TORONTO – The great Monty Python taught us to always look on the bright side of life.
So even with the weakest sector of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster — their oft-criticized blue line — further damaged by Morgan Rielly’s fractured left foot, and even with no concrete timeline for the No. 1 defenceman’s return, there were tangible positives to be gleaned Tuesday morning at the rink, when the club embarks on a test.
Swinging out of the Maple Leafs dressing room with a Blue Jays cap pulled over his head and a set of crutches affixed to his armpits, the nameplate above his centre stall now replaced with one that reads “RASMUS SANDIN,” Rielly still managed to elicit a chuckle from a crush of media as he recounted his brief chat with the rookie.
The wisdom of six-and-a-half NHL seasons, the ability to log major minutes in all key situations, the type of shot that can snipe 20 from the back end?
“He now has it all,” Rielly quipped.
Gimme the good news first, Doc: The 25-year-old’s deadpan apparently doesn’t need eight weeks to recover.
As personally devastating as the broken foot is to a lead-by-example type who’s never missed more than nine games in a season, Rielly is trying to rationalize the benefits two months of forced rest will do for his other nagging aches, the ones that have prompted him to skip practice and seek opinions and walk uneasily to the bus after a night of hard minutes.
He’s trying to think of how his lost shifts will benefit not only Sandin but also the speedy Travis Dermott and his B.C. pal Tyson Barrie, who now should become the undisputed top driver of offence from the back end.
If everything goes according to plan, Rielly will be healed and fresh and chomping at the bit by the time the playoffs roll around. He could be an emotional and physical boost the way, say, Patrick Kane was to the Blackhawks in 2015 or the Blues are hoping Vladimir Tarasenko is this spring.
“I mean, you can put a spin on it. I’ve been doing that,” Rielly said. “You try to take opportunity to rest and heal other injuries, do what you can to prepare mentally to get back and be in a good place and help the team. That’s the end goal.”
A jolt of excruciating pain told Rielly things weren’t good after he absorbed an Aleksander Barkov shot at close range during Sunday’s blowout loss in Florida and winced and hobbled and skipped his way down the tunnel.
“I saw what happened to Morgan,” said New Jersey Devils defender P.K. Subban. “That’s definitely not on him. That’s just a hockey play, and it’s bad luck. Bad bounce. That’s part of the game — you have to block shots when you have to, and things are going to happen.”
Much like teammate Jake Muzzin during his shot-block injury on Dec. 27, Rielly kept his skate on, tested his stride during a break in play and decided to keep pushing.
“That just shows you what kind of guy he is, the heart that he has. Not a lot of guys will play through a broken foot,” Barrie said. “I know Muzz did too, but…”
As ever, Rielly could be seen downplaying the individual in favour of the group.
“Our whole team would’ve done it. It’s just something you do. It happened. You just play through it and deal with the consequences after. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit more severe than I thought,” said Rielly, his foot held tight in a black cast until, well, no one knows exactly.
He’ll need to wait “a few weeks” before his foot can bear weight, and the timeline for the defenceman’s return is dependent on a sensitive healing process, but he’s encouraged by working with a training and medical staff that will do everything possible to get him back joining the rush.
“As much as everyone thinks that they’re qualified medically to make those calls, I’m certainly not. Just do what you’re told, work hard, try to stay positive,” Rielly said.
“Just part of the journey, I guess. It happens to everyone. I’m not going to be overly dramatic about it.”
No. That would be our job.
Although certainly not insurmountable — hey, the Penguins just posted the NHL’s best record during a nine-and-a-half-week stretch without Sidney Crosby — Rielly’s injury is significant because Muzzin’s return date is still up in the air (he could resume skating as early as Wednesday) and how the rest of the D corps responds to juiced-up minutes in the thick of a tight playoff race is anybody’s guess.
Coach Sheldon Keefe described a “heightened awareness” as his players reported to work Tuesday with knowledge of Rielly’s diagnosis. This, he believes, is a chance to for the Leafs to reflect on where they can get better, a bright occasion to rally as a group.
His offensive-driving, possession-first philosophy won’t waver, but the execution but improve.
“The elite teams in the league don’t get fazed by these types of situations, and we want to be an elite team,” Keefe said. “We believe we are an elite team and have the ability to take big steps as a group, so it’s a really good opportunity for us.”
No Muzzin and, now, no Rielly.
Is this blue line actually good enough to get the job done?
“Absolutely,” Keefe said.