Lost among the broader story lines of the hunt for a playoff spot and a three-game losing streak, the development of the Maple Leafs two youngest defenceman chugs along.
What of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, the future and to an ever-increasing degree, the present of the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline?
Gardiner and Rielly have scads in common. The pair regularly log minutes on the second wave of the power play. They share a Toronto apartment and at 23 and 20 are the youngest defencemen on the team and aside from Nazem Kadri, born a few months after Gardiner, the youngest players period. Both are superb skaters trying to prosper through the ups and downs of fledgling careers. Both take about 25 shifts a game, (24.1 for Rielly, 25.8 for Gardiner).
But that does not mean they are identical and watching one sheds some light on the other.
For one thing, Rielly began his NHL career as a more dependable defensive player. In his first season Gardiner worked for Ron Wilson and turned in 30 points in 75 games. The Minnetonka, Minnesota native admits to have dramatically upped his defensive awareness under coach Randy Carlyle.
“My first year I wasn’t as responsible defensively,” Gardiner said. “The coach has been trying to get that in my head. Think defence first. Be tough on guys, tough on the body have a good stick. I’ve been trying to work on that.”
Rielly entered the league at 205 pounds. He has the bulk to hold his own along the boards while Gardiner, 18 pounds lighter, relies more on first-step quickness to move pucks a few feet along the boards and out of danger.
That bigger frame, married to exceptional skating, has allowed Rielly to win battles, control pucks and carry the puck through tight quarters in his own end.
“You never see Morgan panic with the puck,” said defenceman Cody Franson who often pairs with Gardiner five on five. “He’s got the ability to skate himself out of trouble if need be so rather than making a panicky play he will turn back with it and try to lose guys with his feet.”
A look at their offensive stats is illustrative. Gardiner leads Leaf defencemen with ten goals, seven more than Rielly. After deferring to teammates in his first year, Gardiner is far more willing to shoot. Gardiner has taken 111 shots, 25 more than Rielly. While Franson garners more power play time, 3:01 minutes a game in contrast to Gardiner’s 2:13, Gardiner has taken 11 more shots. Among Leaf defencemen only Dion Phaneuf with 124 shots has hit the net more often than Gardiner.
“I worked on my shot a lot this summer,” Gardiner said. “On the power play I try to think shoot first because that often opens things up for Nazem (Kadri) or Mason (Raymond) down low. Lupes (Joffrey Lupul) is great at deflecting the puck as well.”
But Rielly has more points, 24 to 22 than Gardiner based on 22 assists to Gardiner’s 12.
Gardiner’s goal against Detroit, Tuesday night, spoke volumes about the pair’s skill set. Rielly made a superb play to direct a long shot at the Detroit end that produced a fat rebound off the end boards. Gardiner dashed from his own blue line to snare the puck, calmly skated around Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard and shoveled the puck home.
And while Rielly possesses an advanced poise in his own end, his game, for now at least, is buttoned down. The play Gardiner made for his 10th goal on Wednesday, circling the Tampa net before wristing a shot past goalie Ben Bishop is not in Rielly’s repertoire right now. It may never be. Rielly may someday be a star but right now he is shooting for steady.
“That’s what’s tough at times, being consistent from night to night,” he said. It’s not always easy. I’ve had some ups and downs which is natural but I think that’s important.”
Rielly would never grab the puck and carry it behind the opposition net and then out the other side as Gardiner will. That said, he won’t attempt high risk/high reward plays that Gardiner often can’t resist.
Both are fans of each other.
“He’s going to be a great player for a lot of years,” Gardiner said. “He’ll be an all-star some year.”
“Having Jake as a roommate and a teammate has been very helpful,” Rielly said. “He’s 23 and plays a two-way game. He’s been a great guy to talk to about how to improve. In the grand scheme, that’s been very important.”