Maple Leafs conjure up bigger underdog story than David Ayers in “replacements” win

Move over EBUG controversy, the Toronto Maple Leafs just put together a huge effort to protect their playoff spot and star goalie with a bunch of defensemen who shouldn’t even still be on the team.

For a team that couldn’t beat a Zamboni driver in goal on Saturday, the Leafs looked potent offensively, sound defensively, and motivated to take two points from an equally lopsided Panthers squad.

The only problem for the Buds was their defensive pairings. Reminiscent of a split-squad team that was clearly the B team, the crew’s depth was on display here:

Dermott – Holl
Sandin – Barrie
Marincin – Liljegren

The seven-man core consists of the injury-prone next big thing (Dermott), our should-be seventh defenseman (Holl), our best Marlies D (Sandin), should-have-been-traded guy (Barrie), Shouldn’t-have-a-contract-guy (Marincin), our second-best Marlie (Liljegren), and a member of the Colorado Avalanche (Rosen). What a team.

To compound issues, Frederick Andersen had one of the worst periods of hockey in his life. With awful rebound control, less-than-usual edge work, and uncharacteristic swimming in his crease, Andersen channelled prime James Reimer with similar results.

A vote of confidence from the head coach to start him in the second (not a popular opinion) saw Andersen settle eventually, but not without near-constant bailing out by his rag-tag group of defensemen. Yes, the replacements showed up and actually looked like a solid group of players.

The biggest improvements in the D-core were their patience on the puck, willingness to turn back and retain possession, and ability to work with their backchecking forwards to section off any Panthers pressure. Timely pinching was also on display regularly, with extra motivated teammates coving back and offensive zone possession limiting defensive zone time.

Capped off with an empty-net goal by newly crowned shutdown defender Justin Holl, the wobbling puck that somehow tracked into the vacant goal showed that the Hockey Gods don’t fulfill lofty wishes, but rather guide justified results from ice level for hardworking efforts.

Honestly, the Leafs getting any sort of performance from these players tonight was unlikely, but keeping Florida to under 30 shots on a night where Freddy didn’t have it? It’s a narrative so unlikely the David Ayres story will drift into oblivion. Move over, Zamboni EBUG, the replacements are here, and they’re aiming for the playoffs.

The Leafs Blue Line is suddenly stable thanks to 7th defenseman

The return of Travis Dermott had a lot of fans excited, as the defense core would be rounded out at long last. An unfortunate injury to Jake Muzzin has delayed this, but the group is looking more solid… thanks to Justin Holl.

Cancel the season for the rest of the league, Justin Holl has finally emerged as the defensive stud the Leafs need on the back end! I’m not going this far, but Holl has gone from extra defenseman to contributing factor in a short period of time and has helped the Leafs start November a lot better than October finished.

The Bottom Pair Seems Set

The fact that Holl was completely overlooked to make the roster should prove just how impressive it is that he has seemingly cemented himself into the starting team less than one month into the season. With the likes of Kevin Gravel, Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur, and even Rasmus Sandin all playing for this position, Holl was the forgotten man.

At 27 years old, though, it’s understandable. Last season Holl played in just 11 games all year, sticking in the press box and showing up to practice rather than contributing in games. He has surpassed this already with 13 games played and has put up a respectable +4 rating while chipping in three assists along the way. While he isn’t the fastest skater like Morgan Rielly or Tyson Barrie, Holl is calm on the puck and his patience allows him to make the right play rather than forcing a mistake.

With Travis Dermott back, many believe his stint on the bottom pairing will be short-lived. He is a left-shot defenseman, but his strong defensive play and ability to outlet the puck at an elite level has fans pegging him for the top pairing beside Morgan Rielly sooner rather than later despite his handedness. That’s fine, but until then limited minutes and solid matchups will help him get up to speed.

Holl’s Marquee Moment

His ascendence to the level of “solid NHL player” was never more apparent than in his 12th game. Quite symbolic, too, as he passed his aforementioned 11 games played bar set last season in this matchup too. The Leafs took the Washington Capitals to overtime in an eventual loss. Holl, however, proved a selfless difference-maker two times in overtime despite Ovechkin putting a laserbeam past him.

Thrice on a 4-3 penalty kill in overtime Alexander Ovechkin got the perfect pass for his left circle one-timer and on two occasions Holl didn’t flinch out of the way when it came roaring towards him, blocking the two howitzers before the third broke through. He was the only player who tried to stop the inevitable one-timer from Ovechkin and his rise to the Leafs regular roster was punctuated with this play.

Leafs Forced to use Three Second-Stringers in John Tavares’ Return to Long Island

Jake Gardiner – Out, Travis Dermott – Out, Frederick Andersen – resting. Thing’s are a little lean on the back end for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they visit Tavares’ old home in Long Island.

New Third Pair

Ahead of the second game in the back-to-back the Leafs are shuffling their defensive lines a little more and mixing in players as much as they can it would seem. Martin Marincin has been called up to pair with Justin Holl as the bottom two for the Leafs defense.

It’s an interesting move for Mike Babcock, to not pair each new player off with a veteran, but rather pair them together. I understand, however, the desire to keep your greenest defenders on a pair that you can minute-manage for the entirety of the game.

The Gardiner injury saw Igor Ozhiganov return to the lineup after a months absence and he played well. Ozhiganov finished with an empty stat line and 15:08 if ice time. While underwhelming, it’s a positive; Igor showed he can seamlessly return to the team and put in a solid effort.

Justin Holl

Ozhiganov did well, but there is no need to rush him into what looks to be a high intensity back-to-back. Justin Holl, the Leafs OTHER extra defenseman will get the right-side duties tonight on the bottom pairing.

Holl impressed last season after getting called up and scoring in back-to-back games from the blue line. He impressed in those two games with the two goals and, more importantly, his +5 rating in that stretch.

There is a possible problem with injecting Holl into the lineup tonight. That issue is rust. Holl has played in just 2 NHL games this season and due to having waivers attached to him, has had no AHL games to keep him in game shape.

I would have liked to have seen Holl in the first game against Edmonton in Gardiner’s absence but that’s only due to the hindsight gained after the Dermott injury. Holl will have a tired team in front of him but no doubt they’ll be motivated for JT.

Martin Marincin

I’m seriously impressed that Martin Marincin is still a Maple Leaf right now. He played a big part in the Leafs’ playoff defensive woes last season and offers little to nothing from the back. This begs the question: why is Marincin getting the call up?

Let’s be honest here, Marincin is in because Calle Rosen is injured.

The Leafs did have Marincin on the roster earlier this season. Once Ennis returned from injury, however, there was no roster space available for him and he was waived. Despite my crossed fingers, Marincin (and his gaudy $700,000 contract) wasn’t claimed by anyone and he’s been in the AHL since.

In his 10 games with the Leafs this season, Marincin has chipped in 2 assists with a -1 rating. In his 8 AHL games, he has 1 goal and 3 assists for a 0+/-.

Scheduled Sparks gets the Start

As is tradition this season, Garret Sparks gets the start for the Leafs second game in the back-to-back. It’s good for Sparks to get into a game that will have a playoff-like intensity, providing him meaningful NHL hockey experience while still in the regular season.

There is little to no pressure on Sparks, whose job is basically to take whatever the opposition throws at him. He’s tasked with playing and knowing there is little to no chance of Frederick Andersen coming off the bench to relieve him.

Sparks hasn’t looked the most steady in net this season, but his stats show he’s doing a fine job as a backup. Throughout his 13 games played this season, Sparks is 7-3 with a .908% save percentage and GAA of 2.86.

He’s improved on his numbers in 15/16 when he first came up which is terrific. The next step in Sparks’ development is to learn how to stay more composed in net, which he can absorb from Andersen’s style of play.

It’ll be a tough game, regardless of Toronto’s bottom pairing and backup goaltender getting the start. Hopefully, the added pressure on the Leafs to come together for Tavares can inspire a solid performance.

Out with back spasms, the Leafs can preview what life is like without Gardiner

Reported by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Leafs’s defacto #2 defenseman, Jake Gardiner, is out for the cross-conference battle with Edmonton tonight. The game now is acting as a preview for the Leafs life beyond Gardiner.

Love him or hate him, you have to admit the Leafs will be hard-pressed to re-sign their #2 defenseman Jake Gardiner this offseason. The now 29-year-old left sided D-man has enjoyed a one-team career with Toronto, but that is set to end with the Leafs pending cap issues and Gardiner’s probable raise.

Look for Jake Muzzin to take up the mantle of second power play unit captain with Gardiner out. Muzzin has a booming shot from the point and his passing and skating skills make him an ideal replacement.

Who gets the start?

With Edmonton in town tonight, there is no time to rehab and rest the issue ahead of the Leafs next game, so we’ll be seeing a new(ish) face on the blue line. has the Leafs setting up with Reilly-Hainsey, Muzzin-Zaitsev, and Dermott-Ozhiganov. This is the logical fall back with Ozhiganov playing the most minutes out of the two onlooking defenders, himself and Justin Holl.

Mike Babcock may opt for this as a simplistic approach to solving his late injury issue with Gardiner, but wouldn’t you like to see a little more excitement in his team selection? The one reason I believe he might make a call-up would be chemistry.

The chemistry between Muzzin and Dermott was electric against the Sabre’s on Monday night. Both finished with an assist and both can boast +’s on a night where the opposition scored three times (+2 for Dermott and +3 for Muzzin).

Muzzin seems fine playing on the right side of a defensive pairing. He played 20:12 minutes against a fast and unrelenting Buffalo offense from the right side and dominated. So why would Babcock mess with that? He shouldn’t, so guess Babcock needs a left-sided defenseman then!

Both Holl and Ozhiganov are right D, but Rosen’s injury could derail his play tonight in that desired LHD spot. Despite his injury keeping him our for the Marlies, Rosen could travel with the Leafs for the second half of their back-to-back against the Islanders.

The Leafs brought him in before the 2017/18 season to add more defensive depth options on the cheap. He was seemingly passed up by country-mate Adreas Borgmann initially, but the Leafs 1-way contract they gave to Rosen recently received (starts next season) suggests otherwise.

The more I write this the more I think it’s unlikely. But, with the Marlies close by why not give him a try? The Leafs can sustain some shuffling of the lines vs. Edmonton if Rosen unlikely for tonight’s game but if healthy he should start against immediately and against New York.

Brief background on Rosen this season…

In 52 games played this season Rosen has amassed:

  • 7 goals
  • 37 assists
  • 44 points
  • +10
  • 16 power play points
  • 2 short-handed assists
  • 127 shots on goal
  • 36 penalty minutes

Rosen was selected as a 2018/19 AHL all-star alongside Trevor Moore from the Marlies. Is he worth a look at this point in the season? He’s had a terrific AHL season so surely he’s earned a chance for some injury relief action.

Next season we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of Rosen as life without Gardiner sets in. Why not sample his skills now?