The absence of Nikita Zaitsev will not only force the Toronto Maple Leafs defence to adjust on the fly, it will also thrust them into an uncomfortable situation.
For the majority of this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have managed to stay healthy and it’s a big reason they were able to make the playoffs. Well, as luck would have it, the team is now dealing with a key injury along their blue line and will be forced to play Game 1 against the Washington Capitals without defenceman Nikita Zaitsev.
The 25-year-old missed practice for the second straight day on Wednesday and is out with an undisclosed upper-body injury. It’s tough to say what exactly Zaitsev’s injury is, but it happened during Sunday’s season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets when Nick Foligno hit him hard into the corner boards near the end of the first period.
Although the Leafs say Zaitsev is “day-to-day,” Mike Babcock seemed to hint at this being more than a one game absence when he said Martin Marincin, who is filling in for Zaitsev, will “have to decide if he wants to play the second game.”
If the Leafs felt confident in Zaitsev returning for Game 2, do you think Babcock would even mention anything about Marincin’s potential play in Game 1, let alone his impending status for Game 2? I doubt it.
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While question marks hang over Zaitsev, this isn’t the first time this season an injury has forced the Leafs to adjust their defence. Marincin missed 19 games due to a lower-body injury, Connor Carrick missed 11 games with a shoulder injury and Morgan Rielly missed six games with a high-ankle sprain.
On top of those injuries, the Leafs have been shuffling their blue line all season. In fact, Rielly, Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner are the only three defenceman who have not been a healthy scratch at any point this year.
Despite Babcock’s juggling act on defence, though, this unit has, for the most part, struggled this season. Yes, their metamorphosis into what we saw down the stretch was a positive sign, but the driving force behind their improvement was the play of Gardiner, Rielly, Zaitsev and Carrick. Now the Leafs will be forced to slot Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, who returned to practice on Wednesday, and Marincin into some of the situations this quartet has regularly dealt with.
Anytime the Leafs have been forced to do this we’ve seen a mixed bag of results, which usually ends with Babcock leaning heavily on Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev. Now with one of those three pillars of stability out of the lineup, Babcock will need someone to step up.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Considering Hunwick played with Rielly last season, and at times during this season, perhaps he will fill the gaping hole left by Zaitsev? Based on the pairings at Wednesday’s practice, which featured Hunwick with Rielly, Polak with Gardiner and Carrick with Marincin, I would say Babcock is going to lean on the 10-year veteran in Game 1.
Leaning on players like Hunwick, Polak and Marincin to step up in even strength and penalty kill situations during the regular season is one thing. But to lean on them in the postseason is asking for a lot.
The unfortunate timing of Zaitsev’s injury now puts the Leafs in an uncomfortable situation where, even if Gardiner and Rielly were to play close to 30 minutes a game during this series, Babcock will still have to find ways to creatively manage his blue line.
It’s a tall task for any team, let alone one facing the league’s most potent offence, but as we’ve seen time and time again this season, Babcock will find a way to get his guys to, as he often says, compete.
How do you think Zaitsev’s absence will impact the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence? Can this team survive without him? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.