Is Dubas in the toughest situation he's been in as Leafs GM?
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday before flying to Newark ahead of Wednesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
The Leafs have placed Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury. The team's ice-time leader will miss at least 10 games and 24 days.
"It's for sure worrisome," admitted captain John Tavares after watching Rielly leave Monday's game following an awkward collision with New York Islanders forward Kyle Palmieri. "I think he's one of the best defencemen in the league."
Losing Rielly at any time is a huge blow. He leads all Leafs defencemen in points with 16. Rasmus Sandin is second with six points. As the longest-serving Leaf, Rielly is also an important voice in the dressing room. He played in every game last season and missed just one game in the previous season.
Compounding the issue for the team is the fact Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie are also sidelined. Muzzin has been out with a cervical spine injury since the fourth game of the season and won't be re-evaluated until late February. This is the first time the Leafs have played without Brodie, who has missed the last five games with an oblique injury. The 32-year-old won't be on the upcoming four-game trip, but did skate on his own prior to Tuesday's practice.
"Are you a better team when you have Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie or Jake Muzzin in the lineup? Of course you're a better team," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "But it's not the first time a team has dealt with injuries to key players. It's not the first time our team has dealt with injuries to key players and each time we've responded well. Won games. Played even better defensively than we were when we had these guys in the lineup. We will just continue to play a good, sound team game and find ways to win."
While even-strength offence remains an issue, the Leafs have tightened up nicely this month. Since Brodie went down, the Leafs are allowing just 2.4 goals per outing (tied for seventh overall). Monday's performance against the Islanders was one of the team's most complete efforts in that regard. More of the same will be required moving forward.
"Us, as a forward group, have to do a really good job structurally and being connected," said Tavares. "Doing that to help our D and give them the ability to build their game and grow confidence as things get jumbled around."
The Leafs played without eventual Hart Trophy winner Auston Matthews nine times last season. First team all-star Mitch Marner missed 10 games. Muzzin missed 35 games. Both goalies – Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek – missed time. And the team still finished with 115 points, which was a new franchise record.
"It doesn't do you any good to sit there and feel sorry for yourself," Keefe said. "You have to go play the games. Each time we have lost a guy and for a moment you think, 'That sucks,' [but] it seems like our team plays better. I am expecting the same. That is really it. Not just the defence but the forwards have to support the defence and, collectively, we have to support our goaltenders. As our team game continues to improve, we have a chance to beat anybody."
Toronto faces a stiff test on Wednesday against a New Jersey Devils team that has won 13 straight and leads the league in 5-on-5 goals.
Mark Giordano, the oldest skater in the National Hockey League, is now Toronto's No. 1 defenceman.
"We have the guys back there who are waiting for opportunities, myself included," the Toronto native said. "You always want more ice time and when you get it you gotta make it count."
But is there a limit to how much the Leafs can push the 39-year-old?
"We might find out," Keefe said with a smile.
In the first 15 games of the season, Giordano averaged 17:45 of ice time. Since the Brodie injury that number has increased to 21:23.
"He's just a machine," said defenceman Timothy Liljegren. "He works hard and skates well even though he's a bit older now."
"Every time I have a conversation with Gio in terms of whether he wants days off or to miss practices, he wants nothing to do with it," Keefe said. "He wants to keep the engine firing. He tells us that the more he plays, the better he feels."
Playing in a 17th NHL season, Giordano has learned how to get the most out of himself. And he's not that far removed from a Norris Trophy win in 2019.
"As he has gotten older, his minutes have gone down a little bit," Keefe continued. "At times, he has said it affects him. He is used to playing more. It is a balance of getting to that point where you are feeling engaged and have rhythm in your game and then making sure you have gas in the tank. That is on us to manage with him. He is a guy who, at this point, has shown no signs of slowing down. He is a guy that wants to continue to push. In practice, he was one of the first guys on the ice today putting in extra work before practice begins and he doesn't have to. He takes his morning skates. As his minutes are going to climb now more than we would like or would have planned, we will continue to look at it, but he is not a guy to ever say no."
Sandin feels like he's turning the corner after a tough stretch.
"It's coming along," the Swede stressed. "Confidence-wise wasn't at a very high level lately. Just trying to clear my head and play better. Yesterday was a big step for both me and Timothy playing together. We did some things really well that we can bring to the next game. It's starting to come along."
"In the last few games, I have seen a real uptick in his play," Keefe confirmed. "I think he is starting to show more confidence with the puck."
Sandin, 22, and Liljegren, 23, now project to play more and against better competition on Toronto's second pair. It didn't go smoothly when they got that chance last season but, as Sandin noted, the pair looked up for the challenge against the Islanders.
"We managed the puck pretty well," Sandin said. "We broke the puck out well. We were creative out there so that's something we definitely need to keep on going."
"I think you get a little more flow in your game when you play more minutes," Liljegren said. "It's next shift, next shift instead of sitting a couple shifts in a row. It gets a little bit easier."
Liljegren is averaging 17:33 of ice time per game, which is sixth among Leaf blueliners this season. Sandin is averaging 16:42. Those numbers are about to rise.
"As every game goes by you see them getting more and more confident and last game was really good," observed Giordano. "Now, they're going to get a really good opportunity to probably play top-four minutes and I think they're ready for it. They're both incredibly poised with the puck. They play well together."
Sandin will take Rielly's spot on the top power-play unit, which is clicking at 28.1 per cent so far this season (sixth overall). The key in that role?
"Not to hold my stick too tight," he said. "Still play the way I play. Move the puck quick. I know what kind of players I'm playing with so just have to relax and play the way I usually do."
Sandin confronted Oliver Wahlstrom after the Islanders forward landed a borderline hit on Matthews in the third period of Monday's game.
"I was very close," Sandin said. "From my angle it looked a little bit like his knee came out so I just wanted to step in. We're a team. We want to stick up for each other so that's what I tried to do."
"This group is extremely tight," said Matthews. "I don't know how much I want to see Sandy dropping his gloves like that, but it means a lot coming from a guy like that."
"He stepped in with the fight," Keefe highlighted. "I think those are different things that add to his swagger a little bit."
Matthews skated over to Sandin with a message in the immediate aftermath.
"He just said I was an animal," Sandin revealed with a grin.
The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder wasn't exactly looking for a fight.
"I was going to skate over to him and grab him a little bit and things escalated pretty quickly," said Sandin, who had one fight in the American Hockey League. "He turned around really quick and just dropped the gloves and, you know, I was just starting."
Sandin and Wahlstrom have known each other since they were kids.
"He looked at me after and he's a little bit bigger [6-foot-2, 204 pounds] and said, 'Sorry man, just had to.' It doesn't matter who your friends are on the outside, on the ice we're competing for our own team."
Sandin and Wahlstrom caught up in the hallway between the dressing rooms after the game.
"We've been playing with each other since I was 10-years-old so we know each other very well," said Sandin. "It was a little funny that it was him that was my first fight."
Mac Hollowell was called up from the AHL and will make his NHL debut on the third pair on Wednesday.
"Just sitting in the team meeting room and on the way out they let the boys know," the 24-year-old from Niagara Falls, Ont., said. "They were all pretty excited. So, it was a pretty special moment for me."
Hollowell was Toronto's fourth-round pick (118th overall) in 2018. After graduating from the Soo Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League (where he played with Sandin), Hollowell spent time in the ECHL with the Newfoundland Growlers in the 2019-20 season. He joined the Marlies that same season and has played in 117 AHL games.
"It means everything," he said of the NHL opportunity. "I've been waiting for this moment since I was a little kid."
"We just think it is time," said Keefe. "He has put in his time in the minors. He has played well for us in the pre-season. He has been up here a number of times previous to practice with us. He is very comfortable around our group."
Hollowell will be paired with gritty veteran Jordie Benn. They already have some game reps together with the Marlies this season.
At 5-foot-9, Hollowell is one of the smallest defenders in the league. How does he have to play to have success?
"Fast and deliberate," he said. "Just making moves and sticking to them. When I'm moving my feet and moving the puck things are good for me."
As Keefe noted, Hollowell has a comfort level with the Leafs. A big part of that is his experience ahead of the 2020-21 season when he quarantined in the same house as Matthews, Sandin, William Nylander and Joe Thornton.
"I've been around for four or five years now and had that moment in the quarantine when I stayed with some of the guys," Hollowell noted. "Pretty comfortable with a lot of them and it definitely helps moving into this game."
Thornton took a shine to Hollowell and even gave him a nickname: Cheddar.
"It just came to his mind," Hollowell said. "I imagine it had something to do with my orange hair ... He was great to me. He made me feel welcome right from the first day. A lot of thanks to him and I'll probably get a phone call from him soon."
Victor Mete was also called up on Tuesday and will accompany the team on the road.
Despite sitting out the last four games as a healthy scratch, Nick Robertson appreciated the chance to stay with the Leafs rather than be sent down to the AHL.
"There's benefits to being in the NHL even when you're not playing," the 21-year-old winger said. "Being around this atmosphere and learning, even away from the rink, how things are done is important and it carries onto the ice. Obviously, the paycheque's nice too (smile)."
Robertson hasn't played since Nov. 12, but he has been putting in work.
"Working on my upper-body strength, because you can't really have that time to work on it when you're playing a lot so that's one thing I focused on in the gym," he said. "Working also on little touches and little things and ... maintaining my puck confidence, feet and everything."
Robertson doesn't have to look far for inspiration. Big brother Jason Robertson is now an established star with the Dallas Stars and just signed a four-year, $31-million contract, but it wasn't always easy.
"He's been in the same situation as I was as a 21-year-old. He was scratched on and off and then had a big stretch and that was it ... I kind of learned watching him being scratched."
The 5-foot-9 sharpshooter gets a chance to start a big stretch of his own on Wednesday when he returns to game action on a line with Tavares and Marner.
"We are looking for him to find ways to make an impact with his skill set and for him to defend and track," Keefe said. "At times, whether it was losing some battles or some defensive positioning, the game starts to flip against you and your line and thus you as a team. Those are the kinds of things where, as a young player, you have to recognize the value in that. The way you impact the game may not necessarily be points. Sometimes the points are not going to be there and the offence is not going to be there, but you have to ensure you leave the game in a good spot when you come back to the bench. As young players, that is part of the learning process."
Robertson scored the winner in Toronto's first overtime game of the season. Since then the Leafs have lost five straight games that went to extra time, including on Monday.
"We definitely have to look at our 3-on-3 [play] and try to figure that out," said Marner. "Just stop forcing stuff and realize when opportunities are there."
For the first time this season, the team dedicated practice time to 3-on-3 play on Tuesday.
"Teams are really good at defending more than in the past," noted Giordano, who started on the top overtime unit with Matthews and Nylander. "Little things like line changes and switches become big parts of 3-on-3. We're in one of those ruts right now where it's snowballing a bit in overtime."
Although Matthews shot down the idea the team is now facing a mental block in extra time.
"I don't think it's really an area of concern," he said.
Assistant coach Dean Chynoweth, who oversees the defence and penalty kill, missed Monday's game with a non-COVID illness. He also missed Tuesday's practice, but is expected to be at the game in New Jersey.
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Robertson - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - Holmberg - Jarnkrok
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Engvall
Giordano - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Benn - Hollowell
Special teams work at Tuesday's practice:
Sandin, Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander
Giordano, Engvall, Kerfoot, Robertson, Bunting
Overtime units at Tuesday's practice:
Matthews, Nylander, Giordano
Tavares, Marner, Liljegren