The Toronto Maple Leafs have a new media darling, Jordie Benn. The veteran defenseman has been getting all the gushing attention after making a few excellent defensive plays during a recent win. That’s right, a 35-year-old, injury-plagued, well-travelled player who makes the league minimum is the guy making the big plays for a highly skilled team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup favourite. But unfortunately, there is something wrong with this picture, and it should’ve been corrected in the offseason.
It’s impossible to think the Maple Leafs’ front office seriously looked at the defensemen they had entering the season and started planning a Stanley Cup parade. That’s even before Jake Muzzin’s injury, Rasmus Sandin’s erratic play and Justin Holl picking up where he left off last season. The blueline was not addressed in the offseason despite its problems last season. Now, Kyle Dubas has put his team and coach in a horrendous position of having to hold their collective breath whenever Morgan Rielly, Mark Giordano, or shockingly, Jordie Benn are not on the ice.
Dubas is in No Hurry to Help
After addressing all the injuries recently, Dubas said, “We are always looking to improve the team if we can, but I think right now, in the short run, it’s a great chance to really learn.” He then tried to sell the work of Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. “Step two will be identifying if they elevate themselves, whether that is going to be enough to help us really accomplish what we want to accomplish, and then evaluate the trade market from there. Not in any real hurry to fill it because we want to see what these guys bring.”
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He is not in a hurry to improve the team. Sandin and Liljegren have been in the system for a long time, and the Maple Leafs should know what they have there. This non-action also goes against the whole “every point matters” talking point.
Clearly, Dubas has not been in a hurry to improve the team for months.
The general manager did not sign a defenseman in free agency until the second day. Only then did he give some minimum deals to Benn and Victor Mete. Mete has not been able to hold a spot on the team despite the opportunities that have been presented. While Benn was already injured to start this season, and given his track record, he will likely miss time again.
Sandin is Failing
Sandin’s blunders have been next-level embarrassing. For a team that had any other options, Sandin would be sitting in the press box at this point. Sheldon Keefe has been visibly livid at the Swede a few times this season. His recent highlight giveaway to Sidney Crosby, who deposited the puck in the back of the net, was textbook on how not to play the game. The excuses about missing training camp or playing on the wrong side are over.
Muzzin Injury was Predictable
Muzzin’s failing health over the past two seasons should’ve been enough for the Maple Leafs to look for alternatives. He only played 48 games last season, and his play during those games was not the calibre expected of the 33-year-old. He also missed games the year before, including an injury in Game 1 of the 2020-21 playoffs. He has not been reliable, and Toronto should’ve been prepared for this obvious situation.
Holl Continues to Falter
Too much has been said about Holl to repeat. It’s no secret that he’s been one of the weakest links on the blue line since the latter half of last season, and it hasn’t improved much this season. But, again, this has been obvious for a long time, yet, Dubas did nothing to address it.
Maple Leafs Missed Several D-Men
At this point, the ageless Giordano is a saviour, but there has to be some lingering concern about how long the 38-year-old can go at this pace. At the same time, T.J. Brodie is now experiencing injuries after being the workhorse on the team’s back end since arriving two years ago. Also, Carl Dahlstrom, a depth d-man at best, is out for the season.
Several top four, even top-pairing defensemen, were available in free agency. Several signings did not even break the bank but certainly bulked up the blue line. Names like Ben Chiarot, Ian Cole, Nick Leddy and Josh Manson were available, and Toronto actually had the space before blowing it on Matt Murray. Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs missed on all of them, and now they are paying the price.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.