There are two ways to view Morgan Rielly’s confronting Ridly Greig at the end of Saturday’s game in Ottawa.
Either you think Rielly was out of line for charging Greig after he wound up for a slap shot into an empty net with seconds left in regulation. Or, conversely, you believe Rielly was right to stand up for his team in what was a clear bit of taunting (and poor sportsmanship).
There are valid arguments to be had on either side.
I lean toward the latter, that Rielly was right to do something. Was letting his stick get up around Greig’s head a mistake? Yes. Was it a heat-of-the-moment reaction? Yes. (The NFL has taunting penalties for a reason.)
It would have been weird to do nothing. To watch Greig show up the Toronto Maple Leafs in that spot and just let it pass. What would the reaction have been had that been the case? Same old Leafs, right? Rielly, and the team as a whole, would have been hammered for not pushing back, for not standing up for themselves.
How could they let anyone, let alone a 21-year-old rookie, show them up like that?
It was a different play under different circumstances. But that was more or less the reaction in November when Brad Marchand upended Timothy Liljegren and no response came. It wasn’t just noise on the outside, either. It was internal. The front office wasn’t happy. Neither was coach Sheldon Keefe. The Leafs had a meeting about it. They decided that kind of thing wasn’t going to be tolerated. They had to push back.
“I thought it was appropriate,” Keefe said of Rielly’s response to Greig.
Rielly will draw a meaningful suspension for it — six games or more, potentially.
The Leafs need to rally around a harsh penalty. Stand up for Rielly, like he stood up for them.
1. Rielly is a one-of-one on the Leafs back end. There’s nobody back there who can approximate his skills (even a little) or step into the huge minutes he logs every night. This group was already pretty lacklustre with Rielly. It gets downright tricky for the coaching staff without him.
They could go in two conceivable directions.
One would see Jake McCabe move onto the top pair with TJ Brodie.
This would at least give the Leafs a clear-cut pair for top-line assignments, McCabe and Brodie.
The big problem is how depleted it leaves the second and third pairs. Simon Benoit and Liljegren haven’t played together much at all this season. Trusting them together feels dicey. (Not having Mark Giordano for the foreseeable future hurts even more in Rielly’s absence.)
The coaching staff might opt for more balance then and at least one pair — Benoit and McCabe — with significant playing time together this season.
The question there: Who guards the top lines?
Are the Leafs prepared to trust Liljegren for those kinds of assignments, even in the short term? It might be time to see what’s he got.
2. Another consideration: Who joins PP1 in Rielly’s absence? Do the Leafs opt for the simple choice, another defenceman, Liljegren, or even Conor Timmins (assuming he’s healthy after a bout of illness)? Or, do they go bold and add a fifth forward to the bunch? And who’s that fifth forward? Max Domi? Tyler Bertuzzi? Matthew Knies?
Does Mitch Marner run point in a five-forward formation?
3. The Rielly-Greig incident overshadows the Leafs losing again to the Ottawa Senators, a bottom-five team in the league this season. The Leafs finish the year with three losses in four games to Ottawa — all in regulation. The Senators scored 18 goals in those four games.
4. Also overshadowed: Keefe’s response to the first Senators goal, which came after what he said was a “completely egregious play.” That would be Marner trying to execute a difficult pass in the neutral zone and turning it over instead.
5. The Leafs gave up four five-on-five goals Saturday. They rank 21st in their five-on-five expected goal rate defensively. They were 10th last season and fourth the year before that.
6. Keefe is trying to get Max Domi more ice time. Domi played almost 17 minutes in Ottawa and almost 16 minutes earlier in the week against Dallas. Those two games rank second and third for Domi on the ice-time front this season.
7. Domi has been among the many Leafs struggling to score this season. You would have to think that ice time, or lack thereof, was something he was eyeing from his coach. Domi has logged less than 13 minutes in 26 of 50 games and 12 or less 17 times.
8. One way Keefe is increasing Domi’s opportunity is by sending him out there for the odd shift with Marner and Auston Matthews. It hasn’t happened much — just over seven minutes, total, this season — but there’s something intriguing about it. Shot attempts are 8-1 for the Leafs in that super-duper limited sample.
9. Not having David Kämpf or Calle Järnkrok has left the penalty kill in a state of flux. Night to night, the coaching staff seems to be searching for answers. There’s no clear rotation up front right now except for Marner on the No. 1 unit.
Leafs’ PK last three games
10. John Tavares’ five-on-five goal drought hit 25 games Saturday. He did score on the power play in three straight games before that. Keefe said the team had made a “couple little adjustments that I think have benefited him.” From the looks of it, the Leafs have their captain slipping away from the net front more often these days and into the bumper position where he has more space to get his shot off. Tavares redirected a Rielly shot from there in Winnipeg just before the All-Star break and then did the same thing against the New York Islanders in the first game back.
JOHHHHHHNNNNNYYYYY TORRRRRRRONTOOOOOOO!! pic.twitter.com/OWTnnnEnKG
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 6, 2024
Tavares scored off what looked to be a set play from the high slot against the Dallas Stars.
A smart adjustment from the coaching staff to get Tavares going.
11. The Leafs have dabbled with William Nylander on their No. 1 penalty-killing unit since Kämpf went out. Part of the appeal: Nylander is 7-11 on short-handed faceoffs this season.
12. Ilya Samsonov’s first two games out of the break: Seven goals against on 60 shots for an .883 save percentage.
The Leafs didn’t draw a power play over the weekend and are bottom five in the NHL in power-play opportunities this season.
There is no Michael Bunting-level penalty drawer in this bunch. Right now, it’s a four-way tie for the team lead:
For whatever reason, this play highlighted what’s been a largely overlooked issue for the Leafs this season: The forwards aren’t getting enough pucks with speed like this:
That’s Benoit making the short pass to Matthews. Benoit has gotten a love for his play, but that — moving the puck cleanly to the forwards — has been a real problem spot for him. It led directly to the Senators’ fourth goal Saturday.
That kind of thing, Benoit’s struggling to get a puck into the hands of a forward, happens frequently (and makes me wonder about his ability to play in the postseason).
It’s all the more problematic since his partner for the last couple of months, McCabe, isn’t an especially great puck-mover himself.
It’s helped to hurt the Leafs’ attack.
This was the Leafs’ last season in zone entries and rush offence in tracking done by All Three Zones, among the very best.
Now, this season:
It’s why, in addition to adding a stronger defender to the bunch, the front office might also look to add a defender who can bring some juice offensively — moving the puck cleanly and whatnot.
— Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, All Three Zones and Hockey Reference.
(Top photo of Morgan Rielly: Richard A. Whittaker / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)