In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll try to help fans stay up-to-date with some of the changes happening with the team as it prepares for Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. I’ll particularly focus on the defensive changes necessitated by the injury to Jake Muzzin.
Item One: The Status of Jake Muzzin
The Maple Leafs must be relieved going into Game 3 for two reasons. First, they went after the Blue Jackets with wave after wave of offense and, although the great goaltending of 26-year-old Joonas Korpisalo was frustrating, they finally solved the problem and never looked back. Now the series is tied 1-1 and the Maple Leafs have an edge of momentum.
But there’s a second more human reason to be relieved. After their stellar defenseman and leader Jake Muzzin stayed on the ice for what seemed like an eternity and was finally carried off on a stretcher, we’ve learned that his injury isn’t serious. In fact, he was discharged from the hospital and is now quarantined in the hotel waiting to rejoin his team. The Maple Leafs will miss his leadership, but it’s good that he’s not seriously injured.
Muzzin will not return for the remainder of the qualifying round series against the Blue Jackets. However, it’s good news that he was discharged and remains in the bubble.
How much will he be missed? He skates the toughest minutes on the team and plays against their opponent’s top lines. He’s one of a few physical players the team ices and he leads the team in hits. As captain John Tavares noted after the game, Muzzin’s contribution cannot be measured. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has called Muzzin the “conscience” of the Maple Leafs.
Given the unique circumstances of his injury that forced emergency medical staff to seek immediate help outside the bubble and then have him returned to quarantine, it’s fair to ask how soon Muzzin will be able to play if or when he’s healthy. If he’s cleared by the Maple Leafs’ medical staff to return to on-ice action, how soon could that happen? He was the first player during the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round to leave the bubble for emergency treatment.
NHL protocol notes that any player who returns to the bubble from an “excused exit” must quarantine until they receive four consecutive negative tests for COVID-19 in a four-day time frame. However, TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported two days ago that Muzzin might not be subjected to that protocol since there’s no hard-and-fast rule that governs treatment for injuries outside the league’s triage center.
Seravalli reported that the decision is in the hands of the NHL’s Hub Medical Director, who would consult with the Event Medical Director. The final decision would be based on an assessment of Muzzin’s exposure outside the bubble. Right now, we have no idea of his prognosis, but, should he be well enough to play, could this protocol shorten the amount of time he is sidelined?
If he’s physically recovered and is subject to the original protocol, Muzzin would need four straight days of negative tests. That means the best-case scenario for his return would be on Sunday for Game 5 if needed. However, the Maple Leafs have already announced that he’s out for the series.
We hope that announcement is precautionary and not because his injury is serious. So much is up in the air because of these unique circumstances, but logic would suggest it’s good news Muzzin is back in his hotel, and hopefully he is not done the postseason.
Item Two: Martin Marincin Will Be Promoted to the Lineup
Late last night, Sportsnet’s Mark Masters reported that Martin Marincin would replace Muzzin in the lineup for Thursday’s Game 3. Marincin has been the team’s seventh defenseman and brings experience to the penalty kill. During Wednesday’s practice, he was on a defensive pairing with Tyson Barrie.
As Masters reported, it would be Marincin’s first postseason game since the 2017 Playoffs against the Washington Capitals. Keefe noted that he believes the Slovakian defenseman, “brings some of the elements that Muzz brings. In particular, the penalty kill, the size and all those types of things, there are some similarities there in terms of what he can provide us and we think that’s important.”
Keefe knows Marincin well. The 6-foot-5 defenseman helped his coach and the Toronto Marlies win the 2018 Calder Cup. In addition, he skated in 26 games for the Maple Leafs during the regular season.
Item Three: Travis Dermott Taking Muzzin’s Job in Shutdown Pairing
Wednesday’s practice made it clear that Travis Dermott will partner with Justin Holl as the team’s top defense pairing. Given the many regular-season injuries, it’s not a new responsibility for Dermott. He was promoted to the top defensive pairing for six games before the COVID-19-induced suspension. That experience must give Keefe confidence that the 23-year-old can handle the job when called upon.
Dermott had a slow start to the regular season after returning from shoulder surgery. However, he played some of his best hockey in late February and early March after the defensive injuries occurred. When Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci were all sidelined at the same time, Dermott and his former Marlies teammate Holl took on the opposition’s top lines.
Keefe noted, “Both guys were taking on greater responsibility. Holl had really been doing it most of the season, taking a big step in terms of his responsibility and his role. Dermott’s evolving and taking on more as it comes. It’s really been injury situations that’s given him more opportunity throughout the entire season and this is no different.”
Item Four: Will Rasmus Sandin Play?
Masters also noted that Keefe revealed he would consider dressing seven defensemen on Thursday, which means rookie Rasmus Sandin might make his NHL playoff debut. He has played 28 NHL games and has an offensive upside to his game.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun noted that the Maple Leafs might use seven “regular” defensemen during Game 3. If that’s the case, Marincin could take on penalty-killing duties and some even-strength shifts, with Sandin playing when his skills are best utilized.
The downside of using seven defensemen is sitting a forward. If that’s the case, who will sit?
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The jury’s out on how the Maple Leafs’ defense might perform during the playoffs. During the regular season, they seemed duct-taped together in many games because of injuries.
The team is in better shape now than it was, but two things matter: first, this is the postseason and, second, this is the postseason. Game 3 will be interesting.