When the Toronto Maple Leafs lost defenseman Jake Muzzin earlier this season, ouch. He was a physical defenseman, and had proven to be a difference-maker for the team. But the organization had covered for his absence in the past and could cover again.
The Maple Leafs still had Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie as their top two defensemen. Then Brodie suffered an oblique injury, and the team covered by bringing up veteran Jordie Benn. Benn played quite well partnering with Rielly on the team’s top-pairing.
Then, Rielly injured his knee. Things began to get scary. In quick order, Benn was injured. That left Mark Giordano, the oldest NHL skater this season, partnered with Justin Holl, who many fans couldn’t wait to get rid of, as the top-pairing.
The second pairing was made up of young Swedes Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Certainly, the organization had hoped these two defensemen would become part of the organization’s future, but not so soon, thank you. Finally, the team’s third-pairing became – because there were few other choices – Victor Mete and (eventually) Mac Hollowell.
Surprise, the Maple Leafs Didn’t Go into the Tank
But the Maple Leafs didn’t fall apart. Even with Muzzin, Brodie, Rielly, and Benn injured and unable to play, the team covered quite nicely. On the surface, at least, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t panic, and it was next-man-up.
So far, it’s worked. In the team’s last 10 games, they’ve put together a record of 7-0-3. They had an outstanding November, ending with a record of 11-1-3 (and 25 points). Heading into Dallas to play the Stars tomorrow night, the Maple Leafs have 35 points. That’s two points better than their record last season at the same time.
The team’s record is incredible given the injuries this team’s suffered thus far. Although I’m talking about injuries on the defense here, both goalies were hurt. Yet the team has battled through and currently sits fourth overall in the NHL.
In the process, the Maple Leafs have learned more about the depth of its organization. They DO have organizational depth; they are NOT devoid of prospects, and the Maple Leafs have drafted and signed some solid young players. Even with the call-ups, the Toronto Marlies now sit first in the American Hockey League’s North Division with a record of 13-7-1.
The Injured Defense Will Be Returning Soon
The most recent word is that Brodie is travelling with the team. While there’s no announcement about when he’ll return, his presence on the trip is a good sign for the team’s fortunes. For the present, the team has weathered the storm. There seems no need to panic or rush any decision about the Maple Leafs’ defense at this point.
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However, the truth remains that, while the team can cover for these injured defensemen in the regular season, the postseason is a different story. If the Maple Leafs hope to pack their bags for a long Stanley Cup journey at the end of this season, these defensemen will be needed – and maybe a little bit more.
Here’s Where John Klingberg Comes into Play
Looking forward to the postseason, the name of defenseman John Klingberg (now playing with the Anaheim Ducks) has continued to pop up as a potential “rental” at the season’s trade deadline. However, I don’t think picking him up as a rental is the best option.
I’m not a fan of rentals unless they hold the possibility of turning out like Giordano. Giordano wanted to remain with the team past the end of the season. And what a player he’s turned out to be for this team. It would be hard to imagine the team weathering its injuries on defense without him.
Right now, I see no reason for the Maple Leafs to make any trades prior to the trade deadline. Given the team’s recent record and the fact that injured defensemen will likely soon return, why now?
The remainder of the season – unless things go horribly wrong – can be a time of testing. Can Sandin and Liljigren continue to grow with more NHL game action? How will the organization’s depth defensemen produce and grow with NHL experience? These are good things to learn about the future.
A Trade Deadline Deal for Klingberg Might Be Possible
In my opinion, trading for a defenseman makes no sense until later in the regular season. The defense has been hanging in there. The Maple Leafs are playing structurally sound team defense, and goalies Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray are giving the team a chance to win every night.
However, the trade deadline is a different kettle of fish. Things could fall into place for the Maple Leafs to find another defenseman like Giordano, who isn’t a rental but who would stay past the end of the season.
That defenseman could be Klingberg. I like the 30-year-old Klingberg as an option first because he’s a good defenseman. Second, Klingberg fits the team’s way of playing. Third, the Maple Leafs might re-sign him past this season.
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If there’s a chance the team can bring Klingberg onto the roster without emptying the cupboard; and if there’s a chance to re-sign him for a longer term in Toronto, I think general manager Kyle Dubas should jump into the mix to see if they can land his services.
Klingberg Could Be a Great Fit with the Maple Leafs
First, Klingberg’s a solid defenseman. He’s a strong skater whose speed can disrupt plays at the blue line. He’s unlikely to panic in the face of heavy forechecking, which is something that threw the Maple Leafs off their game in the playoffs – especially against a defensive team like the Montreal Canadiens two postseasons ago.
Klingberg eats up minutes to the average of 22:58 a game. He also fits the Maple Leafs’ belief that the best defense is when the puck is in the other team’s end. In short, Klingberg fits immediately this season and also into the future.
Klingberg might be an expensive pickup, but he makes sense for this iteration of the Maple Leafs as they move into the future past this regular season. Sadly, I’m betting that Muzzin won’t be back in the lineup – ever. His salary-cap hit could be utilized toward Klingberg’s next contract.
Would the Salming Experience Attract Klingberg to Toronto?
The Maple Leafs’ recent tribute to Borje Salming during Hall of Fame weekend was impactful for Swedish players. The Maple Leafs are a winning team, but they also are a first-class organization. It’s clear Maple Leafs’ fans both welcome and embrace Swedish players.
That the Maple Leafs started six Swedes against the Vancouver Canucks put the Köttbullar (Swedish meatballs) on the table. The Maple Leafs are an organization where a Swedish player like Klingberg could make his home. In addition, for all the great places in the United States to live, having often worked in Europe, I believe Canada is more like home to Swedes than the United States could be.
The Salming tribute, the fact that this team is a winning team, and the organization’s reputation might be attractive to Klingberg long term. In addition to being a good defenseman, Klingberg is a Swedish defenseman – like Salming.
Giordano came home to Toronto. Any chance, like Salming, Klingberg would be attracted to Toronto as a place to call home – long term?
That might be a possibility to explore at the trade deadline.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf