The rationale behind the Maple Leafs’ new top defence pairings

Sportsnet NHL insider Luke Fox joined Sportsnet Today with Scott MacArthur and Anthony Stewart to discuss NHL RFAs, Mitch Marner’s negotiations and much more.

TORONTO – Mike Babcock has the perfect ghost roster in his mind.

It just needs real live bodies to fill it.

In the crease, he prefers his goaltenders large, and would prefer if one took a stranglehold on the No. 1 gig.

Upfront, he tries to find two dynamic forwards — a centre and a wingman — that can tear it up with undeniable chemistry as a pair, allowing for new looks on the other wing. (Think: Auston Matthews-William Nylander, John Tavares-Mitch Marner). Oh, and he’d love one grinding, fetch-the-puck guy per unit, someone to reduce wear-and-tear on the more skilled playmakers. (Think: four Zach Hymans.)

And when it comes to his defence pairings, he’s a massive proponent of the lefties and righties sticking to their natural sides (see: Team Canada, Olympic gold) and partnering one offensive-minded, push-the-defender with a safer, stay-at-home type.

Given the head coach’s blueprint, Tuesday’s first look at the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening-night defence pairing should not be a shocker.

Top defenceman Morgan Rielly (left) skated alongside Ottawa Senators import Cody Ceci (right), while last winter’s trade score, Jake Muzzin (left), partnered up with this summer’s blockbuster addition, Tyson Barrie (right), during the first in a series of unofficially official team practices in advance of next Thursday’s flight to St. John’s for training camp.

The B.C. boys — Rielly, scorching off a career-best 20-goal, 72-point campaign, and Barrie, who has three 50-plus-point seasons on his resume — will be depended on to drive breakouts and hop in as the fourth forward in the rush, while the slower and more conservative Ceci and Muzzin will be leaned on as their more physical, defend-the-house complements.

Presumably, Rielly will retain his spot on the top power-play unit, while Barrie will supplant departed free agent Jake Gardiner in quarterbacking the second group. It’s not difficult to envision Babcock linking Rielly and Barrie for shifts when the Leafs are desperate for a goal. This would allow two of the top six defencemen in scoring over the past two seasons to rack up more points.

“With how fast (today’s game) is, you have to be able to skate. You have to use your brain and have good stick position,” said Barrie, 28.

“I’m not the biggest guy. I’m not going to be running people over. But you have to play hard, you have to compete, and I think that’s the biggest thing. The biggest part about defending is the willingness to do it.”

Ceci and Muzzin should see their minutes bolstered by use on the Leafs’ penalty kill, which lost its two most-used defenders, Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev, to Ottawa.

Because Travis Dermott (shoulder) is still weeks away from action, slots on the third pairing should be hotly contested in camp.

The fresh pairings in the top four make theoretical sense according to the ghost roster layout, considering last winter’s short-lived Rielly-Muzzin combo failed to yield comfort or results (neither lefty felt at ease on the right), while Barrie and Muzzin have a brief but golden history as a unit.

The two Western Conference acquisitions put up a combined 15 points over 10 games to propel Team Canada to a world championship in May of 2015.

“I love playing with Muzz,” Barrie said Tuesday, following his first practice with his new mates. “He was a pleasure to play with. A poised, smart guy, and he’s got a lot of experience. And he talks a lot. I’m looking forward to getting together with him.”

Rielly, also practising in Toronto for the first time this summer, could taste the anticipation in the air. New faces inject new energy. Hopes are high, and there’s a doughnut in the loss column.

“Guys are excited. I think we’re in a good place, and you can tell guys worked hard this summer. They’re all happy to be back,” Rielly said.

“We’re going to miss a couple guys, but in terms of the personnel, we’ve got guys who can fill those roles. We have a lot of confidence in the group that we have.”

Rielly, the roster’s first degree of separation, knows Victoria’s Barrie and Vancouver-born forward Alexander Kerfoot from their amateur days and previously played with Ceci on Canada’s under-18 national squad. He offered his scouting reports.

On Barrie: “Very skilled. Good skater. Moves the puck well. When you watch him on the offensive blue line, he’s always dangerous. I’ve enjoyed watching him for years now, so I’m looking forward to getting a chance to play with him.”

On Ceci: “Good skater. Moves it well. Young guy. Motivated. We’re lucky to have him.”

Rielly instantly picked up on Muzzin’s increased comfort level as well. No longer challenged with squeezing into a set lineup and moving his young family three time zones the wrong direction from the beach, Rielly expects the veteran’s more settled situation off the ice will translate into a more effective player on it.

Reading between the lines, there is also this: Ceci, Muzzin and Barrie are all impending UFAs entering contract seasons. There is a financial carrot at the finish line.

Barrie’s reported extension ask in Colorado was for eight years at $8 million per. The defenceman said both he and the Leafs agreed to delay any contract talks until they feel out his fit with the group.

Since his arrival in Toronto on Saturday night, Barrie says the trade away from a franchise he devoted eight seasons to has started to feel real.

“I knew my name had been out there for three or four years, but when it actually happened, you’re definitely surprised. I didn’t know Toronto was in the mix. To be able to come to a place like this, it definitely took the sting away from being traded. A good team to another really good team,” Barrie said.

“Coming into a team with such a passionate fan base and a team that’s going in the right direction and has such a good chance to win, I think being a part of something they’ve been building a while here is such a cool opportunity,” Barrie said.

“I can tell already being around here, it’s such a professional atmosphere — and the guys (have) one goal.”


When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.