Martin Marincin

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

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A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins come into this game having won five of their last seven games (5-1-1) and have closed in on the division leading Capitals. Pittsburgh trailed Washington by 13 points entering play on Dec. 12, 2019, but have gone 19-5-2 (40 points) in 26 games since then to close the gap to just one point.

The Penguins have earned at least one point in each of their last six games at PPG Paints Arena (5-0-1) and recorded their 21st home win of the season overall – matching the Bruins for the most home wins in the NHL.

Jason Zucker, who was acquired on Feb. 10 from the Wild for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a conditional first-round pick, has three points in three games for the Penguins and has been skating on the top line with Sidney Crosby. He tallied his first multi-goal game of the season in Friday’s 4-1 win over the Canadiens, and then added an assist in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Red Wings.

The Leafs enter this game having lost five of their last eight games (3-4-1). Toronto is coming off a 5-2 loss at Buffalo on Sunday night where they gave up three goals in the span of 91 seconds in the third period after the score was even at 2-2. Toronto sits in third place in the Atlantic, but the fourth place Panthers are just two points back with one game in hand.

Leafs star forward Auston Matthews is currently tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead with 42 goals this season, and his 42 tallies have already set a career high. The Leafs star has done the majority of his damage on
home ice with 30 goals in 30 games any Scotiabank Arena.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
William NylanderJohn TavaresAlexander Kerfoot
Pierre EngvallFrederik GauthierKasperi Kapanen
Kyle CliffordJason SpezzaDmytro Timashov

Jake MuzzinJustin Holl
Rasmus SandinTyson Barrie
Travis DermottMartin Marincin

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

PENGUINS
Jason Zucker – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Jared McCannEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Brandon TanevTeddy BluegerPatric Hornqvist
Dominik KahunAndrew AgozzinoSam Lafferty

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

An hour-long special on Connor McDavid, titled Connor McDavid: Whatever It Takes will premiere following the game at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The feature provides an inside look at McDavid’s comeback from a knee injury in last season’s final game. Click here for a trailer.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly out 8 weeks with fractured foot

Maple Leafs Rielly
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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 8-4 loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday evening ended up being a lot worse than just an ugly final score.

It also cost them their top defenseman for the next two months.

The Maple Leafs announced on Monday that Morgan Rielly is going to be sidelined for at least the next eight weeks after fracturing his foot in Sunday’s game.

He will immediately be placed on injured reserve and re-evaluated in eight weeks.

The team also announced that Rasmus Sandin, their first-round pick in 2018, has been recalled from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.

A questionable defense gets even worse

There is no way to sugarcoat this for the Maple Leafs, it is a significant loss.

They are already thin on the blue line and were probably going to need add another player before the trade deadline even when they were healthy. Now they are going to have to find a way to replace their best defenseman for two months in the middle of a playoff push. Adding to their problems is that Jake Muzzin, one of their other top defensemen, is also currently sidelined on a week-to-week basis due to a foot injury of his own.

Sandin is a fine prospect and has been having a great season in the AHL, but the Maple Leafs’ defense is in shambles right now.

Their current list of healthy defensemen: Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Cody Ceci, and Sandin.

That is, quite simply, not a very good NHL defense. Especially for a team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender. They are going to need a huge push from Frederik Andersen in goal to mask that.

The Maple Leafs have been one of the hottest teams in the league under new coach Sheldon Keefe, but because of their slow start they still have just a two-point cushion in the playoff race.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Mitch Marner out at least four weeks for Maple Leafs

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When a 5-4 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks isn’t the worst news of the night, you know the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a bit of trouble.

In a statement released during Sunday’s game, Toronto said that Mitch Marner underwent an MRI Sunday after sustaining an ankle injury in Saturday’s game against Philadelphia and is expected to be out of the lineup for a minimum of four weeks, at which point he will be reassessed.

Marner was injured after the opening faceoff of the second period when he fell on his right leg. He would return later in the contest to test his ankle but shortly after the trial went back to the locker room for good.

Toronto will get a minor boost to its lineup with Zach Hyman set to return from offseason surgery sometime next week. Prior to the Marner injury, the Leafs had a potential salary cap issue looming which forced the team to place forward Nic Petan and defenseman Martin Marincin on waivers earlier this week, but both went unclaimed. However, if Marner were to be placed on Long Term IR, the issue could resolve itself for the time being.

But that is the only minor positive to the injury. Marner had 18 points in as many games and was a key cog alongside John Tavares at the top of the lineup. Jason Spezza had the first crack next to the Leafs captain Sunday against the Blackhawks, but that position is expected to be a revolving door until the right trio presents itself.

“Really disappointed for Mitch, disappointed for our hockey team,” coach Mike Babcock told reporters after the game. “In saying that, someone else is going to get an opportunity. As coaches, we’ve got to figure it out. We have to get our lines — I mean, we had a different line for each period [against Chicago] — we have to get our lines right to maximize the group we have and get the right people in the right spots.”

With seven of the its next eight games on the road, Toronto will need significant contributions from its entire roster in order to replicate Marner’s production, and keep the Maple Leafs on the inside looking out in regard to the playoff race.

The Leafs are well aware of how vital playoff positioning is, having lost in the first round in the previous two seasons against the Boston Bruins as the road team. In the Atlantic Division, six of the eight teams are above .500, and the race to the finish will be highly competitive.

If the Maple Leafs struggle to win games with Marner sidelined, the long-term ramifications could be unfavorable playoff positioning or potentially missing the postseason altogether.

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

2018-19
46-28-8, 100 points (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in seven games in Round 1 by the Boston Bruins

IN
Tyson Barrie
Alexander Kerfoot
Jason Spezza
Pontus Aberg
Jordan Schmaltz
Cody Ceci
Kenny Agostino

OUT
Jake Gardiner
Nazem Kadri
Nakita Zaitsev
Josh Jooris
Tyler Ennis
Ron Hainsey
Patrick Marleau
Connor Brown
Garrett Sparks
Callen Rosen

RE-SIGNED
Andreas Johnsson
Kasperi Kapanen
Cody Ceci
Nick Shore
Michael Hutchinson
Martin Marincin

2018-19 Summary

Man, those expectations were so high. How could they not be?

Coming off a summer where they won the John Tavares sweepstakes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, now with one of most formidable offenses in the NHL, were supposed to compete for the Stanley Cup.

They had Matthews and Marner and Nylander and Rielly. Sure, there were questions on defense but they had Frederik Andersen to make up for any mishaps. And with all that firepower, they could just outscore their problems.

Everything looked in place, at least until it didn’t.

The first blow came when Nylander and the club came to an impasse in contract talks and he missed training camp and the first two months of the season before it got sorted out.

That defense didn’t quite hold up, sort of unsurprising since it wasn’t really addressed in the offseason. And Mike Babcock decided to be stubborn, culminating in a seemingly crazy decision not to play Matthews and Marner more when they needed them most in the playoffs.

Yes, the Leafs scrapped together a 100-point season despite their underlying issues. But when the Bruins stood in front in the playoffs, as they’d done before in the postseason, a similar result emerged: disappointment by way of underachieving.

Welcome to the throes of beings one of the NHL’s most storied teams, one that has been marred by a monumental championship drought and years upon years of coming up short.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Tavares alone couldn’t save them, despite a career year that saw him establish new highs in goals (47) and points (88). For the second straight year, Auston Matthews missed a considerable chunk of time due to injury.

So general manager Kyle Dubas has gone about re-tooling his team in search of the right mix.

Nazem Kadri is out, sent to Colorado for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot. The Leafs addressed one issue with the move, as Tyson Barrie is expected to add some defense to the blue line. But the team seems to have lost Jake Gardiner, although the unrestricted free agent has yet to sign with a new team as of yet.

But Dubas and the Leafs have another distraction their hands: the needed contract for Marner.

Marner, like several big-ticket free agents, has yet to sign. And while others are expected to get deals done prior to training camp, it looks more and more likely that Marner misses some time.

He’s already searching for a team to train with if a deal doesn’t get done. Posturing? Maybe. But Marner wants a lot of money and the Leafs don’t really have much wiggle room. Instead of heading into the season with a clear mind, it appears the Leafs will have a repeat of Nylander’s situation from a year ago, and we saw how they turned out for Nylander’s performance.

Deals for Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are completed, at least. But it’s hard to understate how big a loss it would be for Marner to miss any regular-season time. You don’t not feel the loss of your leading point-producer, no matter who else is on the team.

Still, Dubas has done well to navigate the salary cap. Moving Zaitsev’s contract out was a shrewd move, as too was shipping out the final year of Patrick Marleau’s deal, even if it cost a first-round pick.

The team will also have a fresh set of eyes from the bench with new assistants in Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck