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Maple Leafs defensemen ready to step up without Muzzin, Rielly, Ceci

Inexperienced group confident it can be successful in place of injured veterans

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Travis Dermott looked at the Toronto Maple Leafs defensemen surrounding him inside the visitors dressing room at BB&T Center on Wednesday and gave a thumbs up.

Dermott and the rest of his Maple Leafs teammates learned early Monday that defenseman Jake Muzzin will be out four weeks with a broken hand sustained in a 4-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. Muzzin is the third member of the Maple Leafs regular top six to be injured, joining Morgan Rielly (foot) and Cody Ceci (ankle). Coach Sheldon Keefe said Rielly, out since Jan. 12, and Ceci, out since Feb. 5, won't return for weeks.

"It's tough when you lose a core of guys like that, but it also gives the rest of us an opportunity," Dermott said. "We're going to have to step up but we're confident we can do it.

"We got together and talked about it before practice today. We've been successful together before and we feel we can be again."

Dermott was referring to the fact that he and four of his fellow defensemen -- Justin Holl, 28, Martin Marincin, 28, Timothy Liljegren, 20, and Calle Rosen, 26 -- played together on the 2017-18 Toronto Marlies team that won the Calder Cup, which goes to the champions of the American Hockey League. The Marlies were coached by Sheldon Keefe, who replaced Mike Babcock as Maple Leafs coach on Nov. 20.

Video: TOR@DET: Dermott scores off defender's skate

Rasmus Sandin, selected No. 29 by the Maple Leafs in the 2018 NHL Draft, also played for Keefe with the Marlies. The only healthy defenseman on the Maple Leafs roster who didn't is Tyson Barrie, who was acquired in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche on July 1.

Keefe will need to hope that the familiarity between he and those defensemen will help compensate their lack of experience heading into their game against the Florida Panthers on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, FS-F, TSN4, NHL.TV), one Dermott calls the Maple Leafs' "biggest game of the year."

Barrie has played 548 career NHL games, 52 more than the combined number played by Marincin (222), Dermott (151), Holl (75), Sandin (24), Rosen (16) and Liljegren (eight). Muzzin (579), Rielly (516) and Ceci (494) have combined for 1,589 career games.

"There are a lot of familiar faces back there. It's pretty darn close to the Calder Cup championship defense," Keefe said. "That's a good thing. It's a good thing for me in the confidence and comfort in those guys.

"These guys are not AHL defensemen (any more). That's the big thing."

Keefe acknowledged the group will be tested, starting with the game against the Panthers. Toronto (33-23-8) is third in the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of Florida.

"It's not ideal but it's part of the gig, right," Keefe said. "It's the reason why you develop players, it's the reason you acquire depth, it's the reason you strive for a good and healthy minor league system. It's so when these situations happen, you can press on.

"We've done it before. Rielly, Ceci, [Muzzin], they've all been hurt at various times this season. You just have to find a way to get points."

The Maple Leafs, wanting to maintain stability, opted not to trade Barrie before the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, despite a number of inquiries. Toronto's lone move was acquiring Rosen from the Colorado Avalanche for goalie Michael Hutchinson.

"Imagine if we didn't have (Barrie) or Calle both," Dermott said. "Fortunately, things played out the way they did and we do.

"Now it's time to show what we can do."

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