Maple Leafs juggle defensive pairings despite winning ways

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey (2) celebrates his goal with Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (44). (Bill Kostroun/AP)

LAS VEGAS — When Mike Babcock has made up his mind about something, there is next to nothing that will get in the way of the man and what he wants.

Take his decision to throw the Toronto Maple Leafs defence pairings into the salt shaker. That was made Jan. 31 on a cold, grey afternoon in suburban Detroit even though it only took hold amid a continent-spanning road trip this week.

Babcock never liked the idea of shifting Morgan Rielly away from his strong side, but allowed for it briefly following the addition of Jake Muzzin, another lefty with top-pairing bonafides.

It was, at best, a temporary solution.

It ended after 20 minutes of Tuesday’s game in Denver, one the Leafs won 5-2. They are now 5-1-1 since Muzzin’s arrival, but the coach isn’t afraid to change a winning lineup. He’s going forward with three different pairings for one reason and one reason alone.

“I saw Morgan Rielly on the left side,” Babcock said Wednesday after practice at T-Mobile Arena.

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Rielly has actually been reunited with a familiar face in Ron Hainsey, the veteran he’s played slightly more than 75 per cent of his even-strength minutes with since the start of last season. They are the odd couple, Rielly with his daring offensive instincts and Hainsey with his stay-at-home sensibilities, a skillset Babcock often describes as “knowing where to stand.”

But there is trust and comfort in that top pairing, for everyone involved.

Where once Rielly had been so enthused about the prospect of shifting sides to accommodate Muzzin — saying “I’ve played [on the right] before. It’s the same game, it’s just being on the other side,” after their first practice together — he now concedes that there’s some relief in going back to the left.

“It’s nice, it’s nice,” he said. “That’s where you’re most comfortable, that’s where you want to be. But that being said, we have a group that we’re willing to move around if we have to and make everyone more comfortable. I think I speak for most defencemen, you’re more comfortable on your natural side.

“That’s just the way it is.”

The Muzzin-Rielly experiment, it must be said, was far from a disaster. They controlled 51.31 per cent of even-strength scoring chances over 82 minutes together and helped Toronto outscore opponents 6-4.

But Babcock never saw much point in putting his No. 1 defenceman in a difficult position, especially during a season where Rielly has really taken flight and drawn Norris Trophy buzz. In his eyes, it was like choosing to weaken yourself.

Following that Jan. 31 practice, when Muzzin first joined the Leafs coming out of their all-star break and bye week, the coach provided a roadmap for how this would go. He spoke of getting Muzzin comfortable in his new surroundings before shuffling the deck again and getting Rielly back on the left side.

“There was a guy, I think he won seven Norrises, his name was Nick [Lidstrom] and he always would say to me ‘Why wouldn’t you put the guy who makes all the plays on his forehand?”’ Babcock said then. “It’s a great question.”

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An unspoken aspect in all of this is an organizational desire to find another right-shot option that can be dropped directly into the top six before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. It may not be possible — not at a price general manager Kyle Dubas is comfortable paying — but it would certainly please Babcock.

He’s always preferred to see symmetry between his lefties and righties and currently has five left-shot options spread across three pairings. Under the new configuration, Travis Dermott has shifted over to the right beside Jake Gardiner while Muzzin skates with Nikita Zaitsev.

Even though arranging the puzzle pieces remains a “work in progress” — a phrase Babcock used after the victory in Colorado — he’s felt more at ease with his blue line since Muzzin arrived from Los Angeles in a deal for a first-round pick and prospects Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” said Babcock. “Every day he’s going to walk in there, he’s going to be the same size and he’s going to still have two Cups and he’s going to know what winning’s all about and how to play. Whether it goes good for him that day or bad for him, he’s a veteran player, he knows how to just bounce back and play the next shift, the next game, knows how to play in the big moments.”

There certainly didn’t seem to be any confusion among the players about why the changes were made. Rielly indicated that there was ongoing dialogue with the coaching staff about the possibility of it happening and, after having a lot of difficulty executing controlled breakouts against the Avalanche early, the shoe finally dropped.

He was happy to be reunited with Hainsey, too.

“I love being with Ronny,” said Rielly. “Ronny’s a great guy, he’s a leader, we have a good relationship, we talk a lot. He’s just one of those guys that you can really rely on.”

That sounds like music to a coach’s ears.

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