As their IR list continues to grow, the Toronto Maple Leafs will attempt to end a three-game losing slide without their two best defensemen against the 17-21-7 New Jersey Devils tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. ET, SNO).
Morgan Rielly’s eight-week (minimum) injury timeline comes at a time when Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin are all already on the shelf. It all adds up, but the loss of a couple of middle-six forwards, for a team with the Leafs‘ depth upfront, obviously isn’t as taxing as the loss of their two top minute-munching defensemen at 5v5. This will be a major midseason test of the team’s depth and resolve at a time when the Leafs are in need of a response to one of their worst losses of the season in Florida.
The silver lining in a tough circumstance like this one comes in the opportunities it provides to not only young players like Rasmus Sandin and — potentially — Timothy Liljegren, but also the increased roles it gives to players normally slotted further down in the lineup order. In the center of that is Travis Dermott, who is now playing on the team’s top pairing alongside Justin Holl — a duo that, before the recent Jake Muzzin injury, last spent time together during one of Holl’s rare appearances out of the press box under Mike Babcock in 2018-19.
This callup is a huge opportunity for the 19-year-old Sandin, who can prove himself ready and able to be a full-time NHL regular going forward. Sandin played six games at the beginning of the season for the Leafs, averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time. This is a vastly different callup for him this time, though. The World Junior experience — 10 points in seven games for Sweden, and defenseman of the tournament honours — and more all-situations minutes in the AHL hopefully serve as confidence builders, but there is also the fact that he’s going to take more shifts this time under a different but familiar head coach in a new system that should play to his strengths as a cerebral, mobile puck-moving defenseman who is strong in possession.
Before Sunday’s game, it looked like would be another game the team would target as a potential start for Michael Hutchinson at home against a weaker opponent, but considering the downward slide Frederik Andersen has been on lately, getting his game and his confidence back on track is a bigger priority for the team, especially now that Hutchinson has a few wins under his belt.
Andersen is 0-2-1 in his last three starts and has given up 10 goals in those games — granted, with some poor defensive play in front of him — and has seen his save percentage dip down to .910 (all situations) while allowing 8.1 more goals than expected this season, which puts him at 46th of 61 goalies with 300 minutes or more.
For the Devils, Louis Domingue will start with Mackenzie Blackwood out with an injury (Cory Schneider has returned from the AHL and will backup). Domingue has only started seven games this year, posting a .898 Sv% — below his career average .906 — after a solid 26 starts as Andrei Vasilevskiy’s backup in Tampa Bay last year.
Game Day Quotes
John Tavares on the team’s continued injury problems:
We’ve done a good job of continuing to be positive every game. Guys continue to step up and look for the opportunity. We’ve done a pretty fair job so far. There are lots of teams that have had injuries but had some success, too. We just try to focus on our group — we’ve got good depth, good talent throughout our lineup, and obviously, with the guys that have come up from the Marlies as well. We’ll continue to look forward to those challenges.
Morgan Rielly on his injury diagnosis:
Just part of the journey, I guess. It happens to everyone, I’m not going to be overly dramatic about it. It is what it is. We’ve got a great training staff here — great doctors — so I’m not worried. I’m just going to work hard and try to get back.
Rasmus Sandin on getting familiar with his new partner Cody Ceci:
We had good communication, I think. Just this morning I talked to him a little bit. I think we’ll keep communicating out there with what he wants me to do and what I’m doing well.
Sheldon Keefe on Morgan Rielly’s injury and its effect on the team:
Yeah, there’s definitely some heightened awareness to it, which I think is a healthy thing for our team. It’s a good opportunity for us to rally as a group here. It’s a significant loss for us, as was Jake Muzzin. When Muzz went out, we played some good hockey and found ways to win games consistently. That’s gotten away from us here now, so it’s a bit of time for reflection for us as a team of where we need to get better and make up for these types of losses.
Keefe on whether the team is going to change how it plays to adjust to the injuries:
We don’t think we need to change the way we play in relation to our philosophy of how we want to play. The execution needs to be better. It needed to get better even if we were fully healthy. We haven’t played good enough in that sense.
To me, we are not playing the way we want to play. We can get better in that area. There is heightened awareness to it now, both in the injuries and in the results last week. It is a good chance for us to get better as a team.
The elite teams in the league don’t get fazed by these sorts of situations. We want to be an elite team and we believe we are an elite team with the ability to take big steps as a group. It is a really good opportunity for us individually and collectively to do just that.
Keefe on how fluid the defense pairings are going into the game:
I would say they’re fluid. We’re just going to see how it goes. We’ve got some question marks there, right? How is Sandin going to adjust back in? How is he going to pair with Ceci, who has never played with? How does it affect the other pairs? When you’ve got two important pieces like this out, you are going to have some new things that you’re trying and new opportunities that you’re giving guys. We’ll monitor it.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #47 Pierre Engvall – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#33 Frederik Gauthier – #77 Adam Brooks – #19 Jason Spezza
#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#52 Martin Marincin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov, Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#37 Pavel Zacha – #13 Nico Hischier – #63 Jesper Bratt
#20 Blake Coleman – #19 Travis Zajac – #97 Nikita Gusev
#44 Miles Wood – #86 Jack Hughes – #17 Wayne Simmonds
#90 Jesper Bodqvist – #16 Kevin Rooney – #15 John Hayden
#6 Andy Greene – #76 P.K Subban
#28 Damon Severson – #45 Sami Vatanen
#8 Will Butcher – #5 Connor Carrick
#70 Louis Domingue (starter)
#35 Cory Schneider
Injured: Mackenzie Blackwood, Kyle Palmeri