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TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs (optional) and Columbus Blue Jackets skated at Scotiabank Arena on Monday ahead of their evening game.
An offensive explosion from Morgan Rielly has helped propel the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 14-6-0 start despite the absence of Auston Matthews (missed last nine games due to injury) and William Nylander (unsigned RFA).
“His game is just on another level right now,” said centre John Tavares, who has had Rielly assist on seven of his team-leading 12 goals.
Rielly tops all NHL defencemen in scoring with 25 points in 20 games. He already has nine goals on the year matching his career high set over 82 games in the 2015-16 season.
“He’s just doing it all out there,” observed Matthews, “contributing on both ends, playing with a lot of confidence. He’s always getting up in the rush creating chances and he’s been a powerhouse for us lately.”
Rielly is averaging three shots per game this season up from 2.4 a year ago. He’s been aided by more offensive-zone starts (51.8 per cent versus 45.3 per cent last season), but he also seems to be playing with more confidence these days. A good example came on Friday when he hammered home the winning goal in overtime.
“To catch and release like that, not many guys can do that,” said Jake Gardiner. “That was pretty impressive. It seems like he barely puts anything into it and it’s just a laser.”
“He gets it off quick,” noted Matthews, who owns a decent release himself. “He uses his lower body pretty well, too, kind of transferring his weight from one leg to the other.”
Rielly revealed that he did spend some time working on his shot in the off-season, but didn’t go into specifics.
“He’s always had a good shot,” said longtime teammate Gardiner. “I think he’s probably shooting a little bit more and being more assertive on jumping in the play and seeing a hole and he’s been capitalizing.”
Rielly’s shooting percentage is 15.3 per cent, which is well above his career average of 4.9 per cent, so a regression is coming at some point. But with Rielly putting an emphasis on getting more pucks through it seems likely that he can continue to produce.
“We’re trying to get more pucks on net during the power play,” Rielly said. “Me and Jake have been talking about things we can do better offensively to maybe contribute a little bit more.”
In general, teammates just see more of a swagger from the 24-year-old, who’s already playing in his sixth NHL season. Rielly believes his evolution mirrors that of the team.
“Things have changed,” Rielly pointed out, “players have changed, the way we play as a team is different and that tends to impact guys in positive ways. When your team is better and you feel comfortable with the group and the coaching staff that can really have a positive influence on guys.”
Coach Mike Babcock sees this as a natural progression for Rielly, who put up big numbers during his junior career, averaging nearly a point per game in his final two WHL seasons.
“Now it’s like playing in Moose Jaw for him,” the Leafs coach said. “So, some guys (that happens), for Mitch (Marner) playing in the NHL is just like playing in London, but it usually takes guys a long time. And then when you get to relax and come and play I think your skill set comes out.”
Babcock still sees room for improvement especially on the defensive side of the equation when it comes to boxing out and fronting the puck. And Rielly agrees he hasn’t quite reached elite status yet despite the gaudy numbers.
So, how will he know when he belongs in that top tier of NHL defencemen?
“I don’t know. I think it takes time,” he said as a smile crossed his face. “I guess I’ll let you know when that happens.”
Morgan Rielly scored the overtime winner Friday giving him nine goals through 20 games, matching his career high set in the 2015-16 season. The shot was a thing of beauty leading friend and longtime teammate Jake Gardiner to remark afterwards, ‘Heck of a release. You don’t see that too much from a defenceman.’ Growing in confidence, Rielly is shooting more this season averaging 2.95 per game up from 2.4 last season.
In the absence of Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen has picked up the slack producing eight goals and six assists.
“In the American [Hockey] League he didn’t look this good,” Babcock said. “He just didn’t. And I saw him lots. He’s obviously got a skill set of speed, he can shoot the puck, he’s a much bigger guy and he’s worked on his body over a three-year period and I don’t think he got to the NHL too soon. When you get to the NHL too soon you never score, so I think it’s a real good thing that he took his time getting here and we helped him take his time getting here.”
Kapanen registered 94 points in 119 games in the AHL from 2014 to 2018.
The first game back from a California road trip is often tough for Eastern Conference teams and head coach Mike Babcock believes a letdown would be understandable for the Leafs on Monday night. But the coach also said the team has followed a strategy laid out by Toronto’s Sport Science department, which they hope will help them avoid any rust.
The Blue Jackets got off to a slow start this season as leading scorer Artemi Panarin and Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky faced questions about their contract situations. But the team has steadied the ship of late going 5-0-2 since Nov. 4 to surge to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
“The guys have handled themselves very well,” said head coach John Tortorella. “We’ve had some very honest meetings early in the season about that situation. That’s going to be around us all year and we have to be able to handle that stuff. And I think the two guys that we’re talking about have handled themselves very well as far as being the best they can be and not getting involved with all the noise around it … From our California trip, when we were up and down, we had some very pointed meetings, some small group meetings, and I think it aired out a lot of things and I think we’ve found a little bit of stability here.”
How have their teammates reacted to the fact Panarin and Bobrovsky may bolt at the end of the season?
“Those guys have a decision to make and we’ve done everything we can to make it an attractive place to play and it’s their decision,” said captain Nick Foligno. “I don’t think any of us take it personally … we love those guys as teammates and they’ve helped us a lot this year.”
It’s no coincidence that the Columbus turnaround coincided with improved play by Bobrovsky who’s 5-2-0 with a .954 save percentage in seven games since Oct. 30.
“There were a lot of things running around Bob which it’s going to be all year long and I think he’s just handled it better,” said Tortorella. “And he’s just a guy who prepares so hard. One of the best I’ve seen that it was just a matter of time.”
Despite leading scorer Artemi Panarin and Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky both playing in the final year of their contracts, the Blue Jackets have been able to tune out distractions and surge to the top of the Metropolitan Division. Head coach John Tortorella said that’s a byproduct of some frank conversations early in the year while captain Nick Foligno notes both Russians are quality teammates making the situation easier than you may expect.
Tortorella is often viewed as a hard-nosed, old-school taskmaster, but players on the Blue Jackets say the veteran bench boss has evolved over the years. He’s not harping on every mistake anymore. Why? Well, there’s just too many.
“Some really good things going on with the youth, but holy crap it’s just a game filled with mistakes,” Tortorella explained. “And that’s what it is. Coaches have to understand that and that’s the adjustment coaches have to make. You can’t correct this all the next day, because you’re playing another game the next day. You try correcting all the mistakes and you’re going to paralyze your team so it’s about finding a way to win.”
“The amount of information is just almost too much,” agreed Foligno. “He tries to really dumb it down for us and let us go out and play … he wants us to feel good about ourselves, go out and play, have some flow, have some swagger and I think it works for this group. And we appreciate it.
“We know it’s a two-way street and we have to show him things in order for him to pull back.”
With the parity in the league right now – Columbus leads the division, but is only five points up on a playoff spot – simplicity is paramount.
“F.A.W. league,” said Tortorella, who’s in his 18th season as an NHL coach. “Find A Way to win league. That’s what this is. There are a ton of mistakes. It’s so different than from where it used to be. As a coach, you cannot try to correct all those mistakes. You have to find a way to win. At certain times of a game, no matter how bad you were, no matter how good you were, there are certain situations in the game where you can win. That’s what the league’s about right now.”
Coach John Tortorella is known for being a hard-nosed, old-school taskmaster, but players on the Blue Jackets say the veteran bench boss has evolved over the years. He’s not harping on every mistake. Tortorella says there’s so much information available now that you need to pick and choose what you take to the young players.
Projected Leafs lineup for Monday’s game:
Blue Jackets lines at Monday’s skate:
Leafs lines at Monday’s morning skate:
Leafs’ power-play units at Monday’s morning skate: