Leafs feel Rielly is turning a corner
The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena on Friday.
Morgan Rielly almost never takes part in an optional morning skate, but the longest-serving Leaf hit the ice on Friday morning alongside a handful other players. Why?
"I'm not doing this," Rielly said while smiling and shaking his head. "I'm not talking about optional skates."
"Great question!" exclaimed Mark Giordano, who was chuckling a few stalls down.
Rielly stormed out of the dressing room in mock protest. The 29-year-old defenceman returned a minute later.
"No optional skate questions, please," he said with a grin.
The Leafs held a mandatory skate on Wednesday morning and Rielly scored that night against the Colorado Avalanche. It was only his third goal of the season and first since Feb. 11, which snapped a 12-game drought. So, perhaps Rielly is a bit superstitious. You can certainly understand why he wants to do everything possible to replicate that effort against the Avalanche.
"That can only be a good sign of things to come for him," said coach Sheldon Keefe, who points out Rielly struck iron before scoring. "You rip one off the bar, it doesn't go your way, but that in itself can feel like, 'Oh, okay, I'm involved. I'm engaged. Things are happening.' And then you score right after it ... you feel like things are really opening up for you."
It's been a trying season for Rielly, who's in the first year of a new eight-year, $60-million contract. He missed time with a knee injury and is the only Leafs blueliner on the unhappy side of the plus-minus statistic.
Perhaps he's feeling more pressure, because of the contract?
"No, not the contract or anything like that," Rielly insists. "It has nothing to do with money. Nothing to do with any of that. It's just, I've been here for a while, and I expect a certain standard from myself and all of my teammates as well. I think we all hold each other to a very high standard but it starts with yourself."
"He's very honest about his game when I've met with him and chatted with him," said Keefe. "Morgan really wants to win and really wants to help our team and he knows he plays a big role in that, so he's extremely committed to being at his best."
Rielly witnessed some tough times for the franchise early in his career, but now the Leafs are one of the top regular-season teams in the NHL. Playoff success, however, has remained elusive and the stakes feel incredibly high right now as the core seeks a breakthrough.
Keefe believes the lack of scoring probably weighs on Rielly because he knows the team relies on him for that production. Rielly potted 20 goals during the 2018-19 season when he finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting. He scored 10 goals a year ago.
"I don't think I'll ever be satisfied," Rielly said. "After the season, I'll have a chance to reflect a little more than I do right now, but you're always wanting to get better. There's always things you can do different, and I don't think you're ever satisfied to any extent, really."
Last season, Rielly racked up 68 points in 82 games last season (0.83 per game). He's registered 33 points in 52 games this season (0.63) despite quarterbacking the top power-play unit. However, Keefe doesn't see a change in the Vancouver native's approach.
"I don't think it's fazed him," Keefe said.
"That's what is enjoyable about the game and about sports and about doing what you love," Rielly said. "The challenges, you make them part of your experience and those improvements and those things that you learn along the way are fun. It's challenging at times, for sure. You go through ups and downs, but you learn to embrace it and deal with it and keep going ... If you learn to enjoy that and if you're doing what you enjoy doing then that's not really a burden. It's a great opportunity to learn and grow as a hockey player, as a journalist, as an individual, and I've always enjoyed this part of this job."
After stopping 28 of 29 shots on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov gets the start on Friday.
"He played really well the other night," said Keefe. "He's played very well at home. As much as we want to keep both goalies involved, it is important to look, at times, to give guys multiple games just because that's part of getting in a rhythm."
Samsonov is 17-2-2 with a .928 save percentage at Scotiabank Arena this season. He's 4-0-0 with a .931 save percentage in four career starts against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Matt Murray is scheduled to start against his old team on Saturday in Ottawa. The 28-year-old is expected to address the media on Saturday. The goalie, who played two seasons for the Senators before a summer trade to Toronto, usually doesn't do interviews on the morning of a game.
Calle Jarnkrok got an audition beside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on Toronto's top line on Wednesday night.
"It felt alright," the Swede said of his one-assist performance. "A lot of fun for me to be able to play with those two ... I mean, it's two of the best players in the league. It's fun to be a part of a line like that."
The coach liked what he saw.
"He did a good job," Keefe said. "He was really moving his feet. He was on the puck. He contributed to the goal we scored and moving the puck up the ice and kept those guys moving. That's a really important part of playing with those guys is that you got to keep the chains moving. You got to keep them moving up the ice and keep them fast and get them on offence when the puck comes to you. That's what I thought he did really well. And he forechecks well and is defensively responsible. He's done a real good job for us no matter where we've put him."
Jarnkrok played 18 minutes and 28 seconds, which was a season high. Marner ended up over 29 minutes while Matthews was a shade under 27.
"I would've been gassed," Jarnkrok said with a smile, "but those two, they seem to never get tired."
Luke Schenn is all smiles as he prepares for his first home game with the Leafs since April 5, 2012.
"Obviously a lot of excitement," he said. "Just being out there in the morning skate, a lot of flashbacks, a lot of memories and just super excited to come back here and play in front of this fan base on the home side."
Schenn never made the playoffs during his first four seasons in Toronto, but quickly emerged as a fan favourite.
"Got off to a good start and then there were some ups and downs in my time in Toronto, but throughout that the fans have always been unbelievable to me," the 33-year-old defenceman said. "It comes with the territory of playing here and being in the market. You're not going to feel the love all the time, but I can say, in all honesty, the fans were unbelievable to me and fair to me."
Now, Schenn gets an unexpected second act with the franchise that drafted him fifth overall in 2008.
"It's pretty special to come back and be in this dressing room and come out through this tunnel and be on this bench," he said. "My career's been a rollercoaster for sure and I never thought I'd get an opportunity to come back here."
Schenn will look to harness that positive energy.
"I don't know which way it's going to go tonight," he said, "but you just want to go out there and really enjoy the moment."
"A guy like Luke Schenn is still playing and has had the type of career he's had, because he knows exactly who he is and what he needs to do," said Keefe. "I'm not concerned about Luke trying to do too much."
Schenn spent last week in Vancouver with his wife, who gave birth to their third child last Friday. He admits to feeling a bit guilty about being away from home right now.
Getting traded is never easy, especially during the season. Jake McCabe is still waiting for his family to join him in Toronto. His kids need passports, which is holding things up.
"My wife, God bless her, she's been grinding at home and she's sick right now, poor thing, but my mom's helping out right now," McCabe said. "After this road trip, hopefully will get the family up here. It's been a long couple months. We were on the road a lot in Chicago too, so I miss them a lot."
McCabe is averaging 18 minutes and 29 seconds of ice time in seven games since being traded to the Leafs from the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 27.
"The hockey playing is the easy part of this transition," the 29-year-old defenceman said. "It's what I know. It's my job and, frankly, what I'm good at so that's what I focus my energy towards. Thank God for FaceTime and the help from both our families back home. It's certainly tough and finally found myself a house, so just starting to get a little more settled here away from the rink."
McCabe expects to move out of the hotel, where Schenn is also staying, once the Leafs return from a four-game trip on March 29.
Keefe confirmed that defenceman Justin Holl will be a healthy scratch on Friday. It's only the second time this season that Holl has been benched.