The sophomore defenseman brings all the elements of an effective modern blueliner to the lineup and if he can contribute to the attack and spell the veterans, Toronto has a much better shot at the playoffs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are a work in progress, this is obvious. But with young defensemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly starting off the year as a tandem, there is tangible hope to hang your hat on. While both players are mobile, offensively-gifted rearguards, that doesn’t mean they can’t pair up. After all, Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin have made magic in Los Angeles and even if Gardiner and Rielly aren’t on that level, they still represent some of Toronto’s best hope on the back end.
Amazing to think Rielly is only coming into his second NHL season.
But the game he plays is very modern and as one of the better possession players on a team that ran afoul of that metric last season, his growth will be key to any success Toronto will achieve.
“I’m still trying to prove myself,” Rielly said. “I’m not too comfortable by any means, but I have extra confidence this year and I feel at home.”
Bringing in veterans Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak will help steady the Leafs and last year made it clear that captain Dion Phaneuf was playing too many minutes. It will take a group effort to shear down Phaneuf’s ice time, but perhaps a Gardiner-Rielly duo will work, at least until Cody Franson is healthy. In the meantime, Rielly likes having his buddy and roommate on the ice with him.
“I do,” he said. “Jake’s a great player, he can skate well and move the puck. We’re each trying to improve defensively and we’ll help each other there because we’ll both be more conscious of it when we’re on the ice together, so it will work out well.”
When Rielly officially joined the Leafs last season, he moved in with Gardiner and the two will be roomies once again for this year. On top of the obvious connection of being two of the youngest players on the team, the pair has a lot in common, but not everything.
“We each have our flaws,” Rielly said. “I might be cleaner, but he’s more of a morning person. Neither of us cook, so we’re even there. We like the same movies and music, our clothes are similar – we’re pretty similar.”
And despite their youth, Gardiner and Rielly have both found time to hang out with rookie blueliner Stuart Percy, who is just beginning his NHL journey. Though Percy is more of a two-way defenseman known for smarts, not flash, he’s watching both of them. In Rielly, he sees a player contributing in different ways beyond his years.
“He’s very energetic,” Percy said. “He definitely loves the game and likes to make a difference out there. I take that as a great leadership tool in him; bringing that emotion and passion. It has definitely rubbed off on me.”
The important thing for all Maple Leafs defensemen now is to improve on last season’s abysmal possession numbers, thereby erasing the chances of a playoff mirage if and when goaltending and shooting percentages fall back to earth again. Fortunately for Rielly, he seems to have the philosophy down, even if he didn’t seem too invested in terms such as Corsi or Fenwick.
“The quicker we can end plays in our own end and make good breakout passes, the better,” he said. “Then we get a chance to attack and try to get an opportunity to score.”
Rielly and Gardiner were clustered with Franson and Phaneuf in scoring by defensemen on the team last year, with Franson’s 33 points leading the charge. If Toronto can get even a little bit of a bump from the kids, it could mean the difference between playoffs or not in the wide-open East.
But it all starts with gaining the puck.