Mark Giordano said he had some mild nerves going into his Toronto Maple Leafs debut against the New Jersey Devils, but that quickly went away as the puck dropped on Wednesday.
Playing on the team’s third defensive pair with rookie Timothy Liljegren, Giordano’s added presence saw the Maple Leafs put in a much better effort defensively compared to other games in recent days… Even if it was against one of the worst teams in the NHL.
In the opening period, the Maple Leafs limited the Devils to just three shots on goal. The game evened out in the latter two periods, but it was special teams (including two shorthanded goals) that led to the Maple Leafs’ victory over the Devils 3-2.
The biggest adjustment to the Toronto-born and raised Giordano was playing on a team that attacks the puck like the Maple Leafs.
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“I loved the way we played, Giordano said after the game. “It’s an aggressive style and it’s fun to play.”
Giordano certainly took advantage of that.
Because of his third-pair assignment, the 2019 Norris Trophy winner handled his assignments with ease. His 77 per cent expected goals rating was the highest among any Leafs defenceman at even strength.
“You talk about his comfort level (but) my comfort level was high, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Giordano. “When he was out there and the puck was on his stick, things seemed to settle down and you could just tell he’s a veteran. He knows how to play.”
It was a baby-steps approach for the 38-year-old defenceman. An odd game for Giordano to debut in, given everything about the day was different. The Maple Leafs wore black jerseys that were designed by Justin Bieber for this year’s installment of the ‘Next-Gen’ game. That meant the typical game-day experience was different to commemorate the event.
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Not the same gameday experience he grew up watching, but Giordano handled it well in his 18:35 of ice time.
He admitted that he spends a lot of time watching the Leafs as being on the west coast during his time with the Calgary Flames and Seattle Kraken meant earlier start times before his games were played.
That meant Giordano had a sense of Liljegren’s game, but he was still pleasantly surprised.
“For a young guy he’s got super poise with the puck,” Giordano said. “He makes really good decisions out there. You don’t really get a sense of how complete his game is on TV. I was really impressed with (his) positioning and all the little plays he made.
”Hopefully we build. if we stay together, we keep building and go from there.”
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Keefe made it clear that Giordano’s start with the Leafs isn’t necessary where he’ll end up in the lineup. And when you have a defenceman with the pedigree of Giordano, the Leafs would like to use him further up where the assignments will be more challenging.
For the Maple Leafs, that is no lesser than at the top-four position.
With Jake Muzzin and Rasmus Sandin out of the lineup, it made sense for the Leafs to pair Giordano with a right-shot defenceman like Liljegren. But as more left-handed shots become available (like Muzzin or Sandin), there will be a temptation to put TJ Brodie back on the right side of either Morgan Rielly or place him with Giordano, his teammate of 10 years with the Flames.
Giordano will also be counted on to play on the penalty kill, which he didn’t do on Wednesday.
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When Muzzin comes back from a concussion that has sidelined him Feb. 21, there’s no doubt he’ll need to be pushed further down the lineup, likely in the spot that Giordano occupies for the time being.
But with the Leafs flush full of right-handed shots, Giordano’s spot with Liljegren does the trick for now.
And his presence, no matter where it is, seems to have had a positive effect.