Kyle Dubas didn’t make much of a splash on trade deadline day, but for the Toronto Maple Leafs reinforcements are still on the way. The one move Dubas did make, trading the struggling Michael Hutchinson for Calle Rosen, is helping. Rosen has provided depth with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Cody Ceci all out with various ailments.
It’s been difficult to watch this group at times. Players like Rosen, Martin Marincin, and youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin have needed to take prominent roles they’re mostly not ready for or unable to succeed in. The good news is that Toronto Maple Leafs reinforcements are on the way. And, it’s not just the blueline that could use some reinforcements.
Toronto Maple Leafs Reinforcements Are Coming
Both Rielly and Ceci are with the team on their annual swing through California. It’s not likely that either will get into any games on the road trip. The fact that they’re with the team and practicing is a great sign they’re nearing a return.
“We’re looking at next week for both of them,” Keefe said as reported by TSN. “I would think that when we get back next week, it will be a sort of day-to-day type of thing from there, assuming everything goes really well.”
Reilly was expected to be out a minimum of eight weeks. Next week marks the eighth week. If it doesn’t bleed into nine or ten weeks, it’s great news for the Maple Leafs. Rielly could get into 12 or 13 games before the playoffs. That should be plenty of time to get him back into game shape. He may also return just in time to play in a difficult stretch of games.
Ceci also should return shortly. Normally, that might not be all that encouraging, but Liljegren has struggled and Justin Holl has been having trouble playing up in the line-up. Ceci may not be the top-four defender Dubas hoped he would be for the Maple Leafs. Yet, he is an upgrade for the bottom pairing. His return will allow Toronto to send Liljegren back to the Marlies for more seasoning. Ceci’s 494 games played will add some experience to a group that is sorely lacking in games played after Tyson Barrie and Marincin.
Toronto Maple Leafs Reinforcements Up Front
“Mikheyev would be further out, but it is very much looking like he is going to be back this season, which is good for us.” said Keefe after practice in San Jose and transcribed by MapleLeafsHotStove.com.
Ilya Mikheyev is travelling with the team as well and judging by Keefe’s comments, he’ll be back at some point in the regular season. Ideally, he’ll get at least a game or two in before the playoffs. That helps get him back into the swing of things. Mikheyev’s return is important for a Toronto team that’s not a deep as they might like to be.
Sheldon Keefe has taken to putting Alexander Kerfoot on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander. Kerfoot hasn’t been terrible in that role. Removing him from the third-line center role has had a waterfall effect on the team’s depth. Replacing Kerfoot on many nights is the seemingly ageless Jason Spezza, who has been great this season with 25 points in 55 games and with a contract that’s only got a $700,000 cap hit. It’s difficult to expect Spezza to play in a third-line role that this point in his career though. He’s much better suited to limited ice time in a fourth-line role.
The other reason Spezza taking center on the fourth line is it prevents Keefe from needing to put Frederik Gauthier in that role. Gauthier has a career Corsi For of 44.8 percent. Not needing him to consistently center the fourth line will help the Maple Leafs. The way they get there is by getting Mikhayev back on Tavares’ wing so Kerfoot can return to his third-line center role and bump Speeza to the fourth line.
Muzzin will probably not return to the line up until the last game or two of the regular season. That makes the pending return of Rielly and Ceci all the more important. The good news is that Muzzin should be back prior to the playoffs. That’s only important if we assume the Maple Leafs make the playoffs of course. Muzzin’s loss has forced pretty much every Toronto player to focus a little more on their own defensive play. It’s been hit and miss so far. The Maple Leafs won an important game against the Florida Panthers and followed it up with another win against the Vancouver Canucks before a stinker against the San Jose Sharks to start their current road trip.
The Maple Leafs will need to finish this road trip strong to stay up on Florida in the race for third in the Atlantic Division. There’s no reason to think they can’t do that with games against the worst two teams in the Pacific Division in the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. When they get to Toronto they’ll have games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators before hitting the road again against the Boston Bruins. Toronto will be more than happy to have Rielly back for that first game against Tampa Bay.
By the end of that set of games, the Maple Leafs could be anywhere from having a comfortable lead over the Panthers to being in the middle of a dog fight for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With the number of games remaining rushing to single digits, wins are imperative. With or without key players.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs help is something they desperately need if they want to stay ahead of the Panthers. Or, have any hope at all of catching one of the wild card spots. Having a healthy roster could also be the difference between another first-round exit and their first playoff series win since 2004.