TORONTO — Morgan Rielly had kept his calendar clean for the NHL’s all-star weekend, just in case. The event may have fallen out of favour among some top players, but the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman was hoping for an invite.
“Obviously it’s a pretty cool accomplishment that you want to have in your career, so who knows? Maybe one day,” said Rielly, after learning fans had voted Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner on to the Atlantic Division team over him and six others.
The truth is there’s nothing more Rielly could have done to earn his all-star debut this season. His only failing, really, was having too many highly-skilled teammates — a problem because the league names a representative from each of its 31 markets and only has 44 open spots.
Rielly has the most goals (13) among defencemen and second-most points (46) behind Brent Burns, an all-star in the Pacific Division. He leads all blue-liners in even-strength goals (12) and even-strength points (32).
All-star credentials, unquestionably.
“I just think the way he’s played this year, it’s kind of a shame he hasn’t made it,” teammate Patrick Marleau said Thursday in New Jersey. “You guys see what he’s done on the ice. It’s pretty remarkable.”
With the NHL allowing fans to select the final member of each division’s all-star team this year in a ‘Last Men In’ vote, the Leafs went to work on flooding social media with light-hearted campaign pitches for Rielly.
A series of short videos that ranged from funny to awkward were released on the team’s official Twitter account.
They included Jake Gardiner and Mitch Marner speaking into lime green running shoes as though they were microphones, Auston Matthews watching Rielly highlights on YouTube, a shirtless Connor Brown comparing his teammate to Ed Monix from the movie Semi-Pro and Marleau fumbling a prepared line while referring to Rielly’s hometown as Raincouver rather than Vancouver.
“We had a little bit of fun with that,” said Nazem Kadri. “That’s just being on the road, boys being boys and trying to get a little added [boost] for Mo to squeak in there.”
Rielly was in his room at the team hotel in suburban New Jersey when they started to hit social media on Wednesday night. He insists he had no clue they were in production.
“If I was, it wouldn’t have gotten out,” he said.
As much as he appreciated the effort, Rielly seemed a bit sheepish about the extra attention. But that didn’t keep him from having a few laughs at some of the stuff his teammates came up with.
“My favourite was never released,” said Rielly. “It was Ron Hainsey, who purposely made it so we couldn’t share it with the public. But I have it. So I’ll have it for awhile.”
The only surprise about Skinner’s selection is that it meant fans of the Buffalo Sabres managed to rally more support than Leafs Nation. The player was certainly deserving of a trip to his second All-Star Game after scoring 29 goals.
The same could be said of the other Atlantic Division finalists: Tampa’s Brayden Point, Ottawa’s Mark Stone, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Florida’s Aleksander Barkov, Detroit’s Dylan Larkin and Monreal’s Shea Weber.
With Matthews already voted in as a captain by fans and John Tavares added by the league’s hockey operations department, Toronto’s spots are well-spoken for. There wasn’t even room for Mitch Marner, a top-10 scorer, or goaltender Frederik Andersen.
“There’s lots of very good players who aren’t going,” said Rielly. “There’s Mitchy and Freddie, just in this room.”
“It’s unfortunate for those guys [that they’re not going] — they’re obviously elite players and all stars — but better for us,” added Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “They get the time off.”
Now that Rielly knows he’ll be free for the Jan. 24-26 weekend, he’s thinking about a trip home to Vancouver. He’s got a nice window for rest and relaxation since the Leafs have a five-day break immediately after the all-star weekend.
“I’m looking forward to going and seeing my dog [Maggie] and just kind of taking some time off and making sure that we’re all fresh for the playoff run,” he said.