Why John Klingberg is supplanting Morgan Rielly on Maple Leafs’ top power play

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman John Klingberg spoke about him lining up for the power play unit alongside Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander, saying that he's excited and calling it a great opportunity.

TORONTO — Hey, Toronto, remember Tyson Barrie?

Remember when the right-shot power-play specialist was brought in via 2019’s Nazem Kadri trade… only to be used sparingly on the power play?

Well, the Maple Leafs have learned their lesson.

This time around, they are leaning into their new right-shot offenceman’s strengths and making him feel part of the star group, starting in training camp.

John Klingberg — the club’s $4.15-million free-agent signing and most significant blue-line addition — will supplant Morgan Rielly running point on the Eastern Conference’s most dangerous power-play unit.

Klingberg quarterbacked the team’s loaded top group of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares during Saturday’s first PP practice under new assistant Guy Boucher.

Rielly led a secondary group of Max Domi, Calle Järnkrok, Timothy Liljegren, and Tyler Bertuzzi.

“He’s an experienced guy. Extremely skilled offensively and a lot of poise back there,” Matthews said. “So he’s pretty comfortable being in the position he is up top. And hopefully, we can just work together and start to build chemistry, starting with today.”

Surely, Klingberg — whose reach, vision and booming point shot are his best attributes — discussed his role with head coach Sheldon Keefe and GM Brad Treliving before inking his one-year deal with Toronto.

And while some may argue not to mess with a good thing — the Leafs’ 26 per cent power play was second only to the otherworldly Oilers’ 32.4 in 2022-23 — the silky Swede ushers in a fiercer shooting threat from up top. Rielly is more of a distributor.

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Klingberg’s shooting percentage last season was 8.9. He’s a career 6.6.

Rielly’s shooting percentage last season was 3.2. He’s a career 4.7.

Since Rielly entered the league, he has 13 power-play goals and 139 power-play points in 719 games.

Over that same span, Klingberg has 21 power-play goals and 158 power-play points in 619 games.

“His deception with [the puck] makes it very hard to defend him,” Marner said. “What makes him so good at holding the puck and making plays is he’s got a very long body, he’s very sneaky, and he can make plays around people.”

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Playmaking has long come natural to Klingberg, who played forward — and loved it — until age 14 or 15, when his father and grandfather approached him with a decent proposal: switch to D.

“They thought that if I see the ice ahead of me, it’s a better way for me to play. I’ve been able to find those passing lanes and move the puck my entire career, even as a forward. So obviously, I’m happy that they convinced me to switch. I’ve been playing D now for 15 years, so that’s my game now,” Klingberg explained.

“Back then, I thought it was a bad idea… but I tried it a few times in practice and played a couple of games, and I realized pretty fast that I could still be offensive but playing from the back end.”

Under Boucher, the Maple Leafs are looking for more aggression, more net-centred havoc from its 5-on-4 attack.

For Saturday’s session, the assistant had fluorescent-orange lines sprayed on the ice to focus action between the dots, make sure the shooters were following up for rebounds. He also threw two pucks in play during some reps.

“I haven’t done that before,” Klingberg smiled. “Just gets your brain going a little bit.

“Obviously [this power play] has been [near] the top of the league last few years. It’s very exciting for me to come in and be able to be part of it.”

Not part of the top group — for now, at least — is Rielly. (Keefe says the Leafs can always go back to Rielly on PP1; they know he works.)

Remember what happened with Barrie?

When Barrie’s confidence and production sagged early that season, Rielly approached the coaching staff and suggested Barrie take the reins for the better of the team. Rielly never complained when a young Rasmus Sandin snagged his job for a spell, either.

“Morgan’s probably one of the best people in this world just human-quality-wise, and I don’t think anything gets him put down,” Marner said of the switch.

“He wants this team to win as bad as anyone else, so I know he’s always ready for the opportunity. And this happened before — and nothing changed about his attitude at all. So we’re very lucky and fortunate to have a guy like that.”

Rielly says Klingberg’s patience and puck skills are “unmatched” on the power play.

“It’s a great chance for our team to improve off what we did last year and for him to make a huge impact,” Rielly said. “I mean, you want what’s best for your team, and the coach wants what’s best for the team.

“Having John on the ice with those guys at any point, it’s good for the team. So, it’s a chance again for our power play to take a step forward and improve.”

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