Mark Fraser’s return from a knee injury will have a domino effect on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ two youngest defencemen.
For rookie Morgan Rielly, 19, it means sitting out a game for the first time since he got into the lineup in the Leafs’ third game of the NHL season and played his way to the No. 2 defence pairing with Cody Franson.
For Jake Gardiner, 23, it is a much happier occasion – returning to his natural left side Friday against the New Jersey Devils with Franson, after a troubling stretch trying to play on the right side on the third pairing with Paul Ranger.
“The conversation we had with Jake Gardiner is he feels he’s foreign on the right side,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said after Thursday’s practice. “The reason we made the decision to put him over there [on the right] was because of his skating ability. He was able to see the ice and it would lighten the load and make it easier for him.
“I guess we were wrong.”
Judging by Carlyle’s expression, he is not exactly convinced about this. But Franson, for one, is willing to testify just how difficult it is for a defenceman to play on his “wrong” side.
One of the reasons Gardiner was tried on the right side was simply practicality – there are fewer right-hand shots in hockey, so lefties naturally get asked more often to switch sides.
“He’s been playing his off-side for a while now, and he’s done a really good job with it,” Franson said of Gardiner. “That’s not easy to do. I support him in all arguments with that.”
Franson says he is fortunate because “right-handed guys are kind of a minority,” but in his first training camp with the Leafs after being traded by the Nashville Predators in July of 2011, former head coach Ron Wilson tried to switch him to the left side. Franson likens it to playing backward because a right-hand shot always has to turn around to grab the puck with his stick when it comes along the left boards and vice versa. He hated it.
“That was no man’s land. I really struggled with that,” Franson said. “When you receive a pass on your strong side, your whole body faces up-ice. The puck is on your forehand, you’ve got every option: You can go cross ice, up the middle, or up the wall.”
Going to your off-side, Franson says, means you often have your back to the offensive zone because you have to turn around to grab the puck. That makes it harder to quickly see up the ice to assess the play.
“You have to bring the puck to your forehand and then, when it’s on your forehand, your backhand is to the middle of the ice,” he said, rather than being in position for a backhand shot off the boards to get it out of trouble. “It just seems to close off your options. That was the thing I really struggled with.”
Things do not get any easier when a defenceman on his off-side is in the offensive zone.
“You’ve got to pull pucks off the wall on your backhand,” Franson said. “Often, when the puck comes off the wall to you in the offensive zone, it’s bouncing and that makes it even harder.”
Carlyle, as his nature, refused to say definitely if Rielly will sit against the Devils at the Air Canada Centre. But his talk about sending messages to players and the defence pairs in Thursday’s practice strongly suggested that is the plan.
Fraser played on the third pairing with Paul Ranger, while the No. 1 set of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson remained intact. Rielly played with John-Michael Liles, who may be sent back to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, on the extra pair.
“He’s made some mistakes, like any member of our hockey club has,” Carlyle said. He did not elaborate, but Rielly’s mistakes of late are in his own end, as are those of the rest of the team. “What we want to do is make sure Morgan understands in certain situations those mistakes are not ones we’re going to tolerate.”
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