Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock will consider two wild-card entries as he sorts out his defence over the final two games of the regular season.
It’s all but certain Jake Gardiner, out more than a month with a back injury, will return in one of the games. Gardiner has been skating with the team for several days. He is a wild card only in the sense that his health could be a question mark.
Calle Rosen, though, might be forcing his way into a longer look. Babcock had said that the rookie defenceman would play until Gardiner returns. And while two games represent a small sample size to judge, Rosen has scored a goal and showed skating and passing skills that could be the right complement to third-pairing regular Travis Dermott — at least ahead of Martin Marincin, Igor Ozhiganov and Justin Holl.
“In the end, we gave up too many goals (in a 4-1 loss to Carolina on Tuesday),” said Babcock, whose hot-button topics include his team’s slow starts and his defensive pairings. “We’ll look at our defence and see what we could have done better. You know, we’ve got to figure out what’s going to go on in the back end over the next few days.”
Babcock alluded to the possibility of dressing a seventh defenceman, which could enhance Rosen’s chances of sticking around.
The coach, however, might decide to stay with the players that got him to this point. The Leafs have won 46 wins and went into Wednesday tied for the fifth-best record in the NHL. They could finish with 48 wins, one shy of the franchise record, and they have already set a team mark with 23 road wins.
Health could be an issue for Babcock as he ponders his three defensive pairings. Jake Muzzin missed Tuesday’s game with an illness, and Gardiner has not officially been cleared to play in a game, though that seems a formality.
The current top two pairings have Morgan Rielly with Ron Hainsey, and Muzzin alongside Nikita Zaitsev. When Gardiner returns, he will likely rejoin Zaitsev, dropping Muzzin alongside Dermott.
Dermott, who leads all Leafs defenceman with a 55-per-cent possession rating, spent the first half of the season with Ozhiganov, who sports a 54.8 possession rating. Together, they made up one of the top third pairings in the NHL, based on those numbers.
But the domino effect of Gardiner’s return will likely leave Ozhiganov battling Rosen, Marincin and Holl for the seventh defenceman’s role if and when the Leafs choose to dress one. It makes sense given the Leafs’ health concerns and it might be a good practice for the playoffs.
“(Gardiner) has been skating regularly here,” Babcock said Tuesday, before adding he wouldn’t know the defenceman’s status until after Thursday’s morning skate. “Then we’ll make that decision. We might dress seven D … just to make sure he’s looked after.”
Mark Zwolinski is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol