It may appear, at least on the surface, to be foolish if you were to think about the 2020-2021 Maple Leafs blue line while there’s so much uncertainty and consternation surrounding this year’s defensive group. But with the trade deadline just 11 days away, and the primary target for the Leafs rumored to be a defenceman – specifically one with term beyond this season – Kyle Dubas and his management team can’t consider anyone without looking forward to next season.
As it stands, Morgan Rielly and Justin Holl are the only Leafs defencemen from what would be considered the core six through the majority of the season who are under contract for next year. Rielly and Holl, along with Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott, and Cody Ceci have made up the Leafs defensive unit for most of this season but that landscape has changed significantly in recent weeks as injuries have mounted on Toronto’s back end.
At no point this season have the Leafs had all hands on deck. It began with Travis Dermott on the shelf to start the season, and has continued with Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci all missing extended periods of time. But have those injuries, which have provided opportunities for some names lower on the depth chart, actually helped the Leafs management and coaching staff forecast a group with which they’d be comfortable with going forward?
Justin Holl has taken full advantage of his chance to play consistent minutes this season after playing just 11 games a season ago, establishing himself as an effective NHL defenceman on the way to earning a new 3 year, $6 million contract extension at the end of December. Now the Leafs are hoping that their prized rookie defencemen, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, can begin to establish themselves in a similar fashion.
Rasmus Sandin started the season by somewhat surprisingly making the Leafs opening night roster and played 6 games before being sent to the Marlies to continue his development by playing a larger role. He has played in 11 more NHL games since his most recent recall and has racked up 1 goal and 6 assists through 17 total appearances while seeing time on both special teams units. It’s important to not make too much of small sample sizes, but some of his underlying numbers have been encouraging. Among NHL defenders who have played at least 150 minutes at 5v5, Sandin is currently 12th with a 55.33 CF%. That mark is the highest among Leafs defencemen and places him in the same company as high end blue liners like Jaccob Slavin and Torey Krug. Opponents are generating 24.34 scoring chances per 60 minutes with Sandin on the ice, sliding in just under Alex Pietrangelo and just above Brenden Dillon and Cale Makar. His expected goals for percentage of 50.06% is respectable, if unspectacular, for a 19 year old defenceman trying to find his footing in the NHL and he has shown poise controlling the puck and moving it out of his zone.
The Leafs first rounder from 2018 has shown plenty of reasons for fans to believe he’s ready to play an important role on an NHL team that’s in a fight for the playoffs. His coaches aren’t trying to hide him alongside a more experienced partner either, trusting him on a pair with fellow rookie Swede and former AHL partner Timothy Liljegren in the 3 games since Cody Ceci suffered an ankle injury.
Liljegren, who seemed to be falling out of favor a year ago, has burst back on to the scene, having a breakout season with the Marlies and looking very comfortable in his first few NHL games. Again, it’s difficult to take too much from a 4 game sample, but he’s fared well nonetheless. The Leafs have controlled 54.79% of the shot attempts with Liljegren on the ice at 5v5, placing him just behind Sandin’s team leading mark. His team is also generating 56.67% of the scoring chances with him out there, and giving up just 19.53 per 60 minutes, which is slightly better than potential deadline target and shutdown defender Jonas Brodin.
While there’s no such thing as mistake free hockey, especially when discussing two players who aren’t even old enough to drink south of the border, the smart decisions and good plays have so far outweighed the bad ones, and the numbers tend to agree.
Afforded the opportunity, these two youngsters may be on their way to proving they’re ready to be cemented into the top six not only for the rest of this season, but next season as well.
That could impact how the team moves forward in multiple ways. It could mean someone like Travis Dermott becomes available for an upgrade at the deadline, or that the team is less pressured to sign Jake Muzzin to a rich extension. It could even mean Morgan Rielly becomes available over the summer, something that seemed unthinkable a year ago. It could also mean the team relents on its desire to add a player with term beyond this season. A pure rental, even with so many expiring contracts on the back end, could be a short term fix to a problem which could very well solve itself through another offseason of development. There’s also the matter of roster flexibility going into the summer with plenty of money potentially coming off the books in the form of UFAs Barrie, Muzzin, and Ceci.
With six extremely important games left before the deadline, all eyes will be on the play of the Toronto blue line in anticipation of a move that could shape Toronto’s defensive core for years to come. A strong showing from the Leafs young third pair during this playoff push could help answer a lot of questions that Kyle Dubas surely has about the Leafs defence, both now and looking forward to next season.
Statistics from naturalstattrick.com