The Toronto Maple Leafs will enter the third straight road game against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesar’s Arena on Thursday as the highest scoring team in the NHL, but also the club that has given up the most goals in the league (17) through the first week of the season.
Veterans Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey have struggled and rookie Igor Ozhiganov is getting used to the league after playing all of his professional career in Russia, but sixth-year pro Morgan Rielly has taken advantage of top pairing minutes and quarterbacking the Leafs lethal power play, registering 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists) in four games and is tied with Auston Matthews for the club and league lead in scoring.
Some observers feel that the 24-year-old, who signed a six-year, $30 Million contract extension in April 2016, is on the verge of vaulting into the top echelon of NHL defensemen.
“The biggest thing for (Rielly) is that he can really skate, pass it (and he is) great offensively, we still want him to be a #1 shutdown guy defensively.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said on Thursday. “Part of that is just some time in the league. The more time and the more you learn – that’s what Ron Hainsey does for him. He is there to help him grow in his game, so that he can continue to take steps, but his confidence has grown, he’s playing well for us.”
While it is quite possible that Rielly is rounding into the player that former GM Brian Burke imagined he would be when the Vancouver native was selected fifth overall in 2012, it does not alleviate Toronto’s need to upgrade on defense that will be addressed internally or externally in the near future.
Gardiner is making his usual share of defensive miscues, but his offensive output has slowed thus far because he is playing more minutes at even strength and less on the power play.
Although the sample size is small and things can evolve during the season, Hainsey appears to have lost a step since last year and is attempting to compensate using his experience and guile, but it is likely that if the Leafs do add some blueline help during the season, the result will be to move the 37-year-old down in the lineup.
Travis Dermott bounced back from an injury-shortened training camp and has continued improving on his play from his rookie campaign on the bottom pairing, which eventually could lead to him being moved up to the top four this season, but if there is a piece that GM Kyle Dubas will look to add between now and the trade deadline, it will undoubtedly be a top four D.
Babcock as expected is continuing his blueline rotation in Detroit, with Martin Marincin replacing Ozhiganov in the lineup against the Red Wings.
The big Russian had two shots on goal and played 16:25 in Dallas after sitting against Chicago for being undressed by Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot on the game-winning goal in the Leafs only loss against Ottawa.
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On the Leafs offense, Nylander’s absence, Rielly’s ascendance.
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