For all the stars and certainty the Toronto Maple Leafs have among its forward group, the blue line is riddled with depth issues and questions about who will take up the six starting spots next season.
Recent injuries have made it clear that the Leafs lack depth on the blue line. But it’s not immediately obvious how it will get better back there — Morgan Rielly, Rasmus Sandin, Martin Marincin and Justin Holl are the only current pro blueliners under contract for the 2020-21 season.
There are two big pending UFA defencemen of particular interest to the Leafs and their fans. Tyson Barrie, who was brought over in a summer trade from Colorado, and Jake Muzzin, a trade pickup last season from Los Angeles. Barrie was seen as a bit of an experiment from Day 1. The offensive freelancer has been hit and miss, but has generally been better since the team fired Mike Babcock and promoted Sheldon Keefe to the head coaching position, likely because Keefe is more open to accepting the sort of game Barrie plays.
Muzzin, however, is seen as exactly the type of defenceman Toronto needs. A strong defensive blueliner who brings a level of toughness that is thought to translate well to playoff hockey. And he has that post-season experience so many current Leafs lack — plus he’s won the Stanley Cup before. But it will be a challenge for cap-strapped Toronto to keep either and a long shot they keep both.
It could be viewed as a positive that Muzzin at least grew up in the area. In fact, he mentioned there are a lot of plusses about playing in your hometown.
“The organization, the way they look after us, the guys here, the buzz in the city about hockey is huge,” Muzzin said after Monday’s skate. “Being close to home is always a nice touch, especially with a little one around now. There’s lots of good things here and I’d love to stay.”
Though details about a contract extension for Muzzin have been quiet, Elliotte Friedman did broach the topic on Tim and Sid last week.
“I think they are trying to see if they can sign Muzzin,” Friedman said. “I can’t prove it — nobody is going to talk to me about it — but there is enough smoke out there that leads me to believe the two sides are taking a run at this and seeing if they can find common ground. It won’t be easy, but I think they are trying.”
Muzzin hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 27 due to a foot injury, but he will be a welcome addition to the lineup on Monday in Nashville.
The Leafs start their post-all-star break schedule four points out of a playoff spot.