There will be no Mitch Marner, no Jason Spezza, no Rasmus Sandin, no Travis Dermott, and a pair of NHL debuts for Alex Steeves and Kristians Rubins for the Maple Leafs as they welcome the Columbus Blue Jackets to the SBA for the first time since their series-deciding Game 5 loss in August of 2020 (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).

Here is the rundown on the missing players for the Leafs:

  • Mitch Marner is dealing with a shoulder injury sustained in the collision with Jake Muzzin in practice that will keep him out of the lineup for approximately three-to-four weeks; it turned out to be worse than initially expected.
  • Travis Dermott is battling a less-serious shoulder injury; it is said to be closer to day-to-day than week-to-week.
  • Rasmus Sandin‘s knee injury sustained in the incident with Neal Pionk on Sunday in Winnipeg will keep him from the lineup for approximately two-to-three weeks. There was no structural damage to the knee, but it is going to take a few weeks for the swelling and bruising to subside.
  • Petr Mrazek is back with the Leafs after a conditioning stint with the Marlies and is nearing a return, but he will not back up behind Jack Campbell tonight.
  • Jason Spezza will be suspended for a yet-to-be-announced number of games.

The 82-game NHL season rarely provides smooth sailing for any team, and alas, the latest bout of adversity has arrived for the Leafs. They are coming off of back-to-back losses for the first time since late October, and they’ll now be without five regulars (including Ilya Mikheyev) due to suspension or injury.

The decision about a callup at forward surely came down to Josh Ho-Sang (nine goals, 13 points in 15 games) or Alex Steeves (seven goals, 12 points in 12 games), and Steeves had the advantage of being signed to an entry-level NHL contract that allows him to be freely moved back and forth between the levels. Ho-Sang’s opportunity may well come before the season is through, but waiting until he is over-ready before signing him to an NHL deal — which would make him waiver eligible in order to return to the AHL — is a sensible call in hopes that if/when he comes up, Ho-Sang will have a real chance to stay put. That seems to be the superior option to undertaking all of the developmental legwork on a reclamation project only to potentially hand him off to another organization once bodies return to the lineup.

On defense, 6’5, 220-pound Latvian defenseman Kristians Rubins will make his NHL debut on the bottom pairing with Timothy Liljegren. The undrafted 23-year-old has followed a Justin Holl-like path to his NHL debut having started in the ECHL on AHL contracts, succeeded within the Leafs‘ development program, and ascended through the ranks of the AHL in addition to some impressive showings for Team Latvia on the world stage. He’s a unique (older) prospect in the Leafs system between his size and overall mobility, but he has had to work on his puckhandling and puck movement at the professional level; it will be a good test for him in the limited time and space of the NHL game tonight.

Up front, with Marner and Spezza both unavailable, Wayne Simmonds will start on Auston Matthews’ wing, but as we saw in Minnesota and Winnipeg, Sheldon Keefe may be active about spotting in a William Nylander, Ondrej Kase, or John Tavares next to Matthews situationally. With neither Spezza or Marner available, Kase will step into the bumper role on the top power-play unit.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the debut opportunities for Kristians Rubins and Alex Steeves:

I am excited for them. Any time these injuries happen, opportunity opens up for others to come in. They are two guys we have been excited about here.

I am familiar with Rubins and coached him with the Marlies. I saw him come into the organization, working with us at the rookie tournament, and on to the Growlers at the ECHL level before making his way to the American league. My first training camp here — we had him involved playing preseason games. He really earned the respect of the group here — not just me but Dean Chynoweth and the rest of the coaching staff. He has done a good job with the Marlies. It is a good opportunity for him that we are excited to give to him.

Steeve is a guy we were really excited about looking at him through the summer. He was training, skating, and got off to a really good start to development camp. Early in the rookie tournament out in Traverse City, he got injured there and missed our camp as a result. A lot of our players and staff are not all that familiar with him, but I like him from what I have seen. A lot of people in the organization — Marlies coaches — can’t say enough positive things about the job he has done since coming back from injury.

Two guys making their NHL debut. That is exciting. Big for them, and also specific to Rubins, he is a guy who has come through the process here with the way we have established things a number of years ago with the Growlers — bringing in a guy on an AHL contract and looking to develop him to get to this point now where he can help you at the NHL level. It is a very positive development.

That is a really good thing for that program. He is a certainly positive example of how he has worked his way through that.

Keefe on the probable Jason Spezza suspension:

Obviously, not just the people in this room but everyone involved in the game knows Jason Spezza and his character very well. I would expect or hope that it gets taken into account here.

Keefe on whether the league needs to do more to protect its star players like Auston Matthews in instances such as the example with Pierre-Luc Dubois:

It is not specific to Auston necessarily. For the best players in the world, I think that is a factor. Those guys get a lot more attention on them. Therefore, there would be more opportunities for such calls.

If I am not mistaken, Auston has not drawn a penalty the entire season, which is strange considering how much he has the puck and how involved he is. Those kinds of things are worth looking at it if you are involved with that.

In general, when I look at that situation, I thought it was worthy of an extra on the other side; Auston probably gets two, the other guy gets four, and away we go. The referees see it differently in that case. They need to call it as they see fit, and we have to press on and deal with it — which is what we were doing, and then it gets compounded with the Rasmus situation.

We have pressed on from that here. We have a Columbus team to prepare for.

Keefe on the challenge presented by the Blue Jackets:

Lots of team speed. They are going to check hard and defend hard. Their special teams are very good — the penalty kill, in particular, makes things pretty miserable on the opposition. Looking at it, they do an incredible job of that. They are going to work and compete. Things have gone kind of up and down for them, but they are a very competitive team that has beaten some very good teams.

We are expecting them to be very organized, disciplined, and to play well as a team. It is going to be a challenge for us to clean up our penalty kill and do a job there — get back to the way we have been playing — and try to get the edge on special teams, and to maintain that edge we think we should have. At five-on-five, we have to do a job there.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#20 Nick Ritchie – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#43 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #46 Alex Steeves

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#56 Kristians Rubins – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#60 Joseph Woll

Extras: Alex Biega
: Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek, Mitch Marner, Jason Spezza

Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines

#14 Gustav Nyquist – #38 Boone Jenner – #28 Oliver Bjorkstrand
#16 Max Domi – #96 Jack Roslovic – #93 Jakub Voracek
#15 Gregory Hofmann – #34 Cole Sillinger – #17 Justin Danforth
#50 Eric Robinson – #7 Sean Kuraly – #42 Alex Texier

#8 Zach Werenski – #22 Jake Bean
#44 Vladislav Gavrikov – #2 Andrew Peeke
#53 Gabriel Carlsson – #27 Adam Boqvist

Starter: #90 Elvis Merzlikins
#40 Daniil Tarasov

Injured/Out: Patrik Laine, Dean Kukan, Emil Bemstrom, Joonas Korpisalo