Travis Dermott

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 30 free agents; Pacioretty’s career year

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Former NHLer Mike Brown explains how he was able to make it to the highest level. (Puck Junk)

• The Hockey News breaks down the top 30 free agents to be. (The Hockey News)

Justin Holl and Travis Dermott have really helped the Maple Leafs blue line. (TSN)

• It’s been a tough year for Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. (Hockey Wilderness)

• It might be time for the Preds to turn to Juuse Saros a little more often. (Predlines)

• What are the fancy stats saying about the Los Angeles Kings? (Jewels from the Crown)

Max Pacioretty is on pace to have a career year. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Coyotes have loaned Barrett Hayton to Team Canada for the World Juniors. (Five for Howling)

• The Blues are about to have a lot of tough decisions to make on their roster. (Bleedin’ Blue)

• It’s time for the Lightning to give Cal Foote a chance to make their roster. (Raw Charge)

• Is it time for the Devils to start worrying about Jesper Bratt? (All About the Jersey)

• Cayden Primeau is showing that he’s already NHL ready. (Habs Eyes on Prize)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Maple Leafs hoping ‘sour’ taste from rough loss leads to wake-up call

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PHILADELPHIA — During a pregame media availability on Tuesday, Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson described the adjustment period so far under new head coach Sheldon Keefe as “a little up and down.”

“We have good periods and then we have bad periods,” Johnsson said. “Whenever you play you’re going to have bad periods because the other team is good, too. [We want to make them shorter] when it doesn’t go your way.”

The Maple Leafs had a good opening period against the Flyers Tuesday night, peppering Carter Hart with 15 shots. But they couldn’t crack the netminder, and while they managed to even the score at one midway through the third period, thanks to a fortuitous bounce, the rest of that final period? Mark that down as one of those “bad periods” Johnsson was talking about.

Eighty-eight seconds after Travis Dermott’s tying goal, Claude Giroux scored to help the Flyers regain the lead. 

That’s when the wheels fell off.

As the Maple Leafs pushed for an equalizer, poor puck containment in the offensive zone led to a two-on-one break the other way with Travis Konecny leading the charge. As Konecny’s shot was making its way through Frederik Andersen’s five hole, the goaltender knew he was beat and threw his head back in frustration.

After Joel Farabee put in an empty-netter to make it 4-1, Andersen went back in net for the final two minutes and promptly surrendered two goals in 12 seconds as the Flyers were 6-1 victors.

“We still had a couple minutes left, but we let in that empty net goal and I mean, we can’t just fold like that,” said Auston Matthews. “It’s unacceptable to do that to our starting goalie, a guy that’s stolen games for us. He’s been a brick wall for us all year. That’s just unacceptable on our part. We can’t just fold, that’s unacceptable. We just let him out to dry, breakaway, two-on-ones, odd man rushes all in the last minute and suddenly the score is 6-1, so that’s on us. That just can��t happen.”

The Maple Leafs netminder wasn’t happy with his teammates’ performance in the final five minutes. As soon as the buzzer sounded, he made a bee-line for the tunnel.

“I don’t really worry about me. I worry more about the way we played for the logo on the jersey,” Andersen said afterward. “I think we’ve got to get more pride than that. Hopefully we can respond and show what kind of character we have.”

(Andersen also sounded off on the lackluster effort of his teammates two years following a loss to the Flyers. )

Keefe had some things to say to his players afterward as he went into the dressing room and spoke to the team following the game, something he hasn’t done since taking over for Mike Babcock two weeks ago.

“Normally I would not go in after a loss or a game like this but I felt like it was important to address that situation,” Keefe said. “We want to be a team of high character and that cares for one another and I thought we just left our goaltender completely out to dry there and stopped playing, so that’s not a good sign for our group, but hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need. 

“I think as I look back on the game as that third period is unfolding, I think we saw two different teams. One that has kind of figured out how to win and know what their recipe is and another on our side that’s trying to find its way. I think that’s the difference in the game.”

The Maple Leafs are still learning Keefe’s system and Keefe is still learning his players’ tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses of their games. There’s plenty to clean up defensively, and that’s the goal in the coming weeks. They’re now 4-2-0 since the coaching change and now isn’t the time to lose the early momentum gained from firing Babcock.

“I think over time I’m starting to learn that a little bit of where we’re at and we’ll continue to make strides, but we don’t have a whole lot of time here,” Keefe said. “We’re going to get right back at it with a very good team [Colorado] waiting for us in Toronto. 

“We’ve got to regroup here really quickly and hopefully the way this game finished will leave a sour enough taste in our mouth that we’ll be coming out [Wednesday] and show we’re a different group.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.