justin holl, Morgan Rielly, Rasmus Sandin, Toronto Maple Leafs, Travis Dermott

Maple Leafs’ Injuries Present Opportunity for Youth

There has been a feeling of panic over the past few weeks, as a series of injuries to Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Andreas Johnsson, and Frederik Andersen has thrown the Toronto Maple Leafs off course. General manager Kyle Dubas added Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford to address the team’s goaltending and toughness issues, but many fans were looking for more at the Feb. 24 trade deadline.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Tyson Barrie was a hot topic approaching the deadline. The pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) was considered a solid trade piece since it’s unlikely the Maple Leafs will be able to afford to re-sign him in the offseason. When they acquired him from the Colorado Avalanche, Colorado retained 50% of his salary leaving the Maple Leafs with a $2.75 million cap hit. He didn’t get the first-round pick and a prospect he was looking for, so Dubas did not move Barrie just for the sake of moving him.

Big Wins Overshadowed by Injury

While things are looking up for the Maple Leafs after two huge wins on their Florida trip, the next weeks will not be easy as the team lost Jake Muzzin to a broken hand in their 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20 and adding a depth defenseman at the trade deadline would have been beneficial, but no one could have seen this injury coming. Trading Barrie for future assets could have ruined the Maple Leafs’ season given the injuries to their defensemen.

Related: Maple Leafs Extend Muzzin After Lacklustre Trade Deadline

Now, without three defensemen who account for an average total time on ice (TOI) of 66:21, the Maple Leafs must look to their future for help. If you were a fan of the Toronto Marlies’ 2018 Calder Cup-winning team, then this Maple Leafs’ defensive core might be the one for you. Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, Timothy Liljegren, Martin Marincin, and Calle Rosen were all key pieces in that 2018 championship. Now, they will need to carry their team to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, at least until reinforcements come in late-March.

Marlies defenseman Timothy Liljegren
Timothy Liljegren (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With ice time up for grabs and the Leafs set to say goodbye to Ceci and Barrie after this season, these youngsters have the opportunity to play their way onto the 2020-21 roster. Rielly, Muzzin, and Holl look like the only three locks on defence for next season. Holl has had a breakout season and has been crucial to the team’s back-end since injuries hit.

Former Marlies Holding Their Own

Since Feb. 8, Holl has led the team in TOI averaging 23:14 per game. With a three-year extension at $2 million that kicks in next season, he could turn into one of the best defensive bargains out there. The Maple Leafs need impactful low cap hit players to be successful with $40.46 million tied up in their big-four forwards.

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Pending restricted free agent (RFA) Dermott is a question mark. Muzzin’s extension, Holl’s breakout season, and promising defensive prospects Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin could make him expendable. While he shows promise, he does not fill the right-shot, big, physical description the Maple Leafs are looking for. It’s possible that Dermott and forward Kasperi Kapanen are moved in order to make room for a piece that fills what appears to be the biggest hole in the Maple Leafs’ lineup.

Defensive prospect Rasmus Sandin has also shown promise in his young career. The 19-year-old Swedish defenseman was picked 29th overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and is considered the Maple Leafs’ top prospect. He is still very young, and it has shown at points in his 25-game NHL career. He has made some questionable decisions and shown tentative play with the puck, but these things are normal for teenagers in the league. His entry-level contract runs through the 2021-22 season and he should be a key piece to the team’s blue line going forward.

While the Maple Leafs will probably add another defenseman in the offseason, the most likely five players to be on the blue line next season are Rielly, Muzzin, Holl, Dermott, and Sandin. This leaves some room for players with a chance to prove themselves in the next month. Liljegren is still a highly-touted prospect but has been outplayed by Sandin in their early careers. The acquisition of Calle Rosen at the deadline provides some defensive depth, and his familiarity with coach Sheldon Keefe is a plus.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With just 17 games remaining, it will be an all-out battle for the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs. The club needs their stars to step up, and their youngsters to hold their own. If they can maintain or build on their current position until mid-March, they will be in a good position ahead of playoffs with Rielly and Muzzin projected to return to the lineup.

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