Leafs getting healthy offers optimism for the playoffs

Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
For the most part, the updates that Sheldon Keefe provided on Tuesday regarding the health of the missing Leafs were optimistic. Jake Muzzin found his way back in the roster, Michael Bunting was deemed likely ready come playoff time, Rasmus Sandin and Ondrej Kase joined the full skate with their teammates, and even Petr Mrazek is back on the ice.
Tuesday night also meant seeing Muzzin, as well as others who have recently had some form of injury like Matthews, Liljegren, and Campbell all shine in the game as well as save for a sore Alexander Kerfoot from a shot block, the Leafs escaped the game relatively unharmed. I hate to say it because the hockey gods will strike this team down, but Toronto is in a good shape when it comes to being able to both ice their best lineup and also be able to adapt their lineup to what will work best against the Lightning.
Here’s a quick look at what some of those returns mean.

Michael Bunting

This seems like the most impactful, and the most obvious of how its impactful return. Not only are the Leafs getting back a player who has put up a 60+ point season, but they are also getting back the player who completes their top line and adds some agitating edge to the Leafs.
There is certainly some concern that Bunting might be rushing himself back and having the expectations of him being at the peak of his abilities might be asking too much, but with few other options working as well with Matthews and Marner, there is no doubt that as long as he’s able to play the game his way this is great news.

Ondrej Kase

In his absence, the Leafs have stumbled into another third line that works incredibly well by putting Nylander and Engvall with Kampf and there might be some desire to keep that together. There might also be some desire to keep Alexander Kerfoot in the top six playing with Mikheyev and Tavares, and while the fourth line might not be where Kase wants to land, there’s no doubt that he greatly improves that line as well. In fact, having Kase back just seems like a bonus in general, even if many will be more uneasy than ever watching him play his reckless abandon style of hockey and fear for his health every time he barrels into a corner.
As uneasy as we might be about Kase’s style of play from his personal health standpoint, the benefit to the Leafs in having him back is absolutely there. Whether it’s with Tavares, Kampf, or someone else as his center, Kase makes the Leafs harder to play against, and when the Leafs can make that happen without sacrificing on skill that is a wonderful thing.

Petr Mrazek

Mrazek might still be the furthest out of the group, but that seems okay from a timing perspective. Tuesday night’s shutout really put the stamp on the fact that Jack Campbell is who the Leafs are running within the playoffs. That stamp wasn’t really needed as it seems like his job by default, but nevertheless, he’s building back the lost confidence in him.
Where Mrazek fits into the picture is if things go horribly wrong for the Leafs. You know, that thing that happens every time you start feeling good about the team. If something were to shut down Campbell in the playoffs, arguably the Leafs might be better off with Mrazek, who has been prone to hot streaks, than going with Kallgren who maybe lacks the experience to take on the best of the Eastern Conference. At the very least Mrazek along with Kallgren present the Leafs with options if things go bad. Let’s hope they don’t.

Jake Muzzin and Rasmus Sandin

We’ll put the defensemen together because when we’re talking about what they bring there are a lot of similarities in their upside. Both are capable defensemen who arguably can represent an upgrade over some of the Leafs defensemen when they are playing at their best. The fact that they add to a crowded left side means that Brodie will be moving over to the right side, which isn’t a bad thing either, and in a pinch, Sandin has demonstrated he too can play the right side, although I’d imagine he’d do so in a role further down the lineup card.
Muzzin, of late, when he’s felt good has played very well with TJ Brodie, and seems to have the inside track for starting the playoffs. The fact that he along with Giordano and Lyubushkin are the defensemen more willing to engage physically gives him the inside track and could lead to Holl or Liljegren sliding out the lineup, although based on the performance of late it’s arguably Lyubushkin that should be sitting.
Sandin, unfortunately for him, likely starts the playoffs in a depth position, but there is certainly nothing that says that lasts. Playoff hockey is hard and demanding, and with Muzzin’s track record having a fallback option is to the Leafs benefit. The Leafs heading into the playoffs with their 7/8 D being capable of being a second pairing on some NHL teams is a luxury that would have seemed unimaginable even a couple of years ago.
I guess it goes without saying that players coming back from injury is a good thing, but the fact that the Leafs will be able to load up right before the playoffs and potentially have capable NHL talent sitting in the press box as well is a luxury. Being adaptive is critical and having to live and die by the same lineup card throughout the playoffs won’t work, nor will potentially trying to get through the next two months without utilizing depth. It will be nice to see the Leafs starting the postseason ready to play their best players.
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