Depleted Maple Leafs blue line brings opportunity

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Justin Holl (3) gets a pass off up ice during first period action against the Columbus Blue Jackets, in Toronto on Monday, November 19 2018. (Cole Burston/CP)

VANCOUVER — Mike Babcock isn’t yet sure what to make of his patchwork blue line. He’ll roll out a third pairing with 16 NHL games between them this season when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Rogers Arena on Wednesday night, which is hardly an ideal scenario for a team trying to ready itself for a long playoff run.

There’s simply no other choice with Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott both sidelined for the foreseeable future.

"Well I don’t know we just lost ‘em. So let’s just watch and see what happens," said Babcock, when asked to evaluate life without Gardiner and Dermott. "Obviously, [there’s] more onus on our forwards and our top four – keep the heat off everybody. There’s opportunity here for everyone, when you look at a guy like [Justin] Holl or [Igor] Ozhiganov or [Martin] Marincin. There’s opportunity.

"In life, all you can ask for is a chance. When you get it, you have to do something with it."

Marincin and Holl will get the call against the Vancouver Canucks.

They’ve spent a lot more time watching hockey than playing it this season as automatic scratches through the first five months. They were first united last Thursday on Long Island and got burned for a couple goals during a 6-1 loss to the Islanders before Ozhiganov replaced Holl for the subsequent wins over Buffalo and Calgary.

In total, the makeshift third pairing has been on the ice for seven even-strength goals against in the three games since Dermott suffered a shoulder injury – something that can’t sit too well with the coaching staff.

"The biggest thing we talk about with ‘D’ is you can do anything you want as a D-man, but you’ve got to keep the puck out of your net," Babcock said recently. "No. 1 thing – the puck cannot go in the net when you’re on the ice. That’s the biggest challenge for all the ‘D’ is we want you to move the puck, we want you to be good offensively, we want you to get the puck to the net, we want you to do all those things that you guys talk about.

"I want the puck to not go in the net."

We only have general timelines to go on for when good health might return.

Dermott isn’t expected back until the end of March at the earliest after being driven shoulder-first into the ice on a hit from Edmonton’s Brad Malone on Feb. 27. Gardiner missed two games before the all-star break with back spasms and is now dealing with a separate disc issue in his back that forced him to be shut down early last week.

He’s officially listed as "week to week" while receiving treatment and rest. There are no current plans for surgery, but that could still be an option if he doesn’t see improvement.

"It’s unfortunate," general manager Kyle Dubas told reporters in Boca Raton, Fla., on Wednesday. "We obviously need Jake, we’d love to have him and Travis Dermott, but injuries happen during the year. We’re in a division with teams that have had a number of injuries – Boston and Tampa – and they’ve been able to withstand them.

"It’s given opportunities to other players and I think our group has to look at teams like that, that have lost very significant players for long, long stretches of the year and been able to perform very, very well."

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

In the three games without Gardiner and Dermott, Babcock has managed to spread the ice time fairly evenly among his remaining six – with Morgan Rielly only seeing four seconds more per game than his season average, Jake Muzzin playing about a minute more than usual and Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev roughly a 45-second bump.

It’s likely a product of the games being so lopsided, with Toronto having beaten Buffalo 5-2 and Calgary 6-2 after the 6-1 loss to New York. Should they find themselves in a tighter battle with Vancouver or at Edmonton on Saturday, the coach will probably lean more heavily on his Rielly-Hainsey and Muzzin-Zaitsev pairings.

The timing of the injuries was unfortunate, especially when coupled with ailments to Calle Rosen (foot) and Andreas Borgman (concussion) in the American Hockey League, because they arrived just after the Feb. 25 trade deadline passed. Dubas explored various options to upgrade his blue line at that time, but doesn’t think he would have made different decisions had he known what was to come.

"If you have injuries and they’re going to be long term, you’d like to know that when you can still make different additions to the roster," he said. "But I don’t know that we would have really been willing to part with anything significant given that these are just week to week, they’re not certainly season-ending injuries for either one."

Like Babcock, he’s hoping to learn a little more about the organizational depth as the Leafs try to reel in the Boston Bruins with a banged-up lineup.

"That’s what happens in athletics, for better for worse, and it’s a good test I think for the guys that are in," said Dubas. "Marincin’s come up, he’s performed well since he’s been back, and Justin Holl and Igor Ozhighanov get a chance to show what they can do because they hadn’t really been playing. So it’s exciting for us to see those guys and give us a better sense for where we’re at in the season and moving ahead."

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