It appears Morgan Rielly is the one who will make way on the Toronto Maple Leafs defence for the return of Mark Fraser from a knee injury.
The 19-year-old rookie worked with veteran John-Michael Liles in Thursday’s practice in what was clearly the fourth and extra pairing while Fraser played beside Paul Ranger. Jake Gardiner took over the left side with Cody Franson in Rielly’s usual spot on the No. 2 pair. Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson remained together on the top pair.
Another indication Rielly will sit for the first time since he got into the lineup in the Leafs’ third game of the NHL season is that he played a season-low 14 minutes in the team’s last outing, a 4-0 loss last Saturday to the Vancouver Canucks. However, while Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle talked like a man who was ready to deliver a message to his teenage prodigy, he declined to say definitely that Rielly will miss Friday’s game at the Air Canada Centre against the New Jersey Devils.
When he was asked if Rielly was starting to show he still had some learning to do, Carlyle said, “I don’t know if he’s going through growing pains. He’s made some mistakes like any member of our hockey club has.”
However, Carlyle added, “What Morgan has to understand is that in certain situations those mistakes are not ones we’re going to tolerate.”
The mistakes are mostly loose play in the Leafs’ end of the ice, something they managed to get away with by winning the first two games of their western road trip last week but which cost them dearly against the Canucks.
Carlyle made it clear no one else on the team should think they are immune from the hook if their play does not sharpen up Friday night.
“Our level of work has to go up,” the coach said. “We’ve stated that and we’ve [told] our players that the message is going to start to be delivered in a different manner if we’re not going to get the results that we’re looking for. It’s not just about wins, it’s about how we play.”
Injuries to centres Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak mean there cannot be wholesale changes up front. The only new face in the lineup Friday will be centre Jerred Smithson, who was signed to an NHL contract Wednesday and promoted from the Leafs’ American Hockey League farm team. He will play on the fourth line between Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr.
Rielly said he doesn’t think his game has deteriorated alarmingly since he cracked the Leafs’ lineup and avoided being sent back to junior hockey. But he seemed ready for news he will be sitting in the press box against the Devils, admitting there might be some growing pains.
“Yeah, I think so but I’m not really too concerned about it,” Rielly said. “That happens to everybody. I’m not sure there is one area of my game that has really been bad.”
Besides, he said, “I’m happy [Fraser] is back. If he has a chance to play, that gives us a chance for a good start.”
Here are the Leafs’ forward lines from Friday’s practice:
Joffrey Lupul - James van Riemsdyk - Phil Kessel
Mason Raymond - Nazem Kadri - David Clarkson
Troy Bodie - Jay McClement - Nikolai Kulemin
Frazer McLaren - Jerred Smithson - Colton Orr
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