The Toronto Maple Leafs team that will open this season’s NHL playoffs in Boston on Thursday night against the Bruins is way ahead of last year’s edition with one exception.
Once again, Morgan Rielly, 24, and Jake Gardiner, 27, will play between 50 and 60 minutes per night between them. Either one of those defencemen will be on the ice for almost the whole game, every game.
A year ago, it was because they were the only weapons on defence available to Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, even though both were babes in the woods by NHL playoff standards. Rielly was in his first playoff series and Gardiner his second.
But Roman Polak was lost to injury in the second game of the series against the Washington Capitals. And Nikita Zaitsev missed the first two games as he recovered from an injury and never really got up to speed for the other four.
This year, the defence unit as a whole is much improved, but the ice time for Rielly and Gardiner will remain the same because of the strides both players, Rielly in particular, took this season. Both, for example, hit 52 points in the regular season. NHL head coaches dream about having a 50-point defenceman on each of their top two pairings with the same fervour as they dream about permanent job security.
Rielly says he talks a lot with his good friend Gardiner about all that ice time and what they would like to accomplish. Playing that much is fun but with the privilege comes a lot of responsibility.
“It’s pretty cool,” Rielly said. “Me and Jake went to dinner [Monday] night and we talked about that. We talked about the importance of us being the best we can be.
“As a player, you want to take that and run with it. … At the end of the playoffs, you want to say I’m proud of what I did. So that’s what we’re going to aim for.”
And yet, when the season began it was the defence that dominated the endless debate about the Leafs and their prospects. There were essentially two topics – 1. Who and what should Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello trade to get a No. 1 or at worst No. 2 defenceman? 2. Will Rielly ever be a true No. 1 defenceman in the class of Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman?
Well, Rielly is still not ready to be spoken of in the same breath as that sainted trio, but he stepped forward enough, beginning with last year’s first-round loss to the Capitals, to get into the group behind it. Gardiner still has a few too many defensive misadventures to be in the same crowd but he is still in the upper echelon of the league’s blueline corps.
“Throughout the year, he’s gained confidence,” said Rielly’s defence partner Ron Hainsey, who was signed away from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to be a mentor to him. “He’s been put in a lot of opportunities. He’s probably never had as much responsibility as far as starting in the [defensive] zone against the top line 95 per cent of the time, stuff like that.
“He’s obviously had a ton of power-play time to get the points. Him and [Gardiner] actually ended up with the same amount, which is pretty wild. I think he’s learned in all aspects.”
Funny thing about that power-play time. Last season, Babcock restricted Rielly’s power-play opportunities as part of teaching him the defensive side of his job, how to play without the puck in the coaching vernacular. As a result, Rielly’s production went to 27 points from 36 in 2015-16, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2013-14. Gardiner enjoyed the lion’s share of the power-play minutes.
This season, with each of them quarterbacking one of the two power-play units, the Leafs power play was the second in the NHL, behind the Penguins, with a 25-per-cent success rate. It is notable Rielly managed to almost double his offensive production this season despite playing against the opposition’s best players most of the time.
The spark for Rielly’s growth came in the Washington series a year ago. By the end of it, his two-way play made it clear he was the No. 1 defenceman on the team.
“It proved to ourselves and lots of people that we can play with anybody,” Rielly said. “We won [a game] in there, that was the No. 1 seed in the east and we did ourselves good. It gives you confidence you can play at that time of year.”
On a personal level, Rielly said, his first playoff series made him “more comfortable being in that environment. Once this time of year comes, it’s a little bit of a different thing. It’s more fun for sure but it’s definitely more intense. Just with our meetings we have in the mornings and our practices, it’s a lot more intense. There’s a lot we learned from that.”
As the season went on, Rielly talked to Hainsey about what went into the Penguins’ successful chase last year of a second consecutive Stanley Cup. He gleaned a few things, even if Hainsey prefers actions to talking.
“If you know Ron, he doesn’t like to go too far into detail,” Rielly said. “A lot of it is timing and luck. In order to win like that, a lot of things have to line up nicely. It has to be a combination of that and it has to be a great team. If you look at the past, that’s often-times what happens. That’s about all I could get out of him.”