Nonis: Gunnarsson departure means Gardiner, Rielly need to step up

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One of the curious trades made on Saturday involved the Toronto Maple Leafs. They dealt defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and the 90th overall pick to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Polak.

While that deal netted the Leafs a physical blue liner, it also sent Dion Phaneuf’s top-pairing partner out of town. That means there’s a spot next to the Leafs captain and a chance to play a lot more minutes open and Leafs GM Dave Nonis said it creates a big opportunity for young defensemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly as TSN’s Jonas Siegel shared.

“Those guys are going to have to take steps forward,” Nonis said of the promising duo. “It might be a lot to ask for Morgan a little bit in his second year, but he made some pretty big strides last year and we would expect that he’ll take some more next [year]. And I think Jake is a good possibility [of doing the same] as well.”

Both players are very young but have tremendous skill.

Gardiner, 23, saw big minutes playing on the second pairing with Cody Franson and averaged 21:05 of ice time per game last season. Rielly, 20, had an impressive rookie season last year with 27 points and averaged 17:11 time on ice per game while paired with Tim Gleason on the third pairing.

Gardiner seems like the logical candidate to take Gunnarsson’s spot unless coach Randy Carlyle is reticent to break up that pairing with Franson. Either way, Phaneuf is going to have a skilled, speedy new partner to keep up with.