Defensively challenged Maple Leafs face a huge test without Rielly and Muzzin on the blueline

Losing Jake Muzzin was bad enough, but with Morgan Rielly sidelined for the next two months, the Toronto Maple Leafs will need to be greater than the sum of their parts in the defensive zone.
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When I look at the situation on the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline as it stands right now, I’m reminded of what my esteemed colleague and good friend Ryan Kennedy always says about sports psychology. “Sports psychology is all about lying to yourselves and others,” Ryan likes to say.

There’s certainly an element to that surrounding the Leafs, who lost defenseman Morgan Rielly to a broken foot Sunday night that will keep him out of the lineup for the next two months. That injury came just two weeks after fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin left the lineup, also with a broken foot. Being without your top-two minute-munching and most reliable all-round defensemen simultaneously would be a severe blow for any team, but it’s even more pronounced on this team, one that pushes the pace offensively, often at the expense of defending, and one that endures its fair share of misadventures in its own end.

Even Rielly has thought of that. Being injured for eight weeks will allow Rielly to rest up for the stretch run and the playoffs. There’s also been speculation that Rielly has been dealing with other injury issues. “I mean, you can put a spin on it,” Rielly said. “I’ve been doing that. You try to take the opportunity to rest, heal other injuries, do what you can to prepare mentally to get back and be in a good place.”

With a defense corps consisting of Justin Holl-Travis Dermott/Tyson Barrie-Martin Marincin/Cody Ceci-Rasmus Sandin, there is a certain amount of optimism that has to be injected into the situation. Sandin is coming off a brilliant World Junior Championship where he was named top defenseman, but he’s still a teenager for another two months. The Leafs would have preferred to not burn the first year of his entry-level deal, but that seems unavoidable at this point. Holl and Dermott have made strides and will be leaned on heavily, particularly when it comes to matching up against top forward lines. The way Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe sees it, this is indeed an opportunity for growth, particularly with the Leafs having allowed 17 non-shootout goals in their past three games, all losses.

“There’s definitely some heightened awareness to it, which I think is a healthy thing for our team,” Keefe said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to rally as a group here. It’s a significant loss for us, as is Jake Muzzin. When ‘Muzz’ initially went out, we played some good hockey and found ways to win games consistently. That’s gotten away on us now, so it’s a little bit time for more reflection for us as a team where we need to get better and where we can make up for those losses.”

Complicating matters in all of this has been the recent play of goalie Frederik Andersen, who was the starter in all three of the recent losses. He was pulled twice, allowing 10 goals on 59 shots for an .831 save percentage and a bloated 5.70 goals-against average. So a couple of things need to happen. First, Andersen has to be much better. And the Leafs have to either possess the living daylights out of the puck to keep their opponents from getting scoring chances or they’re going to have to do a much better job of defending.

“Obviously, he’s not as consistent as he’s been,” Keefe said of Andersen. “There was a time where he was outstanding and in a lot of ways was carrying us. We still have confidence in his ability, but it just hasn’t been as consistent or as solid as you’d expect. Some of the chances we’ve given up have hurt us when previously he was making those saves. It’s levelled off a little bit.”

As Keefe pointed out, elite teams don’t get fazed by these types of things and all good teams have to deal with injuries. The Pittsburgh Penguins will welcome Sidney Crosby back into the lineup Tuesday night after their superstar missed two months with a core muscle injury. Keefe doesn’t envision a change in approach, but he does want to see better execution. “Even if we were fully healthy, we haven’t played well enough in that sense,” Keefe said. “We’re not playing the way that we want to play.”

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