Do the Maple Leafs have a playoff-style defence? Or do they need reinforcements?

Do the Maple Leafs have a playoff-style defence? Or do they need reinforcements?

TORONTO — How much does a game really matter?

Do Kyle Dubas and the rest of the Maple Leafs front office think differently about their team and its needs after the way things played out against the Bruins, who stomped on the league on Wednesday night?

A single game is probably unlikely to significantly influence opinions or change what the Leafs already think and/or know about their roster. But it may well bolster opinions about needs ahead of the trade deadline.

Namely the defense.

It’s a question that’s been simmering since the day in November the Leafs announced that Jake Muzzin would be out until at least March with a cervical spine injury. The question is simple: should the Leafs replace Muzzin? Or, do they already have everything they need in-house, with Mark Giordano excelling at 39 and Timothy Liljegren reaching a milestone in his second full NHL season?

It’s a fascinating question, mainly because the Leafs have been one of the best teams in the NHL this season and have six quality defensemen in the NHL, even without Muzzin, as well as two solid, albeit very different, backups, Conor Timmins and Jordie Benn.

Why go pay assets for another defender in this case? Why not prioritize another top six striker instead?

The Bruins game was an interesting test case as it saw the Leafs, for one of the few times this season, boast a full roster on D minus just Muzzin. Which meant Sheldon Keefe could structure his defense like he would in a playoff series that didn’t include Muzzin or any outside help:

Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie
Mark Giordano – Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Timothy Liljegren

Keefe gave some interesting hints as to how he might approach such a series.

For one, he deployed Rielly and Brodie almost exclusively against Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and whoever else (first, David Pastrnak and then Craig Smith) filled out the Bruins’ No. 1 line.

Which meant he’d rather, for one night anyway, have Rielly and Brodie take care of the hard stuff instead of Giordano and Holl. Which is interesting given that Giordano and Holl have tackled tests like this together for most of the season.

So why change things? Did the coaching staff want to see how Rielly and Brodie would handle it, just in case the front office didn’t buy anyone else? Do they just trust Brodie, their best defender, more than anyone else? Would they rather not overextend Giordano if they don’t have to? Would they feel that way in a playoff?

Rielly and Brodie did a pretty decent job. In their nearly eight minutes against Bergeron and Marchand, shot attempts favored the Bruins 10-4. The expected targets were around 50%.

Above all, the Bruins did not score. (They scored when Rielly and Brodie were together against Pavel Zacha and Taylor Hall in a four-on-four streak that didn’t go well for Brodie.)

Do the Leafs believe they can beat the Lightning in a first-round series with Rielly and Brodie taking on Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos? Can Giordano and Holl survive in this kind of mission?

Or, do the Leafs need someone else to come and help them?

If Muzzin was here, it would be his pair’s absorbing matches like this.

Sometimes it feels like it has almost been forgotten. But his absence is still extremely important. If he was there, the Leafs would be put in the back without lingering questions. It was Muzzin and Brodie who did pretty well against the Lightning’s front line in last year’s first-round series.

Without him, it feels like they’re missing a defender like him – tough, heavy and difficult to play against. Or not if you think the current group is good enough.

Adding another left-handed defenseman of the same ilk as Muzzin (i.e. Vladislav Gavrikov) would allow the Leafs to connect this player with Brodie (or Holl) and make them tango front row in the playoffs. Another right-hander, on the other hand, could play with Rielly – leaving Brodie and Holl as the best defensive group – or Brodie on his natural side. Brodie’s malleability, among other things, is extremely valuable.

Of course, an addition of any kind would likely kick Sandin or Liljegren out of a potential playoff roster (assuming neither is moved).

It was a game, but difficult for the two young Swedes against the Bruins: three goals conceded, with an expected goal mark of only 35%.

The game against the Bruins was tough for Rasmus Sandin. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today)

And that’s the other question the Leafs will have to ask themselves: do they trust Sandin and Liljegren, essentially two second-year defensemen, to play together in a playoff this spring? Do they believe Sandin and Liljegren have enough physical weight and strength to knock Patrick Maroon and Corey Perry out of their net? Can they win enough puck battles against tough, scrappy dudes like Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn?

Sandin and Liljegren were pushed back on the streak that led to the Bruins’ fifth and final goal and gave away pucks on the streak that led to Boston’s second goal.

And that’s really what it all comes down to — if the Leafs believe they have a playoff defense. Not a regular season defense. A group that can handle the sluggishness of playoff hockey, when every battle for the puck is an all-out fight.

There was a reason (beyond getting rid of Nick Ritchie’s contract) the Leafs traded for tough Ilya Lyubushkin last year and played him against the Lightning in front of Sandin (injured for most of the series) and Liljegren (for the last five games of the series).

A game against the Bruins (which didn’t include Auston Matthews) could bolster opinions about the Leafs’ shortcomings. It could also push the front office to reinforce the bottom of the group of attackers. The fourth line struggled to survive while the game was still in question.

A part. Lots to think about.

– Statistics and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

(Top photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via Associated Press)

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