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Chris Johnston on how the Leafs can use $15 million of cap space to their advantage this deadline, Mike Babcock has no time for excuses in back-to-backs, Mitch Marner’s upper-body injury to be evaluated on Thursday, the Marlies fall in Utica, and more in the links.

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NHL Trade Deadline Team Needs: Toronto Maple Leafs (Sportsnet)
Given their current situation, the Leafs are arguably incentivized to convert that LTIR room into something tangible. They’re facing a significant 2017–18 overage either way and the $750,000 extra hit they’d take for going above the cap now could theoretically be offset by what they get in exchange for doing it. At this stage, adding an $800,000 depth player in a deadline trade would have the same long-term impact on Toronto’s cap picture as acquiring someone who makes $4.25 million or even $7 million. They could even fit in all three of those hypothetical players, assuming each is on an expiring deal.

Leafs can’t muzzle the cannon as Columbus Blue Jackets have a blast in rolling to 5-2 win (National Post)
Mike Babcock doesn’t want to hear about rest or no rest, back-to-back games or the challenges of the NHL schedule. What he wants to see, however, is a more consistent effort from his team when the challenges are stacked higher and the playoff push points become even more crucial. “I believe we are in good enough shape to compete every night,” the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach said after a flat early start Wednesday night directly led to a 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, helping loosen the trigger on the Nationwide Arena cannon. “I don’t care where we have been or where we have flown in from or anything like that.

Leafs’ momentum crashes in Columbus (
Babcock had his blender going in earnest in the second period, shuffling his lineup as much as he had all season. In some cases it worked – Kadri scored Toronto’s only two goals, and both were set up by new linemate Josh Leivo. It was the second straight game where Leivo posted multiple points and he was the team’s best possession player (74.19 per cent). At the other end, James van Riemsdyk played his second-fewest minutes of the season (12:51) and was mostly on the fourth line in the game’s second half, amassing a team-worst 33.33 per cent possession. Babcock said after he was rewarding his hardest-working players with the most ice time, saying “the guys who don’t [get the time], it’s up to them” to improve.

Marner hurt in Leafs’ loss to Blue Jackets (The Star)
Rookie Mitch Marner didn’t finish the game because of a possible shoulder injury, but seemed okay in the dressing room afterward. He tried on two occasions to come back after a check from Boone Jenner. Marner didn’t speak to the media after the game, but Babcock said he would be evaluated Thursday.

Mitch Marner’s status uncertain after injury in Leafs’ loss to CBJ (Toronto Sun)
Following the game, Leafs coach Mike Babcock said he had no update on Marner’s condition, saying only, “I don’t know, we’ll figure that out later.” Marner is expected to be evaluated by team doctors on Thursday – an off-day for the team. His status for a pair of weekend games at home to the Senators on Saturday and on the road in Carolina on Sunday isn’t likely to be known until the team returns to practice on Friday.

[Paywall] How Mike Babcock’s evolution has given the Leafs the NHL’s top power play (The Athletic)
A few years back, Mike Babcock talked about being a lifelong student of the game. “I don’t know what it’s like in your business,” he said to a media member. “But in mine if you’re not getting better, you’re getting passed.” You can see that philosophy in a lot of what Babcock has done over the past seven years. Including on the power play.  One of the things that analytically inclined people have muttered about, dating back to at least the early part of the century, is the refusal of coaches to move away from three forwards and two defencemen (3F2D) at 5v4. The argument in favour of using four forwards and one defenceman (4F1D) is simple: You score more goals in a 4F1D than you will in a 3F2D.

Game #50 Review: Utica Comets 5 vs. Toronto Marlies 2 (MLHS)
Special teams once again proved the difference between these two North Division rivals. In the two sides’ third meeting in eight days, the Comets were far more clinical at the key moments of the game. The loss ends Toronto’s five-game point streak.