They’ve been getting younger and younger as players have dropped out of the lineup, and now, as they head to Nashville for their fifth game of the season, it’s official.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the youngest team in the NHL, with an average age of just 25.9 years.
The recall of 20-year-old forwards David Broll and Josh Leivo along with defenceman T.J. Brennan, 24, on Wednesday morning got them there, as did injuries to three veterans earlier in the year.
If 30-year-old alternate captain Joffrey Lupul – who is day-to-day with a bruised calf – can’t play against the Predators on Thursday, it will further drop the team’s average age another few months, meaning Toronto will ice one of the greenest groups the franchise has had in decades.
“I couldn’t really sleep last night when I got the call,” said Leivo, a 2011 third-round pick who has played only nine games as a pro in the minors after two 73-point seasons in the OHL. “Hopefully I can help the team and I can also learn some new things. It’s a learning step for me.”
Should Broll and Leivo both dress on Thursday, they will join Morgan Rielly, Spencer Abbott and Jamie Devane in becoming the fourth and fifth players to make their NHL debut with the team this season.
The Leafs could then have as many as 10 players in the lineup who have less than 120 games NHL experience, including other youngsters like Carter Ashton, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said the team has to view having up to five regulars out of the lineup this early in the season as a challenge, one that other clubs have overcome in recent years.
“That’s adversity you have to deal with in the NHL,” Carlyle said after a lengthy practice that involved over an hour of video work. “We’re no different than any other team. I can remember the Ottawa Senators last year at the beginning of the season they just kept losing body after body after body, and there was a lot made out of it that they were continuing to find ways [to win]. That’s what we have to get out of our group. We have to find ways to have success.”
The reality is that the Leafs situation is nowhere near as dire as Ottawa’s a year ago, as the Sens lost Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson for most of the season in the early going and racked up nearly 400 man games in the abbreviated 48-game campaign.
Toronto, meanwhile, isn’t yet missing any of its stars. The only losses of note have been David Clarkson (to a 10-game suspension that is looking more costly by the day), Nikolai Kulemin and Mark Fraser, but even those absences have tested the Leafs depth.
The last two games, Carlyle has opted to dramatically shortened his bench in the late going, indicating a lack of trust in anyone beyond his top two lines.
In Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Colorado, for example, the Leafs bottom six forwards – which included three enforcer types – played a combined 13 minutes and 11 seconds in the third period.
And four minutes of that, or 30 per cent, went to Kadri.
The end result was that Toronto’s top line played basically every second shift, with centre Tyler Bozak now having played two of the five highest minute nights of his NHL career in the last two games (both were more than 23.5 minutes).
Carlyle appears to realize that kind of load will be hard to sustain over a prolonged period and indicated that he intends to use more of his roster in the games to come.
“I think we owe it to our players to be more consistent with our lineup,” Carlyle said.
“When people get hurt, there’s other opportunities open for somebody else. To say Morgan Rielly would be getting the ice time he’s getting if Mark Fraser wouldn’t have gotten hurt – it might have been challenging for him. But who knows? We can’t live in the ‘if’ world.”
Leafs ice time breakdown in loss to Avs (by percentage)
Leafs ice time breakdown in loss to Avs (by avg. minutes)