This Leaf de­fence won’t rest

Rielly, Gar­diner vow to keep con­fi­dence is­sues in the past

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - Bruce Arthur

NI­A­GARA FALLS, ONT.— If you wanted to make a list of in­dis­pens­able Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s a short list. In gen­eral, such a list in­cludes your No. 1 goal­tender (un­less you’re last year’s Pitts­burgh Pen­guins) and your No. 1 cen­tre (un­less, for short spans, you are last year’s Pitts­burgh Pen­guins), and your No. 1 de­fence­men. Un­less, of course, you’re . . . any­way, as the Leafs en­ter their prove-it sea­son, No. 1 de­fence­man ap­pears to be at least slightly fluid.

“We plan on hav­ing two pairs that can do it, so it won’t be as big a deal,” says Leafs head coach Mike Bab­cock. “And then we’ll just see how it all plays out. “We’ll see who plays good.” That sig­nals a philo­soph­i­cal change. Last sea­son, Bab­cock fed young Mor­gan Rielly some of the tough­est min­utes in the league. Rielly more or less kept his head above wa­ter, but then suf­fered a high an­kle sprain in Fe­bru­ary, and his play and con­fi­dence took a dive.

Bab­cock switched the heavy weather to Jake Gar­diner and in the play­offs, both for­mer room­mates were treated like lead horses, with Gar­diner get­ting 28 min­utes a night and more of Wash­ing­ton’s top line, and Rielly get­ting 26 and more of its dan­ger­ous sec­ond line. It was a strange year in which Rielly, more than ever be­fore, felt like every mis­take he made ended up in the back of the net.

“Yeah, I def­i­nitely feel that way, but you can’t have that con­ver­sa­tion out loud dur­ing the sea­son,” says Rielly.

“Yeah, it was one of those years (for him),” says Gar­diner. “And I’ve had a cou­ple of those years too, when you’re dash-25, and you’re like, ‘OK, I didn’t think I was play­ing that bad.’ And some­times that hap­pens. But I thought he had a pretty good year for us. And it was kind of the op­po­site for Mor­gan and I last year: we were scor­ing a lot when I was out there, and weren’t as much when I wasn’t. That’s just how it goes some­times.”

Now, Bab­cock seems like he will let the bal­ance play out. Rielly spent the off­sea­son in a new gym — For­tius in Van­cou­ver, where Rap­tors’ body guru Alex McKech­nie works — and spent up to two hours in the gym and 90 min­utes on the ice per day. He worked on skills es­pe­cially, and more as the sum­mer went on. He wants to make up for last sea­son.

“There were games I can re­mem­ber over the course of the sea­son where I feel like, with the ef­fort I put in in the off-sea­son, I can do every night,” says Rielly. “And I didn’t do that last year. There were games where I felt like I was a threat of­fen­sively, re­spon­si­ble de­fen­sively, cre­at­ing chances, driv­ing it, and had the puck on my stick a lot and I was mak­ing plays. And you go home that night and you wake up the next morn­ing and you want to do it again, but it’s not that easy.

“But I feel like I’m in a po­si­tion now where I feel I’ll be more ca­pa­ble.”

And while Gar­diner will stay with Nikita Zait­sev, the 23-year-old Rielly with play with vet­eran Ron Hain­sey, brought in as a free agent from Pitts­burgh, where the Pen­guins won the Cup with­out No. 1 de­fence­man Kris Le­tang, along with other in­juries. Hain­sey has only seen Rielly for two days of train­ing camp, but he sees big things.

“I mean, again, we’re not too far into it here, but he’s four years in, this’ll be his fifth,” said the 36-yearold Hain­sey. “He’s a great skater; you’re prob­a­bly just scratch­ing the sur­face of his of­fen­sive abil­ity. It’s so early in his ca­reer — you hope this guy is gonna be here for an­other 15 years. He’s only scratch­ing the sur­face of ev­ery­thing he’ll be able to do at his peak.”

That’s the hope. Rielly hasn’t quite bro­ken through to the next plateau; he was on Team North Amer­ica at the World Cup, on Team Canada at the world cham­pi­onships, but he wants more. And last year bat­tered him, though he won’t quite say it. So he can come into this sea­son stronger, faster, more com­fort­able mak­ing plays in small spa­ces. But con­fi­dence will be the big­gest thing, right?

“A lot of it’s men­tal, and if the men­tal as­pect of the game is 90 per cent, then the con­fi­dence is 60 per cent,” says Rielly. “It’s tough. And it’s easy to do self-talk, if you will, and tell your­self you’re go­ing to be con­fi­dent. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, and like I said, when I talk about my fit­ness level and the work I did in the off-sea­son, that’s all good, but I also feel like my con­fi­dence be­cause of that is much higher, and I feel like that’s go­ing to be a big part of how I start the year.”

Look, the Leafs had de­fen­sive strug­gles last sea­son — “We needed a touch­down to win a game early in the year ob­vi­ously. It was a lot of fun, too, but you don’t win in the end play­ing like that,” says Bab­cock — but it got bet­ter as the year went on. They only al­lowed five more goals, and three more shots, than the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins did last year. Big things await. And Mor­gan Rielly and his old friend Jake Gar­diner will be asked to share the big­gest bur­dens this sea­son, and to be­come as in­dis­pens­able as they can be.


Jake Gar­diner and Mor­gan Rielly both strug­gled with con­fi­dence is­sues last sea­son.

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