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Korbinian Holzer may be one of those players who benefits from more ice time with the injury to Dion Phaneuf

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This one was tough to watch.

It's not so much that the Leafs played poorly on Wednesday as it was simply a poor excuse for a hockey game, one where very little happened and where two struggling teams met in a meaningless battle in late January in Newark, New Jersey.

A game that goes scoreless until deep in the third period between two teams that have little more to determine than draft position is rarely a barn burner.

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The Leafs lost again. For those that didn't tune in, consider yourselves fortunate. For those that did, paid to watch or otherwise, well it was an experience.

Mostly in tedium.

The damage to their record now is considerable. This shootout loss to the Devils was Toronto's first point on the road since New Year's Eve (!) and only their third point altogether in a nightmare of a January, a month that will go down as one of the franchise's worst ever (!) after a 1-9-1 start.

Two games to play to finish it off.

It's bad, but it's also obviously good in a tangible way, as they're a lot closer to a good pick than the playoffs, sitting in eighth last after this one, with the Devils gaining ground.

But, with 33 games left, that's an awful lot of hockey to spend hoping they keep frittering away points.

There are other things to look for in the Leafs play, especially with players being forced into different positions because of a new coach, injuries and – soon enough – trades.

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Holes are going to open up, and the organization has to hope some of those that step into fill them can do so admirably.

That's always one of the last silver linings to look for in a lost season, especially one that's lost as early as this one.

We saw some of that on Wednesday. With captain Dion Phaneuf out "week to week" with a suspected hand injury, Korbinian Holzer played 17 minutes on the top pairing, rookie Petter Granberg was given his second NHL game, Jake Gardiner had nearly 27 minutes and Morgan Rielly about 24.5.

That's a lot of looks at some pretty young blueliners. For Gardiner, it was the most minutes he had played since his rookie season – three years ago – under Ron Wilson, when he flourished when given big responsibility.

Maybe it's not sexy, but the Leafs need to evaluate what they have here in this group, playing a more defensively responsible style, and not having Phaneuf for a stretch certainly accommodates that.

Can they not only survive without their $7-million man but look decent on the blueline?

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Phaneuf takes a lot of heat in this market and some of it's justified and some of it's not. He's badly miscast as a No. 1, especially in a defensive role, and he's been asked to do too much year after year.

(Forget all the leadership nonsense and the like; let's just evaluate his play.)

Given how far from contending the Leafs are, and given his age (30 in April), and the league moving toward more fleet-footed D, trading him now makes a lot of sense.

The tough part in saying that is that dealing him still presents a conundrum: You're not going to get a lot back, given the contract and his modest offensive production (he was on pace for only 38 points this season pre-injury).

A contending team may want him; they won't want him as a No. 1. Because then they wouldn't be a contending team.

Phaneuf has barely missed any time to injury since he joined the Leafs, a credit to his durability, but also a shame in that we haven't had a prolonged look at how they could benefit from not relying on a flawed "big piece" so heavily.

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So, you slip Gardiner into some of those minutes, Rielly into others, and see what you have. Are they ready? What looks better? What looks worse?

At that kind of workload, with those admittedly less than ideal partners, you should find out pretty quickly.

And, hey, maybe Holzer and Granberg can be more than you think. Or not.

Overall, maybe you learn you actually can live without Phaneuf and that the young defencemen can step up – at a big discount – as you begin the retooling of the roster in a meaningful way.

This is a great opportunity to answer those questions, especially with so little else on the line.

Thirty-three games to go.

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