It was a bold move. It was an entirely unexpected one, especially from this coach.
But Randy Carlyle paired his two youngest defencemen together against one of the league’s best teams on Wednesday and got a terrific performance from both.
Now put aside the fact the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Los Angeles Kings in this one.
Yes, they needed two points. Yes, a couple big mistakes cost them against a tired team that was playing on consecutive evenings after blowing out Montreal.
But there were some enormous positives in the game that haven’t been there much of the year, and the biggest one may be that not only did Carlyle play Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly together, they excelled as a unit.
Coming in, Rielly had played with three other partners more than Gardiner – Cody Franson, Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser – and the results with all three had been very mixed.
But in the measly 32 minutes Rielly and Gardiner had played together this year at even strength, there were signs it could work, with the team recording 62 per cent of the shot attempts on goal in those minutes.
Rielly with any other partner has been at an abysmal 40.6 per cent.
Some of that is obviously because Carlyle has sheltered the duo, something that was again part of the plan against the Kings. Rielly and Gardiner started 10 of the 17 shifts the Leafs began in the offensive zone, far more than the other two pairings, and obviously didn’t draw the assignment against Anze Kopitar’s line.
What they did do in their 18 minutes on the ice together, however, was continue to exhibit some nice chemistry and find ways to generate both offence and zone time. They played a simple game, quickly moving the puck and getting it out of harm’s way.
With Rielly on the ice, the Leafs outshot the Kings 9-4 at even strength.
With Gardiner, that was 10-7.
This despite the fact they were on the ice against the likes of Mike Richards and Drew Doughty more than any other Kings, meaning these weren’t the softest minutes on offer.
By the end of the night, with captain Dion Phaneuf watching on from the press box due to a suspension, Gardiner had logged more than 26 minutes – a season high – and picked up a power play assist on Toronto’s lone goal.
Rielly, meanwhile, was on the ice for 19:28, his sixth highest mark this season after spending the previous three games (inexplicably) in the press box.
“It was a little bit of a risk,” Carlyle said of the pairing. “But you can obviously see that they have skillset and skating ability. They can and they will be NHL players, regular players, but we’re asking a lot of two young guys specifically to pair them together. But we just felt that was the best grouping and we felt Morgan Rielly’s worked hard and deserved an opportunity.”
It’s been, to put it mildly, a brutal year for the Leafs defence.
After four years away from the NHL, Paul Ranger has not worked out and had another costly gaffe that led to the winning goal on Wednesday. (“Bad decision,” Carlyle said afterwards. “We’ve got three guys at the net in a 1-1 hockey game with 10 minutes left. It’s an ill-advised pinch. It’s mistakes like that that end up costing you.”)
Mark Fraser is playing through a knee problem that has diminished his mobility, which was limited to begin with.
Cody Franson, who made a terrific play to score a power-play goal and was excellent overall against the Kings, has generally struggled to eat bigger minutes.
And the top pairing of Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson has been getting progressively more filled in on the shot clock the more Carlyle leans on it.
How the Leafs are playing in their own zone in general desperately needs a rethink, and the first place to start is to begin relying more on a formula of puck movement and skating rather than hitting and brawn.
That’s not The Carlyle Way™, but perhaps more nights like this one can convince him to continue to take the “risk” of deploying this team’s developing skill more often.
Rielly and Gardiner are not big men – at 205 and 184 pounds respectively – and they don’t have a lot of experience, being 19 and 23 years old. But the NHL is a young man’s league these days, one built more on speed and finesse than when Carlyle won a Stanley Cup in 2007.
And there are a lot of 23-and-under defencemen logging 20-plus minutes a night around it.
The youngest of those include Justin Faulk, an unheralded potential Olympian, who is playing more than 24 minutes a night in Carolina. Jonas Brodin is at nearly 25 minutes a game with a pretty good Minnesota team. And 18-year-old Seth Jones is over 23 minutes a contest in Nashville.
Other names that jump out? How about Travis Hamonic, Brenden Dillon, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Cam Fowler and Zach Bogosian?
All of the above are younger than Gardiner, and their teams aren’t hesitating to throw them into the fire.
To Carlyle’s credit, that’s already happening with Gardiner. He’s averaged 23:40 a night in the last 13 games and has seven points in that span, which now makes him the most productive Leafs defenceman at even strength this season.
But with the debate over whether Rielly should go to the world junior team in full force, Wednesday’s outing was the perfect example of why he is also making the case to stay and play in Toronto. He has outplayed some of the Leafs veterans and – when paired with a creative, quick partner close to his age like Gardiner, who he has a budding friendship with – has shown impressive flashes of what he can do.
With other options having failed the Leafs this season, it’s time to let that partnership play out a little more.
And the talk of trading Gardiner should be dead and buried for good.
Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle