Terrible news on the injury front for the Toronto Maple Leafs: Morgan Rielly is the second top-four left-handed defenseman on the team to suffer a broken foot this month. After taking a shot to the foot in Florida on Sunday night, Rielly will be out for a minimum of eight weeks.
The bad luck continues for the Leafs on the injury front and for Rielly in particular, as the Leafs‘ number-one defenseman was said to be slowly working his way back to 100% after a lower-body injury impacted his play in the first half of his season. With a timeline of eight weeks before the injury will be re-evaluated, Rielly is likely looking at a mid-March return at the absolute earliest. As a result, the Leafs now have a giant hole to fill on their blue line — Rielly leads all Leafs skaters in total time on ice (24:15) and even-strength time on ice (19:55), in addition to playing a regular role on the penalty kill (2:00/game).
In wake of the news, the team called up 19-year-old defenseman Rasmus Sandin, who was back with the Marlies after returning from winning a bronze medal as well as defenseman of the tournament honours at the 2020 World Junior championships. Sandin should be re-entering the fold riding high in confidence coming off of a dominant WJC showing that saw him tally three goals and 10 points in seven games, but he’s about to face a stiff test. With the losses of Jake Muzzin and Rielly, he is guaranteed to play significantly more minutes than the 12:13 he averaged per game in his six-game stint after making the team out of camp.
The defense pairings may now undergo a total restructuring; it’s possible Rasmus Sandin steps in next to Tyson Barrie and the Leafs run Dermott – Holl / Sandin – Barrie / Marincin – Ceci, but that depends on how comfortable Keefe is with throwing Sandin into the deep end after his minutes were tightly managed by Mike Babcock in his initial stint with the big club in October. It’s possible Martin Marincin moves up while Keefe evaluates where Sandin’s game sits at the NHL level.
Needless to say, the Leafs’ depth on the blue line is now facing a serious stress-test with the team in the thick of a tightly-contested battle for playoff seeding in the East — at a time when the team has lost three in a row for the first time under Keefe while conceding 17 goals in those losses. Making matters worse, starting goaltender Frederik Andersen is battling through a slump by his standards; he’s been below .900 in save percentage in six of his last eight starts (.880 save percentage, pulled twice from the net). Andersen getting back on track in short order is now all the more imperative. Needless to say, the Leafs are going to need his best hockey to still be ahead of him this season.
This is also an even bigger test upcoming for Travis Dermott than it was already. In the past two weeks, the Leafs have lost their two veteran top-four defensemen who have taken on the bulk of the matchup minutes in the last two seasons in Rielly and Jake Muzzin. It’s less of an audition for Dermott now than it is a trial by fire, as Keefe has few other options to turn to in terms of LHD with credible NHL experience. In Dermott – Holl, the Leafs’ top pairing is now a bottom-pairing defenseman from last season who was out injured to start the year along with a journeyman defenseman who wasn’t initially expected to make the team out of camp.
How this impacts the Leafs’ deadline plans is also a storyline that will begin to unfold in the coming weeks. Any addition the team makes will need to be factored into the cap calculation for when Morgan Rielly and his $5 million — which now goes onto LTIR — return to the fold likely sometime in mid-to-late March. The Leafs have not been accruing any cap space due to their LTIR use.
It would not be a stretch to say how the Leafs’ blue line deals with this adversity combined with how Andersen rebounds after a recent dip in his play is going to make or break the Leafs’ playoff chances down the stretch.
All told, here is the injury chart for the Leafs for the 2019-20 season:
|Forwards||Man Games Lost||Defensemen||Man Games Lost|
|John Tavares||7||Travis Dermott||13|
|Mitch Marner||11||Jake Muzzin||8|
|Andreas Johnsson||15||Morgan Rielly|
If we go by CHIP — Cap Hit of Injured Players, representing the per-game cap charge of a player missing a game through injury — the Leafs rank as the fourth-most affected by injuries this season, and they’ll continue to climb now that Morgan Rielly ($5 million cap hit) is sidelined for a considerable chunk of games, while Muzzin, Moore, and Mikheyev remain on the shelf.
A 9-10-4 start, a coaching change, and a seemingly unending string of injuries (many to their core players) — the Leafs are dealing with it all this year, and we’re about to find out what they’re made of.