Maple Leafs face steep character test with piling injuries

Tony DeAngelo scored in the extra period after the Maple Leafs forced overtime and it gave the New York Rangers a 5-4 win.

TORONTO – It speaks volumes about the magnitude of Friday night’s fright that a significant addition was made to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ usual pre-game preparations Saturday.

Along with scanning their personalized iPads for a pre-scout on the evening’s opponent, the New York Rangers, and taping up fresh twigs and stretching out quadriceps, several Leafs also took time to get fitted for Kevlar arm sleeves — the type of protective accessory that might have prevented their injured teammate, Ilya Mikheyev, from suffering a lacerated tendon in his right wrist during a freak skate-blade accident in Newark. (Much like the way Kevlar socks might have limited the damage to Erik Karlsson’s Achilles in 2013.)

Blood was spattered.

Breaths were held.

Prayers were said.

As the Russian rookie was rushed to a local hospital and surgery was performed (successfully), while GM Kyle Dubas skipped the club charter and remained overnight with Mikheyev, deconstructing Toronto’s problematic D-zone coverage felt trivial.

“For me, it took something that dramatic,” says defenceman Justin Holl, one of the Leafs now considering the sleeves. “Aside from missing time, it’s scary just general health-wise, so you want to put yourself in the best possible spot to prevent that.”

“I wear [a wrist guard] on one arm,” Auston Matthews notes, “but you see something like that, as scary as it was, it keeps you second-guessing on stuff like that, so you try to be as protective as you can.”

Hockey injuries and all they encompass — the prevention of them, the battling through them, the filling in for them — were never such a focus in Leafland during the Mike Babcock era as they’ve become in the Sheldon Keefe one.

And that point has suddenly been drilled home like a P.K. Subban blast to Jake Muzzin’s foot, as Toronto had no choice but to juggle the lines, allow deep call-up Adam Brooks his first big-league taste, and play bubble defenceman Martin Marincin top-four minutes Saturday.

In losing to the Rangers 5-4 with a makeshift bench and seeing their win streak snuffed at six by a Tony DeAngelo overtime winner, Keefe’s Leafs are now 12-4-1 despite possessing as many LTIR candidates as pucks.

Comparatively healthy to the rest of the league since bottoming out in 2016 and priding itself on an investment in state-of-the-art sports science and injury prevention, the Maple Leafs are staring at a list of unknown recovery timelines:

• Muzzin (broken foot) is week-to-week.

• Mikheyev (wrist) is out for a minimum of three months.

• Trevor Moore (concussion) has no timeline.

• Andreas Johnsson (leg) has no timeline.

ManGamesLost.com is a unique site that attempts to measure the detriment of ailing individuals to the entire team.

At the Christmas break, ManGames figured injuries have already cost Toronto 5.54 points in the standings, jumping the Leafs among the top-five most impacted NHL clubs.

(Interesting, too, that the Leafs began attaching their own tally of man-games lost — 79 and climbing fast — to their game-day stats package emailed to the press.)

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While Toronto is the rare organization with enough winger depth that it can subtract three regulars and still generate shots and scoring chances aplenty, the bigger concern here will be Muzzin and the arsenal of tangibles and intangibles that beautiful, bearded beast brings to a young, light-checking lineup.

God bless Marincin. Godspeed, Marincin.

But weeks without Muzzin is a real test — and an important preview of how the roster could look without him should he sign elsewhere in 2020 free agency.

To understand what Toronto will be missing in Muzzin is to understand how he responded to having his foot fractured by that Subban point shot 90 seconds into the second period of Friday’s game.

Despite wincing and turning to partner Justin Holl on the bench and guessing he’d broken a toe, Muzzin kept his boot laced during the second intermission. He never skipped a shift. Post-game, Muzzin limped by himself to team bus in dress shoes.

“You can see why he’s won the Stanley Cup,” captain John Tavares says. “He plays through a lot — not just last night. He plays hard.”

Fun fact: 10 out of 10 doctors agree, Muzzin is the Maple Leaf you least want body-checking you.

“He sets a tone for us in a lot of ways and a lot of different areas,” Tavares continues. “So, yeah, [playing two periods on a broken foot] speaks highly about who he is and his character.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

A prolonged Muzzin absence, much like a coaching change or a back-to-back crisis, will test the character of a group that, frankly, might as well befriend adversity. It ain’t going anywhere.

What will Toronto miss without Muzzin around?

“Everything,” Matthews says. “A little bit of leadership. Well, a lot of leadership. A lot of physicality.

“He holds guys accountable in the locker room.”

Without Muzzin, we should learn if the blue line can defend as well as pinch and create. We’ll find out which call-ups look like future NHLers, or which ones could be dangled as trade-deadline bait, all while the group pushes to cement a spot in an airtight Atlantic race.

“It’s a great opportunity for guys to step up and for the core of our group, starting with my myself, to set the tone,” Tavares says.

“I don’t think we look at [the rash of injuries] as a toll. I think we just try to keep pushing forward and keep trying to find ways to have success. I think having a versatile group, versatile players, guys that can play up and down the lineup, play with everybody, allows us to continue to be the team we want to be.

“It plays to the identity of the group and the structure that we want to have. [We] try to make everyone feel comfortable, no matter how big or small your role is, or how much experience you have, to come in and just be yourself and help contribute.”

Despite Saturday’s loss(es), Keefe is spinning positive.

The coach says he was excited to give a penalty-killer and Calder Cup winner like Marincin a look now that his system is up and humming; that Brooks’s debut (4:50 time on ice) was a special moment; that he would fill Muzzin’s minutes “by committee”; and that were it not for injuries, we wouldn’t be watching Pierre Engvall develop into a bona fide pro before our eyes.

“You get an opportunity to see somebody else step up,” Keefe said.

“I believe in the depth of the team here.”

We’ll check in on that belief, week to week.

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