‘Worrisome’ Morgan Rielly injury will put Maple Leafs’ depth to test

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the injury sustained by Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly and how it will impact the team, Erik Kallgren's giveaway that led to Josh Bailey's goal, and why the Maple Leafs struggle in OT.

TORONTO – John Tavares racked his brain.

The 14-year veteran tried to think of an occasion he was on a team simultaneously missing its No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 defencemen to injury. Nothing came to mind.

Bad things, they say, come in threes.

So, if it wasn’t enough that Jake Muzzin (spine) is out indefinitely, and that T.J. Brodie (oblique) isn’t recovering as quickly as hoped — Brodie won’t travel on the upcoming four-game road trip — now the Toronto Maple Leafs are also staring at life without Morgan Rielly, who was placed on LTIR on Tuesday.

“It’s for sure worrisome. We know the role he plays on and off the ice for our team. I think he’s one of the best defencemen in the league,” Tavares said after his club’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Monday, before the extent of Rielly’s injury was known. “Hopefully, it’s nothing too serious.”

Rielly collided in open ice with New York’s Kyle Palmieri early in the third period, apparently tweaking and clutching his left knee. Both men hit the ice and were slow to rise. Rielly skated one more shift before leaving the game.

Rielly had imaging done Tuesday, which provided more clarity on the severity of his injury. Being placed on LTIR means he will be gone for at least 10 games.

“It’s tough,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We’re already missing guys, and Morgan is so important to our team and to our back end in particular.

“But, we lose Muzzin — we made a big deal of it. It wasn’t a big deal. Brodie — made a big deal of it. It wasn’t a big deal. Just gotta keep playing, because that’s the way it goes.”

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The Maple Leafs’ depleted (black-and-)blue line is facing a serious test.

Reilly is a respected voice of calm and encouragement off the ice and a do-everything team guy on it. He operates the top power-play unit, logs 23 minutes a night, pitches in on odd-man and final-minute situations, and triggers offence from the back end like no one else on the roster.

He has 16 assists in 20 games.

“His No. 1 asset is being able to move that puck, whether it be defensively or offensively,” fellow defenceman Mark Giordano said. “He’s always up there as one of the top D in the league in my mind.”

Rielly, Brodie and Muzzin were the club’s top three minute-munchers last season, skating a combined 65:47 per game.

“Those three are huge for our team,” Mitch Marner said.

Their absence means heaping more on the plates of veterans Giordano, Jordie Benn and Justin Holl. It means accelerating the responsibility of youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin.

None of them average more than 18:40 this season.

Rielly’s injury meant a recall on Tuesday of Marlies Victor Mete or Mac Hollowell, just in time for a flight to New Jersey and a date with the hottest team in hockey. Hollowell has never played in the NHL.

“I’m sure whoever’s going to be in that spot is going to be ready for the challenge and excited for the role,” Marner said. “Next man up.”

The silver lining here is timing.

If you’re going to get bit this hard by the injury bug, you’d rather it be in November, when you’ve already climbed into the top half of the conference standings.

And the Maple Leafs’ team defence — a prioritization from the jump — is operating well. Despite Monday’s loss, Toronto is still the eighth-stingiest team in the league, surrendering just 2.7 goals per game.

Not a big deal.

In fact, Giordano is welcoming the extra work. At age 39. Making a hair above minimum wage.

“We have the guys back there who are waiting for opportunities, myself included,” Giordano said, unflinching.

“You always want more ice time. And when you get it, you gotta make it count.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• On this date three years ago: Keefe debuted as head coach of the Maple Leafs, snapping a six-game losing skid with a 3-1 win over Arizona.

Since his debut, Keefe has amassed third-best points percentage in NHL (.674). He’s already the ninth-longest-tenured bench boss in the league.

“There’s a lot of trust between him and the coaching staff and the group here,” Tavares said. 

• Islanders top centre Mathew Barzal is awesome at many things: skating, playmaking, interviews, tossing multiple pucks to kids during warmups, looking like a million bucks …

What he struggles with, however, is draws.

Barzal is a career 42.5 per cent faceoff man whose success rate this season has plummeted to a career-low 33.6 per cent.

Among NHLers who have taken a minimum of 130 draws, Barzal has had the least success.

• Within the past five years, four different MLSE teams have captured championships: Toronto FC (2017), Toronto Marlies (2018), Toronto Raptors (2019), and now the Toronto Argonauts (2022).

• Matt Martin said that newly promoted Isles head coach Lane Lambert has carried most of the original values of predecessor and longtime mentor Barry Trotz.

He is, however, trying to get the group to evolve into a greater scoring threat.

“He’s implemented the D being a little more active and more aggressive [and] allowing us to create a little more offence, which I think has gone a long way,” Martin said.

The Islanders have 16 goals by defencemen. The Leafs, by comparison, have five.

• The Maple Leafs have trade interest in Frank Vatrano, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on 32 Thoughts.

The 28-year-old left-shot winger has four goals and two assists through 18 games with the Anaheim Ducks this season. He’s on the books through 2024-25 at a $3.65-million cap hit, so GM Kyle Dubas would be looking for Anaheim to retain salary.

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