The Toronto Maple Leafs have 18 important games between now and the end of the regular season, but the matchup with the Florida Panthers on Thursday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, FL and in Toronto on March 23rd could very well be the difference between the Leafs making or missing the postseason.
The Panthers trail Toronto by two points in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division (with a game in hand) and return home after going 3-2-0 on a five-game Western road swing, while the “Jekyll and Hyde” Leafs were Dr. Jekyll on Tuesday in a 4-3 victory over Tampa, but lost veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin in the game with a hand injury.
The loss of Muzzin came at the worst possible time for Toronto, with both Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci out and just past the trade deadline. GM Kyle Dubas is short of experienced depth options, as the Leafs dealt former NHLers Jordan Schmaltz to New York and Ben Harpur to Nashville. Toronto recalled defenseman Calle Rosen from the American Hockey League and he skated as the extra defenseman at practice on Wednesday. Kevin Gravel played three games for the Leafs earlier in the year and has over 100 games of NHL experience, so he may be an option depending on how the club’s blueline plays in the next few games.
Travis Dermott will move up to the top pairing with Justin Holl, rookie Rasmus Sandin moved up with Tyson Barrie, and two of Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren and Rosen will make up the bottom pairing.
Frederik Andersen was strong in a 26-save effort against the Lightning, especially in the third period when the Leafs were without Muzzin and outshot 14-3, but held on for the victory. Sergei Bobrovsky went 3-1 on the Panthers Western swing, including a 37-save effort in a 2-1 win over Arizona on Tuesday and is expected to get the start for Florida.
Past the NHL trade deadline, teams can make AHL trades, but those players are not eligible for the post-season. Does that mean that the Leafs could make a deal for a former NHLer assigned to an American Hockey League team and call him up to fill in while Muzzin, Rielly, and Ceci are unavailable?
There was some speculation that the Leafs might have been interested in veteran Joe Thornton before the deadline, but the 40-year-old was looking to join a contender with a legitimate chance to win the Cup and that GM Kyle Dubas had shut down most of Toronto’s late season addition plans after their disastrous last week.
Friedman believes that the Leafs would have interest in Thornton (who played two years of Junior in Sault Ste. Marie) this summer if he decides to leave San Jose and that the big bearded center would be amenable to taking a low salary similar to what Jason Spezza did last summer.
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