This Leaf defence won’t rest
Rielly, Gardiner vow to keep confidence issues in the past
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.