It was a transformational offseason for a much maligned Leafs blue line that saw the departures of @Tyson Barrie and @Cody Ceci, but Kyle Dubas and his staff are hoping that the additions of TJ Brodie, @Zach Bogosian, and @Mikko Lehtonen will make for a more reliable back end this coming season. The extended offseason brought plenty of speculation as to where the new pieces would fit in and what it might mean for returning players like @Justin Holl and @Travis Dermott, as well as top prospect @Rasmus Sandin.
After Sheldon Keefe revealed the team’s initial forward lines during his first media availability of training camp on Sunday afternoon, the revamped defensive pairings were announced on Monday morning as the Leafs took to the ice for their first practice of training camp.
As expected, @Morgan Rielly will get the first crack at playing alongside Toronto’s biggest offseason acquisition in TJ Brodie. If this pairing does indeed stick into the season, Brodie will easily be the best regular partner that Rielly has ever played with. Rielly’s most common partners at 5v5 in the last five seasons are @Cody Ceci, @Ron Hainsey twice, @Nikita Zaitsev, and @Matt Hunwick – not exactly an all-star cast. Brodie is certainly an upgrade from those names and his style should mesh well with Rielly’s game, in theory. He is a strong defender both in transition and in defensive zone coverage, but he is also a great skater and capable puck mover who should ease some of the burden on Rielly who has been relied on as the sole puck mover on his pairing for far too long.
Last year’s shutdown pairing of @Jake Muzzin and @Justin Holl will get a chance to reprise their role this season, at least to begin training camp. Arguably the lone bright spot on Toronto’s blue line last season, Muzzin and Holl found chemistry and success playing heavy minutes against the opposition’s best lines night after night so it makes sense to revert to that combination with a defensive core that is already undergoing so many changes. That said, Holl’s numbers last season weren’t nearly as good when he wasn’t playing with Muzzin and I think there is a chance that someone else could force their way into that spot as the season progresses.
The top four seemed just about set in stone after Brodie’s signing with most of the questions surrounding how the Leafs might dole out minutes on their bottom pairing and through the first day of camp, it looks as though Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian could have the inside track for a spot in the opening night lineup over Travis Dermott. Despite his incumbency and impressive defensive numbers, being paired with 20 year old Rasmus Sandin for the first on-ice session of the season likely places Dermott below KHL star Lehtonen and battle-tested veteran Bogosian on the depth chart for the time being. It is worth noting, however, that Kyle Dubas has stated the plan for Dermott this season will be for him to get used to playing on the right side, where there is a much clearer path to regular playing time.
The Leafs have shown in the past that when they bring over an undrafted free agent – never mind one with Lehtonen’s accolades – they will give them every opportunity to make an impact and carve out a regular role in the lineup and one would have to assume that he will be in the lineup when the puck drops on January 13th. On Sunday, Sheldon Keefe spoke about wanting his team to be more physical and while the hard-nosed Bogosian appears to be receiving the first opportunity on what would be the Leafs’ third pairing, both Dermott and Sandin will be pushing for those minutes in the coming days.
Though it is a much shorter training camp than these players and coaching staffs are used to, and there are no exhibition games for players looking to increase their stock, there is still plenty of time for things to change prior to opening night. While Rielly, Brodie, and Muzzin are secure in their roles in the Leafs’ top four, there is sure to be plenty of jostling for position in the bottom half of their defensive group throughout camp and into the season.