After going over my predictions for the Leafs forward lines on opening night in Part 1. Let’s begin Part 2 of my predictions with my ideal pairs for the Leafs newlook defensive core.
Muzzin – Barrie
Rielly – Ceci
Kivihalme/Sandin – Schmaltz/Liljegren
With Dermott expected to miss all of October, the top 4 is pretty much locked up, but there are jobs available at the bottom of the lineup. Once healthy, Dermott has the capability of stepping into that top 4 alongside Rielly, but I can’t see much to quibble with Babcock’s choices on the top two pairs to start. After watching a few games from the 2015 World Hockey Championships, it is quite clear to me that the Muzzin and Barrie pair has the chance to be the most versatile pairs in the league.
Muzzin brings a physical edge to the game, along with his zone exit passing ability; then pairing that with one of the fastest defenceman in the NHL with Barrie… this duo is going to be a nightmare to opposing forwards because of how quick they can exit the zone but also how quick they can close gaps when they don’t have the puck.
I expect them to match against the other team’s top line every night, which should be music to Morgan Rielly’s ears. This guy is what I like to call a one-man breakout with his ability to move his legs and skate the puck up ice and out of trouble if the pass isn’t their. I don’t even want to list the horrifying group of terrible defenceman who Rielly has been paired with in a shutdown role since he became a Leaf.
Unfortunately for some Leaf fans, Cody Ceci isn’t believed to be much of an upgrade. Nonetheless, he will start beside Rielly and I would be careful to criticize Babcock for this choice so soon. Analytically, Ceci OBVIOUSLY has his faults but I believe this is a classic case of the numbers don’t exactly tell the full story.
We must remember Cody Ceci is coming from the worst team in the NHL from the last two seasons. Let’s at least give Ceci a large enough sample size of games playing with high-end partner like Rielly and SOME EXCELLENT FORWARDS before we lambaste him. Hopefully, all goes well and his play with Rielly will allow Dermott to slot in nicely on a third pair which will allow the Leafs to run out 3 excellent pairs in the playoffs.
However, until Dermott comes back to full strength those bottom pairing is up for grabs and I still believe it can be more effective than last year. Dave Hakstol, will be coaching the defencemen this year, which makes me believe former 2012 first-round pick and University of North Dakota alumni Jordan Schmaltz will have the inside track on that right side.
Hakstol coached him at UND and I have to believe it is part of the reason the Leafs went out and acquired him this off-season. He looked excellent with the puck v.s. Ottawa in the first pre-season game and if he can stay stable enough without the puck, he should find a spot on the team.
On the left side, I am going to name a few that I think can fit there but until I see some more pre-season action and where these guys might fit in a PK role for example I believe this spot is the most “up for grabs” on the roster. Guys like Sandin, Kivihalme, Marincin, Gravel I think have equal probability in my eyes to make the team for many different reasons. Each one brings a unique attribute to the game and even though I think Sandin has the highest potential of the four, I think the 3rd pair spots will go to the guys who show they can contribute on the PK.
To no surprise, the number one goalie on this team is Freddy. The big question in camp is if Michal Neuvirth can usurp Hutchinson for the backup job. Hutchinson DID NOT look good in his first game v.s. Ottawa so if Neuvirth can gain his health back, I think the door is wide open for him. Neuvirth simply has more NHL experience and I believe his body of work will allow him to play in that 22-25 game mark. Hopefully, one of them clears waivers to possibly allow for a platoon scenario.
There has been a lot of turnover for this team and questions are still left unanswered. But one thing is for sure, Dubas has made this roster “truly” his. The Big 3 got their money but now it is finally time to put up or shut up. It is very unlikely adds at the deadline are coming so it is on the guys in that room to get it done. Here’s to hoping they can.
This initiative ends October 31st, if you are unable to buy the tickets, donations to the camp are also acceptable.