Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly sees chance to ‘prove some people wrong’

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly spoke about the team's upcoming series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

TORONTO – Until this week, Morgan Rielly’s spring hasn’t been much different from your own.

He’s been cooking more often, reading more books. He’s streamed more films and TV programs than usual. He’s been blessed with more time to catch up with family and friends. To widen his scope to the news. He’s been striving to work out most mornings to prevent his body from going full off-season. He could probably use a haircut but no longer feels the rush.

And, definitely like you, the Toronto Maple Leafs No. 1 defenceman has been trying his best to stay sane while running a marathon of uncertainty.

"We’ve all had good days and bad days during this period," Rielly said Thursday via Zoom, fresh off practice and the NHL and Players’ Association announcement that training camps will attempt to open July 10.

"I tried to stay optimistic, and I do believe that we will play. I kind of always had that train of thought. It’s just a matter of when."

Certainly there are worse places to be stuck in springtime than lovely Vancouver with your newish girlfriend ("I’ll just say that I’m glad I’m not alone, because I think that can be challenging," Rielly said in April), but Rielly made a commitment to himself that he would fly across the county and be raring to go as soon as the optional Phase 2 small-group team training opened.

Echoing the desire of captain John Tavares, he doesn’t view these four weeks as voluntarily but as an opportunity to be seized. Even if that meant an uncomforting five-hour flight with a possible virus in the cabin air.

"I think we’re all nervous. I think even just going to the grocery store, you can get nervous a little bit. But travelling back, for sure," Rielly explained. "But after I got back in Toronto, I was glad to be back here. I think this is where I feel the most at home. Just glad to be at the rink again and have something to do."

The top-down optimism from the Leafs organization on a return to play, from president Brendan Shanahan down to a black ace like Kenny Agostino, is starting to feel justified. The NBA, NHL and MLS have all taken tangible steps in the past few weeks to push team sports back on our calendars, and most of the 10 potential hub cities on Gary Bettman’s list have begun relaxing COVID-19 restrictions.

That Toronto, still in the hub running, has drawn 20 or so Leafs home, across borders and time zones, to get the jump on group training doesn’t mean fans should circle them as a Stanley Cup favourite.

It does mean, though, that this is a group of men who feels a renewed sense of high urgency. A fresh start. A blank page to rewrite the messy narrative that had become their 2019-20.

Frederik Andersen’s fatigue metre and backup goalie woes should be nonissues. The coaching change feels about as relevant today as Joe Exotic. Rielly’s attempt to come back from a broken foot is no longer a worry. David Ayers was so four months ago.

To a player, Rielly believes, this prolonged pause has been a time to stare in the mirror.

"Deep inside, you have to take it personally and be better yourself and just help the team be more consistent," Rielly said.

"We’re very motivated. We have a goal in mind. We understand there’s a chance to come back and prove some people wrong."

One could easily argue that Toronto (36-25-9) was outperformed this season by Pittsburgh or Carolina or Edmonton. But it’s a pointless argument. They’re all on level ground now.

"Going into this break, we didn’t feel all that good about where we were at in the months leading up, and I think we’ve all had some time to think about that and we have a chance to change the narrative a little bit, and I think that we have to take this opportunity during Phase 2 and training camp to really prepare and just be ready to go," Reilly said.

"It’s important that we come in prepared because that’s where the advantage will be."

Rielly has been participating as much as possible in the union’s CBA and return-to-play calls, and he hit the ice this week in a group with fellow defenceman Travis Dermott and forwards Alexander Kerfoot, William Nylander and Zach Hyman.

But in Columbus, they’re open for business too. And with two months to game-plan, there will be no secrets in the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs play-in round.

"They play hard and have a certain style and they’re well coached. To my understanding, they’re healthy, and like everyone else around, they’re eager to get going," Rielly said.

"That play-in round will be extremely competitive. You’ll have a lot of teams that understand what’s at stake and don’t want to be gone in just a handful of games, that are going to compete very hard to keep their chances alive.

"There’s a challenge in there for us."

In speaking with a number of the Leafs leaders this week — Tavares, Rielly, Hyman — there is a firm sense that if this group fails to survive another elimination series, it won’t be for lack of effort, half-hearted buy-in, or sloppy conditioning.

"The goal is to prepare as best as possible," Rielly asserted. "So when the time comes to play, there’s no doubt."

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