Earlier today, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that defenseman Morgan Rielly was injured during Sunday night’s game against the Florida Panthers and is expected to miss eight weeks with a fractured foot. The injury is just the latest in a litany of unfortunate injuries that have struck the Maple Leafs this season.
When It Rains It Pours
So far this season the Leafs have endured/are enduring absences due to injury from John Tavares (finger), Ilya Mikheyev (wrist), Jake Muzzin (foot), Mitchell Marner (ankle), Travis Dermott (shoulder), Zach Hyman (ACL), Andreas Johnsson (leg), and Trevor Moore (concussion).
Although there is hardly an ideal time for a team to lose a top-four defenseman, Rielly’s injury, at a time when the Leafs are barely hanging on to a playoff spot, particularly hurts. However, a possible silver lining to be found in this raincloud of doom is that with the recent reports that Rielly had been playing through an injury all season, adversely affecting his play, perhaps this enforced layoff is just what is needed for Rielly to recover and return to his Norris-trophy caliber play.
In response to the injury, Leafs’ top prospect Rasmus Sandin has been recalled from the Toronto Marlies.
The 19-year-old Swedish defenseman recently competed in the World Junior Hockey Championships and was named top defenseman of the tournament for his stellar play. Having already played six games earlier this season, the rookie only needs to play four more games for this season to count against his ELC (Entry Level Contract).
It will be interesting to see how head coach Sheldon Keefe deploys his defensive troops, a group largely held together with duct tape and dental floss for long stretches this season. Recently, Keefe had been pairing Rielly with Tyson Barrie in a sheltered role (Muzzin-Holl/Dermott-Holl receiving the bulk of the defensive match-up duties).
There is certainly a comfort level between Sandin and Keefe; last season during the Marlies playoff run Sandin was repeatedly double-shifted by Keefe, even in playoff elimination games. Whether Keefe feels comfortable giving Sandin a top-four role straight away or promoting Marincin/Ceci to said role remains to be seen. There should be clarity as soon as Tuesday, with the Leafs playing host to the flailing New Jersey Devils.
Additionally, Keefe will need to replace Rielly’s minutes on the second power-play unit, I would expect Dermott to fill this role initially but wouldn’t be surprised if Sandin gets a look-in at a later point.
Trade, Claim or Hold?
With the Leafs now missing their top-two left-shot defenseman for a considerable period of time, General Manager Kyle Dubas must decide what course of action to take. To paraphrase hockey analyst/insider Elliot Friedman, “When you’re drowning as a GM, other GM’s aren’t throwing you life-buoys, they’re throwing you anchors”. Although most Leafs fans are eager for Dubas to pull the trigger on a trade, all 30 other GMs are likewise eager to capitalise on Dubas’ all-too-apparent desperation and fleece the Leafs in a lop-sided deal.
That’s not to say that a deal can’t be made with another team. Just this week Friedman reported that the Leafs were interested in San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon. It remains to be seen what the Sharks asking price will be on the 29-year-old left-shot defenseman but salary will need to either be retained by San Jose or go back the other way to balance Dillon’s $3.27 million cap hit.
Another option could be to hope that a reasonable defenseman is made available on waivers that the Leafs are able to acquire. Although there are exceptions, waiver claims rarely amount to much. It’s kind of like being the younger sibling and relying on hand-me-downs from your older sibling. There’s usually a good reason why your sibling no longer wants a particular clothing item and is willing to give it up for free.
With that in mind, I would be very surprised if Dubas made any sort of trade or claim prior to the upcoming All-Star break. Both Keefe and himself will likely test what Sandin is capable of at the NHL level, juggle the lines to determine whether Marincin/Ceci is capable of playing up the line-up without causing a Chernobyl-esque meltdown, and focus on replacing Rielly’s role by incumbent committee rather than acquisition.
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