Morgan Rielly is an important part of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ future. The fifth overall pick in 2012, he was drafted to be a top-pairing defenseman, and maybe even that elusive kind of No. 1 d-man that every Stanley Cup-winning team seems to have.
Now 23 years old, and with almost 300 NHL games under his belt, Rielly is indeed on the Leafs’ top pairing. However, with a minus-23 rating, there’s obvious concern about his defensive play.
Rielly has been paired all season with Nikita Zaitsev, a 25-year-old KHL veteran playing his first year in the NHL.
“We had a time early on when we were playing well defensively, playing a two-way game,” Rielly said recently, per the Toronto Star. “Then we got away from it. We got into run-and-gun. Now we have to get back to the style of hockey that’s going to make us win games over a long period of time. That’s playing defense and making sure we play well in our own end and managing the puck. Whether that’s chipping the puck out, or chipping it in rather than make plays, then that’s what it is.”
Rielly was a minus-2 in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Detroit. The Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead in that one, before the Red Wings made it an interesting third period.
Afterwards, head coach Mike Babcock suggested the Leafs became too conservative with the lead.
In other words, Babcock would like to see a little more play-making in key situations, not less.
“When you’re loose and driving, you’re flying and on top of the other team and you look fast and you’re playing right,” said Babcock. “Then when you’re tight you look slow. That’s just the reality of being in the league and learning how to win and expecting to win every night and understanding what you’ve got to do to win.”
The Leafs, one point back of the Islanders for the second wild-card spot in the East, host the Flyers tonight.
After practice this morning, Babcock offered Rielly a vote of confidence.
Stop thinking. Stop worrying. Just go out and play.