For most of the season and even previous years, many have pointed to the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line as their obvious weakness. Even with their glut of talented forwards, the team struggled at times because of the lack of defensive awareness or skill on the back end. With Travis Dermott’s emergence late last season that was partially corrected, and when the team went out and acquired Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings the group took another step forward. While they were obviously left-heavy, there was enough talent there to perhaps take the team deep into the playoffs. That’s why they ultimately decided against adding another name at the trade deadline, given the high prices floated around for available right-handed defensemen.
Now though, that decision looks like a mistake. The Maple Leafs announced yesterday that Jake Gardiner would be out on a week-to-week basis with a back injury, and then lost Dermott during the game to a shoulder injury. Head coach Mike Babcock used the same designation as Gardiner to describe Dermott’s injury timeline, though the team has not given any additional information. That’s two major pieces down in a matter of days, and James Mirtle of The Athletic (subscription required) writes that Gardiner’s injury may actually be similar to the one Zach Parise dealt with that cost him 39 games last season. If that’s true, there’s a chance that Gardiner isn’t even ready to help the team in the playoffs at all.
The Maple Leafs will recall Martin Marincin today and will ice him alongside Justin Holl in tonight’s game against the New York Islanders. The pair has incredibly totaled just 20 games at any level this season, instead spending most of the year in the press box watching the action. That’s a disastrous place for a playoff contender to be in, even if both have shown at least some level of competence in the past.
Muzzin, who has averaged just over 19 minutes a game since arriving in Toronto (well under his career norm), will now have to take on much more responsibility down the stretch. He and Morgan Rielly will likely anchor the first two pairs and powerplay units, while Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev continue their work on the penalty kill.
After last night’s win against the Edmonton Oilers, the Maple Leafs sit third in the Atlantic Division but right on the heels of the Boston Bruins. The last 19 games of the season will determine who of those two receives home ice advantage in an almost certain first-round matchup, something that has had dire consequences in recent years. Without Gardiner and Dermott for a good chunk of the year, it will be extremely tough to secure that spot.