The Toronto Maple Leafs lineup will be looking a little bit thin on Thursday night in Nashville.
And it’s safe to say this is where we see just how they handle a little adversity.
Not only do the Leafs have a difficult, road-heavy schedule ahead – including three tough games in the next four nights – but they’ll have to somehow try to pull out of their 1-3-1 funk without two top-six forwards.
Two-thirds of Toronto’s second line in Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur will be out against the Preds after suffering injuries late in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Grabovski’s injury is the more serious of the two, as he’ll be out at least two weeks with a lower-body ailment.
MacArthur may be back by as soon as the weekend, but he was still being evaluated by team doctors Wednesday as his teammates boarded a plane for Tennessee.
While the pair weren’t off to flying starts, Grabovski leads all Leafs centres in ice time and MacArthur sits third on the team in goals scored.
For a group that has laboured to put pucks in the net with only seven goals in its past five games, those are big losses – especially when one of their replacements (rookie Matt Frattin) has one measly point in 15 games.
Add in the long-term absences of No. 1 netminder James Reimer and checker Colby Armstrong and the Leafs are down at least a few good men.
Even with Tim Connolly’s triumphant return to the lineup after four games away.
“Two guys are out, one guy comes back in,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “So it’s not as decimated as it may appear. … It’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up and get the job done.”
If they can’t, however, it could be a long few weeks given Toronto’s schedule.
Thursday’s game in Nashville is the first of a series of five of six games on the road, which will be followed by a home-and-home with the Boston Bruins, who have outscored the Leafs 13-2 in two games this season.
It’s a critical eight-game stretch, one that could either end the Leafs’ mini-slump or make it far worse.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at five key players Toronto needs to “step up” given the injuries:
1. Nikolai Kulemin: The quiet Russian scored 30 goals a year ago but has just two after 18 games and isn’t shooting the puck nearly enough to get back to that level. Wilson said he hopes that two new linemates may jumpstart him after an awful start with Grabovski and MacArthur.
2. Dion Phaneuf: He has been awfully quiet during his team’s recent 3-4-1 slide. The Leafs captain has only one point and a minus-4 rating in the eight games since getting “best defenceman in the league” billing from his coach. More troubling, he’s had a few defensive gaffes turn into goals against.
3. Ben Scrivens: The rookie goaltender has been all over the map but earned Wilson’s confidence on Tuesday and will start against the Preds. Given they’re not scoring much lately, if Scrivens falters, the Leafs likely won’t win many games.
4. Tim Connolly: Injured for all but six games, Connolly will be tasked with coaxing offence out of a pair of wingers who have combined for only two goals in Kulemin and Frattin. He’ll also likely take on plenty of defensive assignments with Grabovski out and play far more than he has to date.
5. Phil Kessel: Wilson made clear after practice Wednesday that part of the solution to the missing bodies will be to give the NHL scoring leader as much ice time as possible. Kessel logged nearly 27 minutes on Tuesday in one of his better games as a Leaf – a sign, likely, of what’s to come. “I’ll make sure he’s involved in the game a little bit more,” Wilson said.