Do you like nice things? Great! Because you can’t have them.
Morgan Rielly is injured, with early estimates expecting the Leafs defender to miss a minimum of eight weeks with a fractured foot. This is cataclysmic news to an already depleted roster. In fact, the impact of Rielly’s injury wouldn’t be as gutting if it was an isolated incident. But when factoring in the continued absence of Jake Muzzin, who remains week-to-week with a foot ailment of his own, the picture only gets bleaker.
The Leafs are entering into a new reality moving forward, one in which they must keep pace within the Atlantic Division playoff race while missing arguably their two top defencemen.
So, is it time to panic? Not quite.
There’s no way of sugarcoating it: losing Rielly is rough. While the 25-year-old’s production hasn’t quite matched his elite-level standards this season, Rielly is still a vital pillar of Toronto’s roster, nonetheless, leading the Leafs in total average ice time while playing a part on both the power play and penalty kill. His injury opens up a sizeable hole in the team’s overall composition, with 24 all-purpose minutes that once fell onto Rielly’s shoulders now up for grabs on the Leafs’ blueline.
This begs the question: Who will step up? Well, that’s where things get a bit more complicated.
Given his recent promotion, Rasmus Sandin projects as the easiest answer, albeit with a few caveats attached. Namely, expecting a 19-year-old with six games of NHL experience to slide in and seamlessly replace a 70-point defender’s production is far from reasonable. But that doesn’t mean the drop-off from Rielly to Sandin is as steep as some may think.
Frankly, Sandin is accustomed to playing big minutes. The average of 10 or so he saw under Mike Babcock earlier this season likely served as a further departure from his norm than the role he’s set to step into now. Sandin’s nightly workload flirted regularly with the half-hour mark throughout last year’s Calder Cup playoffs. Those minutes extended to all facets of the game too, be them even-strength or special teams, with Sandin quickly emerging as the Marlies’ top back-end option. This was not a teenager hiding behind sheltered usage. Rather, Sandin burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old tasked with shutting down top opposing competition and that’s exactly what he did.
Of course, the AHL and NHL are different beasts. That goes without saying. But when seeking replacements for your injured No. 1 defenceman, there are far worse options than a player with prior experience in that very role. Even if that player only just reached Canada’s legal drinking age.
The butterfly effect of Rielly’s injury extends to the Leafs’ managerial objectives as well. Which is to say, their trade deadline probably won’t be as quiet as originally thought.
It’s not as if the Leafs will be forthright in revealing their backroom dealings, though. Kyle Dubas has been deliberate in shooting down any potential trade rumours that have surfaced this season — particularly those centring around a new backup goaltender — but looking outward to bridge his team’s impending roster gap would be nothing if not prudent at this point. That is, unless the front office sees a future in which Martin Marincin occupies a featured role.
If the opportunity to upgrade the current roster presents itself in the meantime, why hesitate? The Leafs have the pieces to do it.
Jeremy Bracco’s game has stagnated despite his stellar offensive numbers in the AHL. The 23-year-old has become somewhat one-dimensional in his development, and after only getting an emergency cup of coffee despite seemingly half of the Leafs’ roster ending up in the ICU in recent weeks, a future for him in the organization may simply no longer be there. Parlaying Bracco into blueline help – even if he only serves as a piece of a larger package – makes sense, then. If the Leafs aren’t going to use him, why not swap him out for someone they will?
There have also been reports of Dmytro Timashov and Ben Harpur asking for respective changes of scenery. And while neither player is expected to land atop anyone’s midseason trade board, NHL teams have taken fliers on worse players before. If help can be had at their expense, there’s little reason to not pull the trigger.
What Rielly’s injury likely does as well is make Dubas a lot less keen to ship out the few remaining healthy defencemen he has left. As rough as the first 46 games of the Cody Ceci Experiment have been thus far, the Leafs need bodies. And for better or worse, Ceci certainly has one.
Moving out conceivable trade chips like Ceci or Marincin or even Tyson Barrie was a lot more plausible with Rielly around to fill in the gaps. But he’s staring down the barrel of a two-month recovery period at the moment. The Leafs need all the help they can get.
Rielly doesn’t have the Leafs sounding the alarm quite yet, but their hand is hovering over the button. How they move forward from here will likely dictate the rest of their season.
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