TORONTO – When Toronto Maple Leafs thoroughbreds and tight friends Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen jetted off to the Bahamas to recharge their batteries during a five-day bye week, there was only one all-star on the plane.
Yet the other two are quick to make the case — for each other, not themselves — that Toronto should be sending more than the bare minimum to the All-Star Game in Tampa later this month.
“Our goalie had a very good chance. I think he’s one of the best goalies in the league,” Rielly says.
Andersen ranks second to all-star Andrei Vasilevskiy among Atlantic Division goaltenders in wins (22), save percentage (.921) and shutouts (three). He ranks first in minutes played and saves made. Yet Montreal’s Carey Price was given the nod. (Note: Every team must have a representative.)
Andersen won’t pump his own tires. But how surprised was he that Rielly, who ranks second only to Victor Hedman in scoring among Atlantic D-men, did not get an invite to the party?
“Very. He deserved to be there,” Andersen says. “He’s taken a big step of leading on the ice and being great offensively as well as taking a step forward in the defensive zone.”
As Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported Saturday, Rielly is being considered as an all-star replacement for the injured Hedman, but the 23-year-old told us Tuesday that he has yet to hear from hockey operations.
Recency bias is working against the Leafs’ best defenceman, as Rielly’s mistakes in the waning minutes of the past two games cost Toronto standings points and could tilt the scales toward Boston’s Charlie McAvoy or Tampa’s Mikhail Sergachev.
Rielly skated a total of 51:48 in consecutive losses to the Blue Jackets and Senators. Head coach Mike Babcock wondered publicly Monday if he’d been heaping too many minutes on his Number 1’s plate with Nikita Zaitsev injured and fatigue led to mental gaffes.
“We have to be careful we’re not overplaying him here of late,” said Babcock, who has been particularly meticulous when it comes to developing his back-end stud. He’s cajoling rather than criticizing Rielly for his errors.
“I asked him if he needed a hug. He didn’t go out there to try to – he’s a big boy, he knows what’s going on. At the key minutes of the game, though, if you’re watching like me, you know who’s involved in all of those plays, and it’s not just him.”
Rielly rejected the notion that fatigue hindered his decision-making. He doesn’t want to hear your argument for why he’s more worthy of an all-star status than, say, Detroit veteran Mike Green this season, but he does say it’s a box he’d like to check off.
“For sure. I think it’s a goal for lots of people. I think that’s a pretty cool opportunity. It’s a pretty cool honour that guys get and want to achieve in their careers,” Rielly says. “I just want to play well. I try not to think about that.”
Sounds so much like Rielly’s foil Tuesday, as the Leafs welcome a chance for revenge against the defensively solid St. Louis Blues.
We had to do a double-take last week when Blues captain and Olympic gold medallist Alex Pietrangelo was named to his first All-Star Game. First?!
“I was actually shocked to hear that. I didn’t know that,” St. Louis coach Mike Yeo says.
“Especially considering how much I’ve coached against him [when Yeo was in Minnesota], being in the same division, you see what a world-class player he is. His defensive game, his offensive game, the way he impacts the game through so many ways is really mind-boggling.
“In the first couple months of the season, I don’t know if there’s anybody that could touch him as far as the way he was defending and also being able to create offence.”
Not unlike Rielly (or perennial all-star Drew Doughty in L.A., for that matter), Pietrangelo’s jump in points can be traced back to his coach’s deployment: more power-play opportunity with Kevin Shattenkirk leaving, plus a commuter’s dream run of green lights on the rush.
St. Louis defencemen, Pietrangelo explains, have been more encouraged to pop up in the action under Yeo than they were under long-serving Ken Hitchcock.
“We’re more aggressive. We play a little more forward in our defensive and offensive game. We work more now than we ever have in a unit of five as opposed to stretching out too far with forward and D. We’ve become really effective in getting everyone involved in the play, not only in our own zone but moving into the offensive zone,” explains Pietrangelo, whose 30 first-half points put him on pace for a career high.
“We all like getting up in the rush and contributing. It’s easier for us to get up there. Whether we’re getting the puck or not, we’re trying to create movement. It’s something that’s worked for a lot of teams over the years, and we’ve adapted to it well.”
Pietrangelo, 27, is four years older than Rielly and has been long regarded as one of the league’s elite blue liners, even if the accolades and acknowledgements have been slow to follow.
Are there 31 better defencemen in the world right now than Rielly? Yet a recurring protest in Leafs Nation is that Toronto needs a No. 1.
The Blues’ best defender compares the feeling of being labelled an all-star in his eighth full season to being named to Canada’s national squad.
“You feel like all the work you’re putting in is paying off,” says Pietrangelo, “It’s out of my control. It obviously would’ve been nice to go [earlier], but it’s my first one, so I’ll make sure I enjoy it.”