TSN Toronto reporter Kristen Shilton checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. Toronto held an optional morning skate at Scotiabank Arena, followed by a full morning skate for the Vancouver Canucks ahead of tonight's game between the teams.
Now in his sixth year pro, Morgan Rielly is on pace to have by far the best season of his career.
Through 40 games, he’s already notched 44 points (eight shy of his previous career-high in 76 games), while leading all NHL blueliners in goals (13). He’s also tied for most points among defencemen, has the third-most assists (31) and third-best plus-minus rating (plus-24).
It all looks great on paper, but those stats aren’t all that Rielly uses to determine how well he’s playing.
“It’s important that over time, you kind of look at yourself, and the player you want to be and you take steps to try and get there,” he explained after the Leafs’ optional morning skate on Saturday ahead of their game against the Vancouver Canucks. “It’s a long road, a long process. I have a long way to go to get to where I want to be.”
Notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to discussing his own accomplishments or details of his own game, Rielly didn’t expound much on where those areas for improvement are. But like the Leafs themselves, who have lost two in a row, Rielly finds himself now in a rare lull.
For the first time all year, the 24-year-old has gone three games without a point (he hadn’t gone longer than two previously) and he’s been minus-one in Toronto’s last two outings.
With Saturday marking the halfway point of the 2018-19 campaign for Toronto, there’s no time like the present for Rielly to kick-start his game again.
“It’s important we all take [our recent losses] upon ourselves as individuals to try and get better,” he said. “Not just me, but I know there are other guys who feel that way as well. Moving forward in this last half of the year, we all feel like we can get better, we feel like we can be more consistent as a team, and we’d like to carry that over.”
Getting back on the scoresheet against Vancouver would be especially sweet for Rielly, a native of the area. In ten prior career meetings, Rielly has four assists and zero goals against his hometown team, and said on Friday he still looks forward to playing them twice a year.
The Leafs haven’t lost more than two games in a row all season, a sign of consistency that’s helped propel them to second place in the NHL standings.
To hold off a third consecutive defeat once again on Saturday, Toronto will tap into the same principles that have benefited them before in that situation.
“We talk about that a lot, we talk about not going through dry spells; we want to be consistent all year,” Rielly said. “We make sure we’re doing things right every day, whether it be in practice or morning meetings. If we do that, we feel like we’re going to be ready to go at night. I guess the test is on for tonight.”
“It’s just fixing mistakes as quick as possible and getting back on track,” added Patrick Marleau. “I think when we stumble we’ve been able to get right back to our winning ways, so that’s what we need to do tonight.”
The problem for the Leafs of late hasn’t been as much a lack of execution as not being able to play their game as long as necessary to secure a victory.
“I just didn’t think we’ve found a way to dig in for 60 like we need to,” said Mike Babcock. “[The Canucks are] going to work hard, they’re going to compete hard, they’re going to be organized. There’s another test here tonight. We have to work.”
After giving up the fourth-most shots-against in the NHL last season (33.9 per game), Toronto set a goal to see that number reduced this season. To date, they’re giving up the eighth-most shots (32.5), which is still in the upper-echelon on the league but reflective of some progress from the year before.
Whatever Toronto has been able to do right in that category, though, it wasn’t on display Thursday when the team allowed 30 shots in the first two periods (and 34 total) against goaltender Michael Hutchinson. The Leafs went on to lose 4-3 to Minnesota, and can’t afford for history to repeat itself too quickly with Hutchinson back in the crease for Saturday's game.
“Last game, we gave up too much. Hutch played really good at the start, really kept us in it a bit,” Rielly said. “I think it’s important that as a group we have a good start and are able to limit opportunities against by clogging up the neutral zone and have quicker breakouts and make sure we’re not getting caught in the D zone”
Marleau noted that whoever is in net for Toronto, the job of players in front of him doesn’t change. That means executing a tight defensive game that allows the goalie to make saves and see play moved out of the zone.
“We have to make sure we don’t turn the puck over as much and we’re being in the right spot,” he said. “I think if we can get our forecheck going, you’re playing in the other team’s end, so tough for them to get shots that way.”
With so much talent through the Leafs’ ranks, it’s easy for them to caught up offensively while ignoring other vital components of victory.
“We’re skilled. We like to play that game. But the game is moving ahead,” said Babcock. “In October it’s one level, and it just keeps going. And it’s going to keep going. It’s hard, and it’s heavy and it’s competitive and we have to learn to play that every night.”
Babcock has said repeatedly he thought Thursday’s loss was good for the Leafs because it showed what they’re “susceptible” to when they lean too heavily on skill alone.
“I thought [the Wild] just stuck with it, didn’t get all wound up,” he explained. “We made two plays [on first period goals], and they just kept forechecking and working in the first period. They had played significantly better, they had jumped harder... and spent lots of time putting miles on our D. If you don’t do it right the whole 60, you don’t get what you want all the time.”
If he’d had his choice, Josh Leivo would like to have been part of the Leafs’ plans. But in early December it was clear the team didn’t have room for him to be an everyday skater anymore, so Toronto shipped him to Vancouver for forward Michael Carcone.
Out west, Leivo has finally found a home, slotting into a top-nine role nightly. Through his first 14 games, Leivo tallied four goals and one assist, before being sidelined by back spasms. That injury will force the Innisfil, Ontario native to miss Saturday’s game in Toronto, but his former teammates are glad Leivo's found his footing.
“It’s too bad [we won’t see him],” Rielly said. “He’s been playing well for them. He’s a guy who was here for a long time. The fact that he went out there and has played really well is great. We’re happy for him.”
The Leafs had promised Leivo that after last season, where he appeared in just 16 games, they wouldn’t allow him to sit mostly on the shelf again for another campaign. The emergence of Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson ultimately helped push Leivo out.
In the end, we weren’t able to play him every day like we wanted to, so I think this is a good opportunity for him,” Babcock said. “Now over time, he’s got to play with real good players and he’s got to make himself a home. I think it’s real good for Leivs.”
Leivo ended his tenure in Toronto with 14 goals and 14 assists in 94 games.
Elias Pettersson won’t play for the Canucks on Saturday, but the NHL’s top rookie was still a popular topic of conversation in Toronto.
It’s been two days since Pettersson got tangled up with Montreal Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi in a controversial incident that continues to spark debate. But as Pettersson awaits an MRI on his injured knee later Saturday afternoon, Canucks’ head coach Travis Green maintained there was nothing “malicious” about the play that hurt his team’s leading scorer.
“You have to remember, excellent players have hooks and holds and try to take away time and space,” Green said. “I’m obviously upset he’s not playing, but he’s going to get attention. Little holds, little hooks. That happens to all the good players. If you ask Petey, he engaged in it a little bit, he pushed back. That’s nothing different than what all the top players do.”
Green said there’s “no sense going off on anything” when it comes to Pettersson’s injury, and that the Canucks will wait for the results of Saturday’s MRI to determine when he’ll be able to come back. At the moment, Green is optimistic the absence won’t be for long.
“He’s walking around well. He looks good,” Green observed. “Hopefully he can play very soon.”
Even without Pettersson against the Leafs, Green has no intention of seeing his team roll over.
“We’re not coming here to lose,” he shrugged. “He’s one part of our team, he’s obviously a good player. But we’re not here to lose, we’re here to win.”
Maple Leafs projected lines vs. Canucks