How Leafs can fill the defensive void left by Jake Muzzin's injury

The Leafs have a hole to fill on the blueline after Jake Muzzin was placed on LTIR, and the Coyotes have a prized d-man available. Will Dubas take a swing? (Getty)

In an expected move, the Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Jake Muzzin on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) with a neck injury on Tuesday.

Muzzin left during an Oct. 17 loss to the Arizona Coyotes and did not return. The 33-year-old has suffered several ailments during his tenure with the Maple Leafs and this latest setback renders the Maple Leafs scrambling for a suitable replacement. It’s also important to note that Muzzin missed training camp with a back injury.

How does Muzzin’s LTIR designation affect the Maple Leafs for the remainder of the year? We’ll break it down here.

Leafs could take a big swing at Jakob Chychrun

CapFriendly was the first outlet to break the news, and it’s a good place to start. Muzzin’s absence frees up $5.625 million in Toronto’s LTIR pool. How can the Maple Leafs mobilize with this newfound cash?

Let’s start with the home run swing that many are hoping Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas will take. Jakob Chychrun, the 24-year-old star defenseman for the Arizona Coyotes, is readily available on the trade market although the first part is a misnomer, an overly simplistic gambit. Toronto can surely afford Chychrun’s salary with Muzzin out of the picture. Carrying a $4.6-million cap hit for the next three seasons, Chychrun is unquestionably one of the best values in the league and top-end defenders entering their primes like this are rarely made available for good reason.

What’s the asking price? Toronto would almost certainly need to depart with one (or more) of its future first-round picks, along with one of their future cornerstones in Nick Robertson, Matthew Knies or Rasmus Sandin. If the idea of sending a first and Robertson made you balk, as a Maple Leafs fan, we don’t entirely blame you. It’s a lot to give up. But you’re also making a calculated bet that the Maple Leafs are firmly in their Cup contention window, while securing an asset that bridges the win-now timeline with a more patient long-view.

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported Saturday that Chychrun has asked for a trade, but the Coyotes are asking for a package that equates to two first-round picks along with some established players. This may read as overly simplistic, but would you trade your 2023 and 2025 firsts along with Rasmus Sandin or Matthew Knies for an ascending left-shot star three years of team control? Dubas and his staff are surely going over the machinations now.

It’s also worth noting that Timothy Liljegren is working his way back from offseason hernia surgery and once he’s ready to return to the Maple Leafs, his $1.4 million salary will count against Toronto’s cap space.

Filling Muzzin’s void without signings or trades

Trying to fill the void that Muzzin leaves internally is more difficult to stomach, particularly for the rightfully impatient sect of the fanbase that wants an immediate replacement. Toronto called up Filip Kral from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies as an immediate action. Kral is highly-regarded within Toronto’s system — he's a late-round find from the 2018 draft — but the team will almost certainly need to shelter his minutes upon his promotion. He isn’t a flashy player and will aim to mitigate mistakes, but there has to be a learning curve to be expected for a 23-year-old who couldn’t crack the opening night roster. Kral will be used as the seventh defenseman, while the more experienced and reliable Victor Mete slides in as the sixth defender alongside veteran Mark Giordano.

Rasmus Sandin has been matched with Justin Holl in Muzzin’s absence and though we’re dealing with an admittedly small sample, there’s enough to suggest that this pairing simply isn’t good enough to be considered Toronto’s second-pair for the remainder of the season. Sandin-Holl played 44 minutes and 22 seconds together at 5-on-5, with a 47.6 Corsi and a dreadful 37.2 percent share of the expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick.

And what may be more alarming is that Sandin has been much better without Holl, whose roving style of play takes some time for his partner to get adjusted to. Sandin is proving to be one of Toronto’s best players at suppressing chances, but Holl’s freelancing style of game where he jumps into the rush as a fourth forward probably causes some headaches for his new partner.

Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie aren’t going to be broken up in order to give Toronto more balance and this notion would be viewed as a break-glass-in-emergency type of move for Sheldon Keefe. Rielly in particular has been on the ice for nine goals at 5-on-5, but continuity, stability and quality of opponent matters, so Toronto is banking on the rest of its core to step up while demanding its best defenseman begins to play at an All-Star level again. He was never considered an elite shutdown defender, but he needs to amplify his game in his own end with Muzzin out.

Liljegren is slated to return, while Jordie Benn is an NHL-caliber defenseman the Maple Leafs have in their system, but he’s also recovering from a groin injury sustained during the preseason. Benn’s $750,000 cap hit isn’t particularly difficult to work around, either.

The wait-and-see approach might be Toronto’s most practical option, while Sandin’s workload and responsibility in particular takes a dramatic leap. It would be incumbent upon Dubas to go for a major swing right now, but with so much riding on this season, with his job prospectus among the factors to be evaluated, the Maple Leafs may be forced to rely on its own internal development to weather the absence created by Muzzin’s injury.

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