Leafs surprised Rielly is facing an in-person hearing
The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre in Toronto on Monday.
"Surprised just given we have spent a lot of time watching almost every cross-check that has happened in the last number of years," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "The ones that I thought were similar in nature to Morgan's were nothing close to requiring that."
"I was expecting a fine," said veteran winger Ryan Reaves. "One game max. The kid got up after he saw no one was on top of him anymore, completely fine, and I think that's got to be taken into account too."
Greig, a 21-year-old rookie, participated in Monday's practice in Ottawa, but declined interview requests. Rielly was not made available by the Leafs.
An in-person hearing gives the department of player safety the option of suspending Rielly for six games or more. The hearing will take place on Tuesday afternoon at the NHL office in New York City.
Rielly delivered the cross-check after watching Greig fire a slap shot into Toronto's empty net from close range while on a breakaway late in the third period of Ottawa's 5-3 win on Saturday night.
"It just felt unnecessary at the time," said winger William Nylander of Greig's shot. "I haven't really seen that ever happen ever."
"It definitely deserved a reaction," said centre Auston Matthews. "I just don't think it's really necessary to go down there and hardest-shot competition into the net, but it is what it is."
Has he ever seen something like that before?
"No," Matthews said before pausing. "Just last week at the All-Star Game."
Colorado defenceman Cale Makar won the hardest-shot competition in the skills competition with a 102.56 mph strike from the slot. Greig's brouhaha-inducing blast hit 73 mph.
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Reaves insists a simple shove would not suffice.
"I mean, guy takes a clapper into our net, you going to go play patty cake with him? Like, no, there's got to be message sent," Reaves said. "I don't think a push is a message, to be honest with you. So, I thought it was appropriate."
It was also out of character. Rielly has never been suspended despite playing 769 games plus 50 more in the playoffs.
"I don't think Mo's ever done anything dangerous before," said Nylander. "What does he have, like, three penalties this year or something?"
Rielly only had four minor penalties (including one that was assessed in error) in the first 49 games of the season.
"A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about him winning the Lady Byng and competing for that," said Keefe. "He is a pretty exemplary guy — not just on our team but in the league in terms of how he conducts himself and how he plays. He plays a good, hard, honest game, but he is very respectful and admired by his teammates and the opposition because of how he conducts himself."
So, why is Rielly facing such a big penalty? Keefe has a theory.
"There is a history of events that happen in Toronto and with the Leafs that get more attention and more hype," the coach said. "It tends to lead to something such as this. To that end, I am not surprised."
The Leafs have been assessed the most suspensions (10) and most in-person hearings (three) since 2017-18. Is that a byproduct of all the media coverage?
"It is not for me to answer," said Keefe. "That is a question for others."
Alright, one more update to this. Turns out the NHL site separates out misconducts/game misconducts, so I added them and minor penalties to the chart— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 11, 2024
Generally, the fewer penalties/misconducts you get, the less frequently suspended you are, with a couple of exceptions. pic.twitter.com/QT8238KjAt
Senators interim coach Jacques Martin laughed when asked if he was surprised to see the incident generate so much attention.
"No, not surprised," Martin told reporters in Ottawa. "Toronto-Ottawa is a rivalry and brings attention to people."
Social media was full of hot takes from the moment the play took place. Players around the league have been asked to weigh in.
"The slap shot, I mean, I don't have any issues with it," Oilers forward Evander Kane told reporters in Edmonton. "I think it's great. But, at the same time, as a lot of people say, the Rielly response was appropriate. I'm sure he wasn't trying to cross-check him in the head. A lot of these cross-checks, sometimes they ride up the shoulder and end up getting guys in the head. I've had that happen to me before. You know, it's entertaining. I think it's good for the game. If I'm Toronto, I don't love it and I'm probably going to respond the same way."
Not everyone can see both sides of this, though. This incident has sparked a wider debate over hockey culture.
"These young kids these days, they're playing a different brand of hockey than I'm used to," said Reaves, who broke into the league during the 2010-11 season. "The code's changed a little bit. The game's changed a lot. It's unfortunate that a young kid like that can get away with something like that and then one of our best players is going to get suspended for it."
Reaves then cracked a small smile.
"Yeah, make hockey violent again," the 37-year-old said. "Get that tattooed on me."
Giordano, the league's oldest player at 40, agreed with Reaves' sentiment that the younger generation has a different approach.
"Honestly, I don't want to say something I'm going to regret," Giordano said. "It's a different mentality, for sure, now."
The league doesn't have to suspend Rielly for six or more games just because there is an in-person hearing, although it certainly is an indication of how serious they consider the foul.
"It's notable that Rielly, agent J.P. Barry, Leafs management, representatives of the NHLPA are physically getting on an airplane and travelling to New York," said TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston. "Since COVID, players have had the option with these in-person hearings to do them over Zoom and many have, but Rielly really wants to go and explain exactly what was going through his mind and how that play went wrong. I think there is an opportunity that there's a range here. Maybe it's a four-game suspension instead of a six-game suspension."
Matthews was suspended for two games during the 2021-22 season for cross-checking Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin up high. At the time, Matthews expressed disappointment in the length of the ban.
"It's definitely very eye-opening," he said of his experience with the department of player safety. "You have a couple conversations, get on the phone and it all happens and comes together pretty quick. I felt like my bed was already made when I hopped on that phone. Everybody's situation is going to be a bit different. I guess we'll see what happens."
Rielly and the Leafs plan on making a strong case.
"Morgan has made it clear that he had no intention of the way that it looked or the way that it played out," said Keefe. "He's going over there [to Greig] to make a point that he is not just going to let it go away. That is what I would expect any of our players to do. That is what I expect our opponent to do if we do something similar. It is sort of the way that it goes. He will go, plead his case, and see how it goes."
Losing Rielly for any amount of games will be hard to overcome. He's enjoying a strong season and just appeared in his first All-Star Game.
Rielly leads the Leafs in ice time, averaging 24 minutes and 21 seconds per game. He's second overall in the NHL in even strength ice time per game at 21 minutes and eight seconds.
"We all got to pick up those minutes," said Giordano. "Those are big minutes. He plays in every situation. I keep saying it, he's been really underrated this year across the league. Offensively, we all know what he does, but I think in all areas of the game he's been really good this year. Big part of our team, obviously. The six guys who play tomorrow, we got to all know it's not going to be one guy stepping up and playing Mo's role, it's going to be all of us chipping in here and there throughout the game."
"It is a chance for us to get Brodie playing on the left," Keefe noted. "I suspect that when you lose a player like Morgan — with the minutes and role that he plays — everybody is going to have to move around, play in different spots, and play with different people depending on the situation and to manage the minutes."
During a media availability last Tuesday, Liljegren admitted he's not playing as well as he'd like.
"Sometimes, we all do it, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves in different situations," Giordano said. "Sometimes we think that things are worse than they really are, but that's a good trait to have. You're always working to get better. He moves the puck really well, skates really well and plays physical. He's a lot more physical than people think and when he's doing that everything else comes. He can really shoot it and put it in the net offensively too when he gets chances."
Liljegren, who missed time earlier this season with a high-ankle sprain, has gone 10 games without a point and is stuck on two goals and seven assists through 33 games.
"He has played well for us," Keefe stressed. "At times, there are some mistakes or whatever it might be, but he has played well for us. I expect he will do the same. Any time you are all of a sudden needed that much more, you think that much less. You just go out and play. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to a player, too."
Rielly leads the Leafs’ defence with 43 points, which is more than the next three Toronto defenceman (Jake McCabe, Brodie and Liljegren) combined.
"We have managed these types of situations before when players have left the lineup in the past number of years," noted Keefe. "Morgan left last year with an injury. We thought it wasn't good, but then we played our best hockey as a team and went on our best stretch."
The Leafs went 12-2-1 when Rielly missed time with a knee injury early last season. Justin Holl, who signed with Detroit in the summer, led the defence in ice time during that stretch. Rasmus Sandin, who was traded to Washington later in the season, led the defence in points during that stretch.
Giordano also stepped up during that time, but this Rielly absence comes later in the season and the veteran has seen his ice time dip throughout the year. Giordano is also coming off a lower-body injury, which sidelined him on Saturday.
"I felt really good in practice today and hopefully tomorrow I'll feel the same and go from there," he said.
Giordano skated on the third pair beside William Lagesson at practice.
"It was more whether he could get his skate on and feel good out there," said Keefe of Giordano's status. "He said he did. In fact, he felt better with the skate on than off. That is encouraging."
Lagesson played 13 minutes and 14 seconds on Saturday in Ottawa and finished minus-one. It was his first game action since Dec. 27.
"It's on other guys to step up and have more of a presence in the lineup," said Matthews. "They're going to be playing more. We've dealt with stuff like this in the past ... I'm sure guys are ready to go. A guy like Laggy, who's been out of the lineup for a little bit, a guy that's been itching to get in, so a really good opportunity for him to play some big minutes for us."
McCabe and Benoit remained together on the second pair.
The Leafs will host St. Louis, Philadelphia and Anaheim this week. All three teams rank in the bottom third of the NHL in goals per game.
Conor Timmins will not be available to help fill the void. The right-shot defenceman will miss a second straight game due to illness.
"He has an appointment today that is going to help chart the course for him," Keefe said. "He is still not feeling well. He is going to be unavailable for tomorrow for sure. We will have more for you after his appointment."
McCabe took Rielly's spot on the top power-play unit despite logging fewer than eight minutes on the man advantage this season.
"A veteran guy and he knows what he's doing up there," said Matthews. "It's not really rocket science. Just try and keep things simple ... and attack and take what's given and try to create opportunities out of their structure."
After not getting a power-play chance on Saturday, the Leafs dedicated a significant amount of Monday's practice to special teams.
Overshadowed by the Rielly-Greig incident, the Leafs lost for the second time in three games since the break and the same old problems keep coming up.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss to the 28th-place Senators, Keefe highlighted a neutral-zone turnover late in the first period.
"We were two minutes away from a pretty clean first period on the road," Keefe told reporters. "There was just a completely egregious play at the end of the first period that led to their first goal. That was our best people."
Rielly passed the puck to Mitch Marner, who was at the end of a shift and in awkward spot, and the winger turned it over. The Senators raced the other way on a 3-on-1 and Claude Giroux potted a rebound.
"I thought our best people let us down there," Keefe said. "It changes the momentum of the game. Ultimately, it ends up being a one-goal difference."
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The Leafs also lost in regulation after allowing a late goal earlier in the week against the New York Islanders.
"A big part of it is just not shooting ourselves in the foot," Matthews said. "It feels like we're doing a lot of really good things at times and then doing some very poor things at times that's costing us goals and costing us games. It's just about finding that consistency throughout the game, and those big moments within the game that we just need to be better at and hunker down a little bit."
Centre David Kampf, who missed all three games last week with an undisclosed injury, returned to practice.
"Kampf seems like he is good," said Keefe. "It is just a matter of making sure things don't tighten up or get worse for him tomorrow."
Kampf skated on the fourth line between Pontus Holmberg and Reaves.
Bobby McMann skated as the extra forward.
Joseph Woll was a full participant in practice for the first time since suffering a high-ankle sprain on Dec. 7.
"Today was an important step just to get him more reps and to have his own net," said Keefe.
Martin Jones, who started on Saturday, got practice off to make room for Woll.
"That is why Jones got some work in before practice," Keefe said. "Getting Joe tested a little bit more today, it looks like he got through it well. I haven't talked to him today — more the medical people — but they will chart his path going forward. Today was a good step."
Lines at Monday's practice:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Gregor - Domi - Robertson
Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves
Brodie - Liljegren
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Lagesson
Rielly - Lajoie
Power play units at Monday's practice:
Matthews Tavares Nylander
Robertson - Bertuzzi - Domi