The Leafs (still) Need A Blueline Upgrade

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For me, last night’s game against the San Jose Sharks was a microcosm of what really ails the Toronto Maple Leafs, and not just this year, but in years past as well. The offense was buzzing all night long and the teams powerplay looked solid. With Ondrej Kase on the sidelines (4 goals, 6pts in his past 8 games) and Kirill Semyonov filling in, the forward unit didn’t miss a beat. In fact, they were good enough to chase James Reimer from the crease, by way of scoring 4 goals on 17 shots.

Much like the forwards, the organizations 3rd string goaltender, Joseph Woll, played an impressive game. He had a few solid saves, culminating with this flurry of shots as the Sharks pressed late in the 3rd period:

But there was more:

Joseph Woll is now 3 games into his NHL career and has 3 wins, a 1.67GAA, 0.939SV% and 1 shutout. While we should pump the brakes on anointing this kid the next great thing in Toronto, we should also be very happy about being able to watch a goalie the team drafted play well, while looking solid.

The fact of the matter is, the kid shouldn’t have had to make that many solid saves. With a defense that consistently broke down in front of him, he had to be good.

The problems start with Justin Holl, who can’t seem to get his balance this season:

Justin Holls season in a nutshell

The problems don’t stop there, however. Holl is likely the spot on the blueline that management is most desperate to upgrade, but he has barely been challenged for minutes. Travis Dermott has been a healthy scratch for 4 straight games and things don’t look like they will change for him. With the 3rd pairing of Rasmus Sandin (16 minutes a night) and Timothy Liljegren (15 minutes a night) showing great chemistry and playing responsible minutes, I can’t see head coach Sheldon Keefe being quick to change anything there. Likewise, with Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie meshing well together, it’s better for the team to leave them together for the time being. For now, that means giving Jake Muzzin the burden of carrying one of Holl or Dermott, while trying to shut down the best players on the opposing team. It’s a large ask and it may be why I feel Muzzin is currently off to the worst start of his Leafs career.

It’s also why I perfectly understand the rumours circulating that GM Kyle Dubas was testing the market on both of Dermott and Holl. While there weren’t many details given, my assumption is that they were looking for an upgrade with one of those defenders being a part of the return package.

Which begs the question, will the GM finally start to buy into the idea that size on the blueline matters? If he decides to chase a defender at the deadline (which he should), what style of play might he look for? Does he go after another offensive option, such as Colin Miller from the Buffalo Sabres, or could he look for a more physical brand of player, such as Josh Manson (if the Ducks fall out of the race)? My personal belief is that the teams blueline is not nearly physical enough, so adding a player of Manson’s ilk would greatly improve the overall competitiveness of the unit.

I truly hope Dubas agrees with me.