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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — The Maple Leafs’ injury troubles have suddenly taken an alarming turn, with Zach Hyman (undisclosed, day-to-day), Joe Thornton (undisclosed, day-to-day) and Jake Muzzin (broken facial bone, unknown timeline) all ruled out of Monday’s game against Calgary. 

Those three join Wayne Simmonds (broken wrist) and Jack Campbell (leg) already on the sidelines for Toronto. While the growing injury list is a concern, Muzzin’s absence opens a long-awaited chance for defenceman Travis Dermott to play in Toronto’s top four. 

“[Muzzin] is a big loss. He does a lot of important things for us,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe on a Zoom call following the team’s morning skate. “And of course the chemistry he has with Justin [Holl] has been very good as well. It's a loss for sure, but I talked to Travis Dermott today and it's a great opportunity for him. It's something that I know he's been waiting for, and something we've been wanting to prepare him for in the event that there's an injury. Now he has to elevate and show that he's prepared for it.”

This will be the first game Muzzin has missed for Toronto this season, while Hyman previously sat out last Thursday against Ottawa with a foot issue and Thornton missed 10 games already this year nursing a rib fracture. 

Hyman appeared to block a shot with that same foot during Saturday’s tilt in Montreal, and Muzzin’s injury seemed to happen late in that same outing when a shot hit his face. It’s not clear exactly if or when Thornton was injured against the Canadiens, but he finished the night playing 14:14 on the Leafs’ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. 

Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen will draw in for Toronto on Monday.

Keefe didn’t run lines at morning skate because he was told beforehand that Thornton would be a game-time decision. It was only afterwards Keefe learned Thornton was officially out, and he claimed not to have decided yet who would replace him alongside Matthews (who leads the NHL in goals with 18) and Marner (who’s tied for second-most points at 30).

What Keefe does know for sure is that Dermott will have a chance to shine against the Flames, and possibly erase some bad memories of the last time he stepped in for Muzzin.

That was back during Toronto’s qualifying-round playoff series against Columbus in August, when Muzzin was jettisoned from the series by a crushing hit late in Game 2. Dermott slid up to play with Holl and failed to deliver as Keefe had hoped, finishing minus-3 over the final three games of the series.

“I look back on the Columbus series when we lost Muzz, and we weren't happy as an organization with how that went,” Keefe said of Dermott. “We dealt with that, and in a lot of ways it's why we've taken the approach we have with Derms here to just try to get him to reset and prepare for a greater role and opportunity. He's excited for this. He's been very patient and has really worked hard from day one of camp. And he's got a chance here today to take a big step.”

Since signing a one-year, $874,125 contract extension last October, Dermott's been fighting his way back into Keefe’s good graces. The 24-year-old has been a healthy scratch in four games already this season, and relegated to third-pairing work alongside Zach Bogosian while averaging 11:34 per game and notching one goal. 

Meanwhile, Holl and Muzzin play more than 21 minutes per night, and Muzzin is a stalwart on the penalty kill and in a shutdown role at even strength. That’s a major void for Dermott to try and fill, particularly at 5-on-5, but Keefe believes that Dermott is ready to excel this time. 

“I just want him to go in with the mindset that he's just going to continue to do little things very well, and not try to do too much, not feel like he's got to take on too much,” said Keefe. “He just has to continue to be himself and do what he does well. When he does that we really like a lot of things that he brings to the game. We’ve taken it slowly with him, we've taken a little bit of a step back with him, but it was all towards knowing that his opportunity would be there. We wanted him to be better prepared for it.”

As a group, the Leafs will have to match the urgency and intensity of what should be a desperate Calgary team. The Flames enter Monday’s matchup having lost four of their past five, including three straight, while Toronto is riding a three-game win streak and has already beaten Calgary twice this season.

It won’t be easy to earn a third victory with multiple missing bodies though, and Keefe has prepared his group for a battle. 

“I assess them as a team that's going to come in and give us their absolute best,” he said. “I thought through those [previous] games that for good stretches they took it to us pretty good. And they have that ability to do so if you give them the puck and you let them play on offence. We’ve got our own challenges and adversity with the guys coming out of the lineup and there’s an opportunity for others to step up in their place.”