TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs will enter the lion’s den that is Nassau Coliseum Thursday and dress a defence pairing with a combined total of 12 NHL games played this season.
Justin Holl, he of 50 consecutive healthy scratches, and Martin Marincin, the next man up from the AHL Marlies by default only.
“We feel really good about our depth on defence,” general manager Kyle Dubas said as Monday’s trade deadline passed without another addition to the blue line.
Two days later, not one but two of Toronto’s most important defenders have fallen victim to significant injury.
That depth Dubas feels really good about? It will now be tested hard like the SATs, and the cutoff date for bringing in outside reinforcements is in the rearview.
“We do miss those guys,” John Tavares said. “Those are key players for us.
“It’s an opportunity for guys to step up and get that opportunity and go in there and play well.”
Next to Norris candidate Morgan Rielly, Gardiner had been averaging the most ice time among all Leafs (21:12). Dermott’s role and confidence has grown as the year has gone on, playing more than 17 minutes nightly.
Holl hasn’t played a hockey game since Nov. 1. He’ll slide in Thursday for the Leafs’ other seldom-used black ace, Igor Ozighanov, who made a rare appearance in the team’s 6-2 laugher over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday.
“Especially in Justin’s case, the patience and his attitude and enthusiasm for getter better without the games there to exercise that is remarkable,” Dubas said.
Veteran Marincin, waived and unclaimed at the top of the month, gets the recall because lefty Calle Rosen is nursing an injured foot after blocking a shot Friday. (Left-shot Andreas Borgman is also sidelined, with a concussion.)
Oilers forward Sam Gagner, who spent the bulk of his season with the Marlies, believes Rosen, 25, is on the cusp of joining the Leafs.
“He is right there,” Gagner said Wednesday. “He certainly skates at an NHL level. He will be an effective NHLer for sure.”
But with the high-flying Leafs gearing up for a dogfight with the Boston Bruins, and centre Nazem Kadri also out with concussion, they’ll need all hands on deck. And healthy.
Dubas doesn’t believe either his 2017 first-rounder, Timothy Liljegren, or 2018 first-rounder, Rasmus Sandin, are “quite ready yet.”
That Dermott’s injury came on a questionable Brad Malone hit from behind into the neutral-zone boards at a point when the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt could infuriate some teams — but the Leafs didn’t get emotional about it.
“I thought it was going to be a penalty, but it’s not like I reviewed it or anything,” Babcock said.
Even healthy, Toronto’s blue line was a puzzle in progress, as the coach is still trying to find the ideal pairing for newcomer Jake Muzzin. Now, with Gardiner and Dermott going down on the same day, the team forever on a quest for a right shot could use another lefty as well.
“It sucks,” Mitch Marner said. “We have to make sure everyone gets healthy before coming back and risking anything worse.”
“We need him,” added close friend Andreas Johnsson.
The thought of a top four of Rielly–Ron Hainsey and Muzzin–Nikita Zaitsev eating even more minutes is an uneasy one on a night Hainsey’s lack of speed got exposed.
“The bottom line is, someone is going to get a chance, we’ll find a player, maybe a good player or maybe a better pair than we had playing and go from there,” Babcock said. “Our forwards are going to have to do a better job now of making sure we spend less time in our zone.
“What else are you going to do?”