Dave Feschuk: Maple Leafs will find out if Morgan Rielly has the right stuff
|Toronto Star 31 Jan 2019 at 19:27|
TAYLOR, MICH.‚ÄĒRelaxing with family in hometown Vancouver during the post-all-star-game bye week, Maple Leafs veteran Morgan Rielly got wind of the arrival of his new defence partner the same way a lot of people found out: scrolling through his phone.
And as much as Rielly said he was excited by the trade that brought Jake Muzzin to Toronto, he acknowledged he didn‚Äôt react to the news quite as enthusiastically as his mother, Shirley. She was cooking Monday dinner when Morgan informed her of the transaction.
‚ÄúI think her reaction was better than mine. She was pretty excited,‚ÄĚ Rielly said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a big move for our team.‚ÄĚ
Still, just as the reaction to a favourable trade often morphs from unanimous exuberance into rampant over-analysis, it began to dawn on Rielly‚Äôs mother, just like it‚Äôs been dawning on the rest of Leafs Nation, that Muzzin‚Äôs presence wouldn‚Äôt come without its complications.
‚ÄúShe did her homework, went right online. I think the first thing she said was, ‚ÄėOh, he‚Äôs a lefty,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Rielly said. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs what everyone said. And then she dug a little deeper.‚ÄĚ
The digging continued Thursday at the Taylor Sportsplex, the suburban Detroit rink where the Maple Leafs reconvened after a nine-day break to prepare for Friday‚Äôs game against the Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena. While Thursday brought more plaudits for the trade, it also gave the team its first glimpse of an intriguing new reality. With Muzzin in the fold, the Maple Leafs‚Äô top six defencemen include five left-handed shooters. So as much as Muzzin brings a long-sought mix of puck-moving skill and big-bodied grit to Toronto‚Äôs oft-maligned blue line, he also exacerbates an issue.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no question about it: It‚Äôs not perfect. It‚Äôs what we got. It‚Äôs what was available. And we‚Äôre going to make it work,‚ÄĚ Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said.
If it sounded like a not-so-enthusiastic review of the deal, you could certainly read it that way. Babcock has made no secret of his preference for defensive pairings consisting of one left-handed and one right-handed shooter. Now that Rielly‚Äôs former partner Ron Hainsey, a lefty, has been moved to play alongside Travis Dermott, another lefty, only one of Babcock‚Äôs three pairings boast two blueliners playing on their natural sides. That‚Äôd be the pairing of lefty Jake Gardiner and righty Nikita Zaitsev. While it‚Äôd be wrong to call it a fatal flaw, you might consider it a handedness headache.
Based on Thursday‚Äôs practice, Igor Ozhiganov, one of Toronto‚Äôs other options among its slim pickings of right-shooting defencemen, figures to be the odd man out.
Not that Babcock didn‚Äôt throw plenty of glowing praise in the direction of the new addition, who arrived from the L.A. Kings in exchange for Toronto‚Äôs 2019 first-round draft pick and prospects Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a steady guy. Knows how to play. Good stick. Heavy shot. Moves the puck. Simple,‚ÄĚ the coach said of Muzzin. ‚ÄúNo flash. So anybody who‚Äôs expecting any flash is looking for the wrong guy. Just steady as she goes. But I think he can really help us, the size of him. And between the whistles, he plays heavy and he plays hard.‚ÄĚ
Still, as much as Thursday‚Äôs practice suggested that the plan, for now, is to allow Muzzin to play his natural left side on the first pairing ‚ÄĒ a move that would see Rielly play the off flank ‚ÄĒ Babcock didn‚Äôt sound wholly committed to the concept. Asked if moving Toronto‚Äôs No. 1 rearguard to the right side risked disrupting a breakout season that has seen Rielly in the conversation to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL‚Äôs top defenceman, Babcock nodded.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a great question,‚ÄĚ Babcock said. ‚ÄúThere was a guy, I think he won seven Norrises, his name was Nick. And he always would say to me, ‚ÄėWhy wouldn‚Äôt you put the guy who makes all the plays on his forehand?‚Äô It‚Äôs a great question.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúNick,‚ÄĚ of course, is Nick Lidstrom, the bedrock left-shot defenceman who was the foundation of the Red Wings team that won Babcock his only Stanley Cup, not to mention three others. The coach‚Äôs point was well made. Why should it be the responsibility of a Norris Trophy winner ‚ÄĒ or, in this case, a Norris Trophy candidate ‚ÄĒ to be saddled with a needlessly complicated assignment? Why not make the new guy grapple with the new thing? Put your best defenceman in a position be his best.
As Lidstrom told Detroit reporters a few years back: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs tough to play on the right side when you‚Äôre left-handed.‚ÄĚ
Babcock, asked Thursday if he ever played Lidstrom on his off side, shook his head: ‚ÄúNo.‚ÄĚ
Rielly, of course, isn‚Äôt Lidstrom. These Maple Leafs aren‚Äôt those Red Wings. And for now, at least, Babcock is choosing not to heed Lidstrom‚Äôs logic and opting instead for a different course. The focus is on making Muzzin comfortable. Whether that‚Äôs the coach‚Äôs idea or the coach grudgingly entertaining management‚Äôs preference, it‚Äôs the direction of the moment. But Babcock reserved the right to flip Rielly back.
‚ÄúI think the one thing to do is to get your new people feeling good, and then if you want to make any changes or do anything any different, do it afterward, after they‚Äôre feeling good and they‚Äôre feeling comfortable and they know what‚Äôs going on,‚ÄĚ Babcock said.
On Thursday Babcock acknowledged having spoken to former Kings coaches Darryl Sutter and John Stevens to get an understanding of Muzzin‚Äôs skill set. While Babcock didn‚Äôt elaborate much on his findings, Sutter has done more than one interview in which he‚Äôs strongly suggested Muzzin would be ill-suited to the right side.
‚ÄúYou cannot ask a (left-handed) player halfway through his career to switch over (to right defence) unless he‚Äôs an elite, elite player,‚ÄĚ Sutter told TSN radio this week. ‚ÄúNot many guys can do it. It‚Äôs hard.‚ÄĚ
Muzzin, for his part, sounded appreciative of the arrangement, and rightly so. While he told a conference call with reporters Monday that he‚Äôd played previously on the right side, on Thursday he walked that claim back.
‚ÄúI played pretty much my whole career on the left and it‚Äôs just ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs comfy for me,‚ÄĚ he said.
This isn‚Äôt an unusual situation. Some 60% of defencemen who‚Äôve suited up for at least one NHL game this season shoot left, according to hockey-reference.com. The left-handed percentage is higher on more than one team, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, who, as Babcock noted, recently dressed five southpaw defencemen alongside their right-handed No. 1 Kris Letang.
Rielly, mind you, didn‚Äôt spend a moment grousing about his current lot in life. So we‚Äôll grouse on his behalf. Rielly is skilled enough to look good under even the worst circumstance, but the Leafs would be wise to heed the Lidstrom principle. Put your brightest light in a position to perpetually shine.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve played (the right side) before. It‚Äôs the same game. It‚Äôs just being on the other side.‚ÄĚ Rielly said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs really not a lot of change ... I‚Äôm just going to go out there and try to play and have fun.‚ÄĚ
Go out there, try to play, have fun. And if playing the right side proves the wrong move, there‚Äôs still 24 days until the trade deadline. Limited supplies of right defencemen remain available.