In a move that has many surprised this morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs have re-arranged their defensive deck chairs. Nikita Zaitsev, who has played more minutes than just about anybody in Blue and White over the past season and a half, has been placed on Injured Reserve, while Martin Marincin has been called up to re-bolster Toronto’s options.

While Zaitsev continued to play his usual 20+ minutes against the Red Wings on Friday night, it’s likely safe to say that his “lower-body” injury stems from this blocked shot in the second period of the game. The 26-year-old has yet to miss a game since beginning his NHL career at the start of last season, scoring 46 points in 116 games, but this IR placement will likely lead to the end of that ironman streak.

Many will point to this stretch of time off, no matter how long it ends up being, as an interesting case study for Zaitsev and the team. While the Moscow native has his share of supporters in and out of the organization, many believe that he’s been over-utilized by the team due to a lack of a top-end, right-handed shot. Zaitsev has put up negative team-relative possession numbers in both his seasons with the Leafs, despite playing with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner for the vast majority of his even-strength minutes. Some of that can be attributed to competition faced and zone deployment, though the extent of that is unknown.

Whether we’ll get to see if there’s a tangible difference with him out of the lineup, especially as the entire team shifts to a chip in/out system similar to his own personal style, remains to be seen. But there will definitely be people watching for it.

On the other side of the transaction, a once-familiar face in Martin Marincin heads up to the Leafs. In Marincin, you have a player that makes the polarization on Zaitsev look like universal love and agreement, with local team staff, media, and fans all divided on whether the Slovak is the organization’s most underrated defenceman, or their worst. Marincin has routinely contributed in a positive way to his teams (Edmonton and Toronto) possession play, lacking offensive charisma but showing exemplary gap control in the neutral zone, often breaking up opposing attacks before they can develop.

The 25-year-old’s struggles without the puck eventually lost him a potential roster spot with the Leafs, and he was sent to the Marlies at the start of training camp. What has happened since has been nothing short of incredible; his defensive play has gone from very good to flat-out dominant, and a player who looked at an all-time low with his puck confidence in the early going:

Has turned into one who can be relied upon at all points of the ice.

In 18 games with the Marlies this year (about two-thirds of their season), Marinin has picked up two goals and five assists, a +13 rating, 10 penalty minutes, and taken 29 shots on goal. The Marlies have scored a mystifying 79% of available goals with him on the ice, about 25% more than they have without him. Marincin sits third among Toronto defencemen in even-strength goals, assists, points, and primary points per game, and trails only Travis Dermott for the group’s lead in estimated points-per-60.

In other words, all the numbers we’ve got say that he’s been dominant, and the eyes have shown a player that’s been dominant: one that’s just as good at stripping the puck from his opponents as he was before, but has more comfort in his stride, his shot, and his passes than ever.

It’ll be interesting to see how he gets used, if he gets used. I imagine that he’s got a decent shot at getting some playing time, if only because the Leafs will be looking to replace some of Zaitsev’s time on ice on the penalty kill while he’s hurt. In cruel fashion, this might mean that Connor Carrick continues to be stuck playing the waiting game as he inexplicably nears the month-mark of healthy scratches. Alternatively, we may see a reunion of the Gardiner-Carrick pair (perhaps with Gardiner pivoting to the PK while Carrick fills in on the powerplay) while Marincin comes up merely for some demo scrimmages and press box food. Either way, I’m sure he’ll attempt to make the most of his re-audition.

As for the Marlies, they’ll have a bit of manoeuvring to do. Travis Dermott appears to be banged up, Timothy Liljegren is with Team Sweden preparing for the World Juniors, and now they’ve lost the last piece of their presumed Top-3. If nothing else, it’ll be a good chance for Andrew Nielsen and Rinat Valiev to prove that they aren’t going to disappear into the depth chart without a fight, and Michael Paliotta may finally get a chance to play.

The Leafs play their next game on Tuesday afternoon against Carolina, while the Marlies face off against Manitoba this afternoon.

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