It’s pretty clear who the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top four defensemen are. They are the top-pairing Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie. And, the second pairing is Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl.
However, after those top four, there’s a bit of a dogfight for the final two spots on the bottom pairing. Those two spots will be between the incumbent Travis Dermott and the two young Swedish defensemen Timothy Liljigren and Rasmus Sandin.
Alex Biega, who’s still with the team as well, has had a good training camp but probably will be waived and spend his time with the Toronto Marlies. He’d probably be moved to the Maple Leafs should there be an injury.
Keefe Has Been Impressed with the Healthy Competition in Training Camp
Throughout the training camp and preseason games, head coach Sheldon Keefe has tried to give the defensemen fighting for jobs every chance to prove their value to the team. In truth, they’ve shown well. And, that’s good because no one knows the future in hockey: one second things could be rosy; and, the next, well not so much.
In recent interviews, coach Keefe has expressed how pleased he’s been with the level of competing on this team – from top to bottom. He set out to have “ healthy competition” happening in the preseason; and, it seems he’s gotten it.
In this post, I want to take a look specifically at the team’s defense and make four predictions about the 2021-22 regular season that focuses on the defense.
Prediction #1: Travis Dermott Will Head Up the Maple Leafs’ Bottom Pairing
The most immediate question is who’s on the bottom pairing on defense. My prediction, and when the preseason began, really it wasn’t pushing the envelop too much at all, is that Dermott has shown well enough at camp to start on the third-pairing defense.
However, Keefe seems to be up-and-down a bit with Dermott. On one hand, he noted that he thought Dermott had done a good job during training camp, but unfortunately “got banged up the other day” and couldn’t play.
That calf injury might have hurt Dermott’s status a bit because Keefe noted that he had wanted to play Dermott in both games last week but could not. As a result, the coaching staff didn’t see him as much as they wanted. And they wanted to assess him playing alone and with other partners.
Dermott’s calf injury also might be the reason that he skated with Biega as the team’s fourth pair in both Thursday and Friday practices. Still, I predict that Dermott will start the regular season on the third pairing and that Liljegren hasn’t yet taken his place on the depth chart. However, I believe it’s close.
Prediction #2: Timothy Liljegren Won’t Make the Third Pairing Out of Training Camp
From what I saw during the preseason games, Timothy Liljegren played well. Furthermore, coach Keefe reported that he had “done a nice job.” He was put into different situations and paired with different partners through training camp. Keefe noted that the coaching staff wanted to see how he’d play with a more experienced partner who might help him feel more comfortable.
As Keefe noted today to TSN’s Mark Masters, Liljegren has “solidified his spot.”
Still, because Liljegren is waiver exempt, there’s a good chance that he’ll start the season with the Marlies and will have a good opportunity to play big minutes there.
Prediction #3: Alex Biega Will Become More Valuable to the Team than First Thought
Of the depth defensemen competing throughout the training camp, Alex Biega has shown well. He has lots of NHL experience and has been a pleasant surprise during the preseason. As I noted, from what I’ve seen, he’s played well.
Unless another NHL team finds itself down and desperate, Biega would probably clear waivers easily and might even find himself on the waiver wire soon. However, it’s also likely that he’d be called up during the regular season if someone is hurt.
Prediction #4: Morgan Rielly Scores 60 Points During the 2021-22 Season
It would be difficult for Morgan Rielly to beat his 2018-19 season’s totals of 20 goals and 72 points. However, here’s predicting that Rielly will have his second-best season ever and will score at least 15 goals and 60 points.
Part of the reason is that he’s motivated because he’s playing for a new contract. But another reason is that he’s likely to do better because of the new power-play plans that assistant coach Spencer Carbery has instituted into the Maple Leafs’ power play schema.
Rielly is a great offensive defenseman who’s especially good at puck movement. He’ll get the chance with the power play.
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