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Are the Leafs trading for a defender or looking within?

Ceci is out, so is Rielly, so how are the Leafs going to manage their short-, medium- and long-term defence roster?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

After the loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, the Maple Leafs executed a trade that had obviously been in the works for some time. The thing they didn’t do, then or the next day, is resolve their roster issues on defence. The trade was an attempt to address all the things wrong with the Leafs that aren’t defencemen.

Meanwhile, Cody Ceci, assumed by more than a few people to be all the things wrong with the Leafs that are defencemen, suffered what seems to be a high ankle sprain and left the game.

On Thursday, Dubas simply said Ceci would be out for a while, and that he was going on IR. However Cap Friendly reports that the Leafs actually sent Kasimir Kaskisuo to the AHL to reduce the roster. The Leafs currently have three goalies, six healthy defenders and 13 forwards. Not the usual arrangement.

In net, the Marlies are currently making do with Joseph Woll plus the Growlers’ starter, and all three teams in the organization play games this evening, so some more reshuffling is expected today. The goalie situation will settle out like water seeking its level after a flood, and will likely start with the Growlers getting their man back. The rest will depend on Frederik Andersen’s health, but the defenceman issue is thornier.

The Defence Roster

Technically, for a home game, the Leafs don’t need to do anything. They have this set of defenders:

Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Travis Dermott - Tyson Barrie
Rasmus Sandin - Martin Marincin

Sandin takes the second unit power play duties, and Barrie, of course, is on the first unit, and they play most of the minutes. Muzzin and Holl do the bulk of the penalty kill, but Dermott and Ceci were big additions. Ceci, in particular, is always on the ice with the goalie pulled late in games.

In the game vs the Rangers, Sandin played 6:25 of his 14:04 five-on-five minutes with Ceci, and 4:07 with Barrie, and the adjustment to jobshare that second pair LD spot between Sandin and Dermott has already been in place for a few games.

It’s simple enough to replace Ceci’s penalty kill time with Marincin, and to just keep the rest of the current structure the same. But that’s not necessarily the medium-term plan of choice.

Timothy Liljegren

You want Timothy Liljegren in the NHL, and so, in a way, do I. I can make the case against it as well.

Currently Liljegren is really cooking in the AHL. Last season was a bit of a learning experience for him; if you recall, Liljegren had a delayed development arc because he was ill in his draft year and barely played. He has always been exceptional for a player his age in the AHL, but in the 2018-2019 AHL season, Liljegren was tasked with working on his defending to the exclusion of most other concerns.

This season, and in particular now that he is the undisputed best prospect on the team, he is simply the horse they ride in all situations. He is, I feel compelled to remind everyone, including myself, not yet 21. And he’s the top pairing and a half defender on an AHL team, and that team is going to be in deep, deep trouble without him. Which shouldn’t actually be a concern here, but it’s a measure of his value.

If you like points, you’ll like his. He is one shy of doubling his total from last year where he had 15 in 43 games. He’s at five goals and 24 assists in 38 games, and that’s split into 0.27 even-strength, primary points per game played and 0.21 power-play, primary points per game played (Pick224). His Goals For % at even-strength is 53%, and while we don’t know how many minutes he plays, it’s most of them. Usually AHL defenders don’t play every game, but he and Teemu Kivihalme come close with 38 and 40 out of 44 respectively.

The case for leaving Liljegern in the AHL is simple: that’s a development environment where he gets to be the backbone of the team. He’s not getting that in the NHL.

The case for bringing him up, and actually playing him this time is that he’d be in the NHL. And the Leafs would clearly know what they have in him more fully.

Other Choices

Teemu Kivihalme

After Liljegren, Kivihalme the most relied on defender, and if he shot right, I think he’d be on the Leafs by warmups tonight. His strength is skating, puck-carrying and speed, and that’s not different enough from Liljegren to make him the more likely extra player if the Leafs are really looking for a player to get in games and not sit in the pressbox.

If they do want a pressbox/practice extra, Kivihalme is busy developing his game along with Liljegren, and all the reasons not to call up the youngest prospect left on the Marlies apply to Kivihalme.

Jordan Schmaltz

As the Marlies season has worn on, they’ve lost a lot of games, and no one has been called up to actually take a roster spot, some of the early shine has worn off this summer’s signings. Schmaltz, who has a handful of NHL games spread over three years looked like a tweener in training camp. Now, even though he shoots right, he looks like someone who isn’t getting the call.

He’s got some offensive power, and a few points to prove it, but he can’t come close to knocking Liljegren off the top pair in the AHL, and he hasn’t got a defensive game to make him a good depth/PK option.

Ben Harpur

Harpur can PK in the AHL because he is tall and he has a long stick. That’s really it, and no one is pretending otherwise these days.

Kevin Gravel

Gravel was called up for one Leafs practice and then sent back to the Marlies where he didn’t play. He’s a left-shooter, has played only 11 games this season and might not be actually healthy enough. If he is healthy enough, he’d be an ideal pressbox/practice player.

Trade?

This is more a medium-term question than one about what the Leafs should do today, while they’re facing a back-to-back with several roster changes to make. But you never know, a deal could be in the works still.

At Thursday’s press conference, Kyle Dubas revealed that Morgan Rielly will have a medical evaluation in about 10 days, and they’ll have a better idea of his likely return date then. That’s conveniently before the trade deadline, so the Leafs will have time to act if Rielly (and his cap hit) will be off the books through to the start of the playoffs.

In the interim, Cody Ceci (and his cap hit) are on IR, which indicates a shorter-term stay off the roster than Rielly’s. That can always change, of course, and Dreger is reporting he’ll be out at least a month. But the conspiracy theories about teams lying about injuries and players going along with it fail to take into account the history of grievances filed over injury disputes in the past. Jared Cowen, Dustin Byfuglien, and perhaps Brent Seabrook did not all go away quietly. Although, I do notice, they all eventually went away.

In other words, Ceci will be on IR or LTIR while he’s actually hurt, and I don’t think this is a plot, plan or scheme to get him off the roster. Particularly not when the list of choices to replace him isn’t very grandiose.

But, if Rielly is going to miss enough time — and I believe the Leafs likely have a good idea about this now — then they may well make a deal. As Dubas has said repeatedly, and reiterated on Thursday, he wants a defender with some term. He’s not making a short-term deal. He’s not even necessarily making a medium-term deal. He wants another bona fide, top-four defender for the next x number of years where x is greater than one. And making that deal might not rely solely on how the Leafs are sitting in the standings.

The Lears are right in the fight for a playoff spot. Would it have been nice to have beaten the Panthers or the Rangers or even both? Yes! But is wasn’t the death knell on the season that they lost those games. The Leafs are not fooling themselves in thinking that they have a chance. They have a legitimately good chance. It’s just not a sure thing. And if that reinforces Dubas’s already solid tendency to not be a short-term thinker, then that’s good.

We’ll find out later today what their choices are for tonight’s game against the Ducks. I am not betting that Josh Manson crosses over to our dressing room, though.