s top line and the two didn’t give up a goal against.
The pairing of Giordano and Liljegren also leads the Maple Leafs in both xGF% (69.55) and HDCF% (79.17) at five-on-five. It’s a small sample size, but even looking at Liljegren’s individual numbers shows that it would be shocking to take him out of the lineup.
READ MORE: Timothy Liljegren’s strong play should not go unnoticed during Maple Leafs’ success
This decision for Keefe is as difficult as any because Holl hasn’t played horrible either since Muzzin’s been out. At five-on-five this season, the 30-year-old has a 52.83 CF%, 52.63 GF%, 55.12 xGF%, and a 57.25 HDCF%.
In each category along with his play on the ice, Holl’s shown that he’s not the defenceman that he was early on in the season. But Liljegren is showing that he can play just as good, if not, even better.
If Keefe chooses to keep Liljegren in the lineup, he’ll likely remain with Giordano. But if he’s out, where does Holl go? Could he be placed beside Giordano or does Keefe test out the Muzzin-Holl pairing again? (I doubt the Maple Leafs try the last option.)
At the end of the day, I believe this will end with experience. Although Liljegren’s underlying numbers show that he’s played better, I believe Toronto keeps Holl in because of the amount of games he’s played, as well as the situations.
If that’s the case, then I disagree with the decision. Again, you should play the player who’s been better, not the one who gives you more experience.
There’s always the chance that Liljegren gets into games once the Maple Leafs qualify for the playoffs, but even then, I think Toronto is focused on securing home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
It’s a tough decision, but either way, I believe Keefe is making the correct one. Both players have played exceptionally well this season and it’s difficult to sit either one.
(Statistics via NaturalStatTrick.com)
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