Less than two weeks ago, Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly looked to be in a bit of a downward spiral.
Whether it was his fault or not, pucks seemed to find their way into the back of the Maple Leafs net with ruthless consistency whenever he took to the ice. Although plus-minus is a statistic taken with more of a mine of salt than a grain these days, his game log began to look like a Toronto winter weather report and eyebrows were raised around the city.
His coach, Mike Babcock, did not seem particularly concerned – and his advice to the 23-year-old was simple: start playing with swagger again. While it’s a tad unclear how swagger makes a player more defensively sound, Rielly has seemed to take the message to heart in recent games. In fact, since Babcock made that remark about his defenceman, the former fifth overall pick has looked like a whole new man.
Even including a team-wide 7-2 stinker against the Florida Panthers, Rielly’s last four games have run in stark contrast to his previous 10 as he’s been one of the most impactful Maple Leafs when it comes to driving play and creating offence.
Four games is the blink of an eye in the context of an entire NHL season. It’s too little to identify a breakout, or claim with any kind of confidence that a player has found a new level. However, it’s probably just enough to see a someone turn a little bit of a corner and get his mojo back.
It’s not as if Rielly is going to go off as a point producer from here on out. He hasn’t been that yet in his NHL career, he plays on the power play very well, and half the points he’s scored in this recent stretch came from two times he relatively innocently threw the puck on net against a struggling Andrei Vasilevskiy.
However, he did have a signature play against the Carolina Hurricanes that seemed like a half-decent indicator that the proverbial pep has returned to his step.
There are a lot of individual elements to like about this play. Firstly, there’s a crisp zone entry, then a willingness to wheel all the way around the net. Then there’s some nifty stickwork to weave into the slot and a nasty little wrister that’s just enough to beat Cam Ward.
It’s a complex multi-part production that couldn’t scream “confidence crisis” less. Perhaps more telling than one exceptional highlight is the lack of the negative plays that have plagued Rielly of late. The Panthers game was one to forget for him like many Maple Leafs, but even then his usual partner Nikita Zaitsev went down as the goat.
As the Maple Leafs continue their playoff push, it’s abundantly clear that their biggest weakness resides on the blueline. At this point there’s no way to address that problem from a personnel point of view. Playing Alexey Marchenko could make a difference, but realistically he’s no game changer, and there certainly isn’t a saviour residing at the AHL level. Guys like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick will continue to factor into the picture.
So, the only kind of upgrade the team can reasonably expect will come from the players they’ve already got playing better. Rielly is the most likely guy to step it up as there’s a sizeable gap between what he’s capable of and what the Maple Leafs have seen from him this season. In recent games, that gap has seemed to close slightly.
Whether you call it swagger, mojo, confidence, or even dumb luck, things seem to be swinging Rielly’s way. As far as the Maple Leafs are concerned, it couldn’t come at a better time.