There’s this cartoon, created by KC Green in 2013, that has made the rounds on social media for several years now of a bowler hat-wearing dog sitting at a table with a cup of coffee while the room around him is being swallowed by flames. You know the one. Through the six-panel comic, as the flames spread, the dog does what it can to convince itself that everything will be all right. “This is fine,” the dog says shortly before its face melts off.
Well, across the past several weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been that dog, the flames the injuries that have piled up around them. First, Morgan Rielly was sidelined with a fractured foot. Then, Cody Ceci landed on the shelf, his absence the result of an ankle injury. And one day after the trade deadline came and went without the Maple Leafs making a true blueline-bolstering move, it was Jake Muzzin, he of a brand new four-year extension with Toronto, who blocked a shot with his hand and was forced out of Tuesday’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Muzzin will be sidelined for approximately four weeks, the Maple Leafs announced. “This is fine,” their fans wept in unison.
It is, of course, decidedly not. In fact, among all the worst-case scenarios Maple Leafs faithful could have concocted, losing Muzzin from an already banged-up blueline would have ranked somewhere near the top. Now, it has now flown to No. 1 with a bullet. And what makes Muzzin’s injury that much worse is the timing of it all. There was never a good time to lose Muzzin. Not at the start of the season, not around the all-star break (around which he did happen to miss 10 games due to a foot injury) and most certainly not now. But making matters worse is that the post-deadline nature of Muzzin’s injury means that GM Kyle Dubas’ hands are tied. There’s not a single last-minute addition to be made. There’s no one who can be signed to fill the void. What the Maple Leafs have at their disposal is what they have at their disposal. And what they have at their disposal isn’t all that much.
At Monday’s deadline, amid chatter Toronto was considering moving out Tyson Barrie for a better blueline fit, the only move Dubas and Co. made was the swap of goaltender Michael Hutchinson for defenseman Calle Rosen. But Rosen, whose recall to Toronto was announced in conjunction with the news Muzzin was sidelined, is an NHL-AHL tweener. Over the past three seasons, Rosen has played 16 big-league games and 151 in the minors. His average ice time at the NHL level has never crested beyond 17 minutes and his career average is 14:17 per game. He will likely become Toronto’s sixth or seventh defenseman. The burden, then, will be on the still-in-town Barrie to shoulder much of the load, with Justin Holl, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin likely plugging the remaining holes in the top four. Some combination of Rosen, Timothy Liljegren and Martin Marincin will man the bottom pairing.
Losing Muzzin stings from more than a lack-of-depth perspective, however. It could be argued that even with the Maple Leafs at full strength, he’s the defender Toronto could least afford to be without.
The Maple Leafs’ greatest shortcomings throughout this season have been their own-zone play and goaltending. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, though, with the play of Frederik Andersen and Toronto’s second-stringers not helped one iota by the Maple Leafs’ defensive play. At 2.35 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Toronto ranks 18th in the NHL since coach Sheldon Keefe took the reins. The Maple Leafs also rank 19th in scoring chances against (27.6) and 16th in high-danger chances against (11.1) per 60 at five-a-side. But those totals have been no fault of Muzzin’s. Among Toronto’s blueline regulars, he has the second-lowest Corsi against (54.3), scoring chances against (25.9), high-danger chances against (10.7) and lowest shots against (29.1) rates per 60 minutes. Only Dermott bests Muzzin in those categories, but there’s an important caveat. Dermott has the second-highest offensive-zone start percentage of any Maple Leafs rearguard. Muzzin has the second-lowest.
Thus, given what the numbers suggest about Muzzin’s importance in hindering the opposition, what we should expect see is a slight downturn in the Maple Leafs’ own-zone effectiveness. More shots against. More chances against. More onus on Andersen and Jack Campbell to shut the door. Cue the flop sweat in Leafs Nation.
But we shouldn’t be so fast to declare this the death of the Maple Leafs.
Toronto has its hands on the third spot in the Atlantic Division as they awake Wednesday morning. And though they can’t afford to take their foot off the gas for even a second with the Florida Panthers breathing down their necks, the Maple Leafs can lean harder on other elements of their game. They can try to do what they do best, which is drive offense and out-duel the opposition. Toronto has the second-highest expected goals rate (2.62) in the NHL since Keefe’s arrival. The Maple Leafs generate more on the attack than almost any other team in the league. And from Auston Matthews and John Tavares to Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Toronto has a bevy of talent on hand that can carry them to victory.
Andersen, too, can be better. He's in the midst of a dreadful stretch, turning in an .877 save percentage across his past six starts, but he's not far removed from being among the Maple Leafs' MVPs. He has more to give, without question. But if he continues to stumble, Campbell, who is 3-0-1 with a .919 SP since his acquisition from the Los Angeles Kings, has proven to be a capable backup. Keefe can ride the hot hand, if there is one.
So, as long as the Maple Leafs can stick around in the race and their admittedly thin ‘D’ corps can be greater than the sum of its parts until reinforcements arrive, the flames won’t swallow this season whole. Is this fine? No, not really. But the announcement of Muzzin’s injury isn’t necessarily the death knell for the Maple Leafs’ season, either.
Want more in-depth features and analysis? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.