TRAIK-EOTOMY: Looks like Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly could be a No. 1 defenceman after all

We all rolled our eyes back in the day when then-Leafs GM Brian Burke said he had Morgan Rielly rated No. 1 in the 2012 NHL entry draft.

Six years later, who’s been better than Rielly?

Certainly not any of the four players picked ahead of him. First-overall bust Nail Yakupov is playing in Russia, Ryan Murray can’t stay healthy, centre-turned-winger-turned-centre Alex Galchenyuk is on his second team, and Griffin Reinhart hasn’t stepped foot in the NHL in two years.

If you had to do the draft all over again, maybe Nashville centre Filip Forsberg would have gone first overall. That is, if you don’t favour a goalie such as Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th), Frederik Andersen (87th) or Connor Hellebuyck (130th).

But if you want a No. 1 defenceman — and which team doesn’t? — then you’d take Rielly ahead of Hampus Lindholm or Jacob Trouba. You couldn’t really say that about him last year or in any of the years before.

Rielly was good, but he wasn’t great. He was, at best, a No. 2. He was the kind of defenceman who played a ton of minutes and in a variety of situations, but who didn’t put up a ton of points.

This year, that’s changed. We’re only four games into the season, but with a league-best 10 points (heading into Wednesday’s play), it’s becoming immediately clear Rielly is going to have a monster year offensively. He might not put up Erik Karlsson-type numbers. But now that he’s passing the puck to some of the most talented forwards in the NHL, you can pencil him in for at least 70 points.

The question is whether that gets him noticed for the Norris Trophy, which is as much about points as it is about reputation.

In the previous five years, Rielly has never received even a single vote for the award. A big reason for that is a lack of production. Rielly, who had a career-best 52 points last season, tied with Jake Gardiner for 15th among defencemen in scoring. It was the only time he’s ever been ranked in the top 30.

Now that he’s quarterbacking a dangerous power-play unit that includes Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner, it’s not unrealistic to suggest he could finish in the top five.

If so, you can expect that he’ll get some Norris Trophy recognition.

WHO IS NO. 2?

Now that Rielly has proven he can be a No. 1 defenceman, which of Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev or Travis Dermott is going to grow into a No. 2? Not having one was one reason why Dion Phaneuf failed so miserably in Toronto. My money is on 21-year-old Dermott taking a giant step forward. It’s just too bad he’s a left-handed shot.

GOALIES GO DOWN

It’s been a bad start to the season for starting goalies. Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick is week-to-week, Florida’s Roberto Luongo is out two-to-four weeks, and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray and Chicago’s Corey Crawford are both out indefinitely with concussions. Makes you think where the Leafs and Jets would be if Frederik Andersen and Connor Hellebuyck were to miss any time this season.

The New York Rangers sent a message to defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk by benching him recently. GETTY IMAGES

BENCHING SENDS MESSAGE

If the Rangers end up benching Kevin Shattenkirk for Thursday’s game against the Sharks, it will no doubt send a strong message to New York’s highest-paid skater. But the bigger message is to the team.

The Rangers are in rebuild mode with a new coach, David Quinn, who is in his first NHL season. At this point, the wins and losses don’t matter as much as the process. By sitting out Shattenkirk, who aside from earning $6.65-million, also spent two years under Quinn at Boston University, its takeaway is that no one is bigger than the team.

The players will respect that. And they will remember it when the Rangers eventually turns things around.

PAGING CONNOR McDAVID

Where in the world is Connor McDavid? It’s beyond silly that the face of the NHL is playing in Germany for the first two weeks of the season. And don’t tell me that he’s helping to grow the game.

There’s an easier and more effective way to do that. It’s called the Olympics.

GIBSON AN EARLY VEZINA FAVOURITE

It’s early, but don’t be surprised if this is the year John Gibson wins the Vezina Trophy. The Anaheim Ducks goalie, who ended last season with a 1.95 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage after the all-star break, has picked up where he left off with a 3-0 record, 1.30 goals-against average and a .958 save percentage heading into Wednesday’s game against Arizona.

SENS GOT VALUE FOR KARLSSON

I got all kinds of snarky emails/tweets when I reported that Sharks GM Doug Wilson believed that the trade for Erik Karlsson netted the Senators useful players.

Since then, forward Chris Tierney and defenceman Dylan DeMelo each has a goal and three points in three games. Karlsson currently has three assists on the season.

BOESER NEEDS TO SHOOT MORE

It’s not troubling that Vancouver’s Brock Boeser has gone three games without a goal. After all, he didn’t score until the fourth game of last season. But what is concerning is that he only has three shots so far. He averaged 2.89 shots per game last year.

DAHLIN THROWS HIS WEIGHT AROUND

I was expecting to be wowed by Rasmus Dahlin’s offensive skills when I saw the Buffalo Sabres rookie defenceman play live against the Golden Knights earlier this week. Instead, I was blown away by his underrated physical game. He flattened Erik Haula with an open-ice hit on one play, then stood up a skating-at-full-speed Max Pacioretty on another. Just wait until the kid puts on some weight.

NHL IS FUN (AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN)

It was great to see Matthews and Patrick Kane mimic each other’s goal celebration in Chicago the other night. And I’m a big fan of Carolina’s Lambeau-type leap after wins. But please stop with the whole “it’s so refreshing to see hockey players have fun” narrative.

If you think the league is boring, you obviously never saw Tiger Williams ride his stick around the ice or watched Theoren Fleury, Teemu Selanne and Alex Ovechkin celebrate their goals. The NHL has always had some of the most colourful characters.

The problem is that it also has some of the dullest.

FLAMES GETTING AMPLE LEADERSHIP

Johnny Gaudreau has seven points, Matthew Tkachuk has six and Sean Monahan has four goals. Marc Giordano might be the Flames captain, but after last year’s collapse, the team needed that talented forward trio to be its on-ice leaders.

Now, if only Sam Bennett can find the back of the net.

McELHINNEY STEALS THE NET IN CAROLINA

The Hurricanes have yet to lose in regulation after four games. And a big reason for it is former Leafs backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, who has a .930 save percentage in two starts.

If this keeps up, Scott Darling might not have a job when he returns from a lower-body injury.

THIS AND THAT

Forget John Tavares or Erik Karlsson. So far, the best move of the summer was the Sabres’ acquisition of Carter Hutton, who’s the first Buffalo goalie since Ryan Miller who can actually stop the puck … Auston Matthews has seven goals in four games. That’s more than Vegas or Detroit has scored after three games. It’s also the combined total of Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Edmonton, Florida and Arizona … You can be forgiven for not knowing that Nick Ritchie is also sitting out while waiting for a new contract. You can also be forgiven for not knowing who Nick Ritchie is … Penguins’ Kris Letang on Matt Murray being out with a concussion for the second time in eight months: “It sucks, but it’s part of the game.” Since when?

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NYLANDER OFF MATTHEWS’ LINE?

Does William Nylander still have a job waiting for him on Auston Matthews’ wing? Not in my opinion. That spot now belongs to Kasperi Kapanen, who’s got four points in four games, and is willing to do all the things that skilled players don’t normally want to do.

When — or if — Nylander eventually returns, I’d put him on a line with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown. Just another reason why Nylander needs to get on the first flight back to Toronto.

Chicago centre Jonathan Toews looks like hes back in elite form this season. GETTY IMAGES

TOEWS BACK TO HIS OLD SELF

It was during the NHL’s Player Media Tour right before the start of the season when Jonathan Toews told me that he was “pissed” that he was no longer considered an elite centre.

“It’s time to check your ego,” said Toews. “Start fresh, start over and have that same hunger and mentality that you did as a young rookie in the league. Take nothing for granted.”

With five goals in three games, Toews is looking like the player who once scored 32 goals and 76 points. That was eight long years ago.

Since then, the Blackhawks captain has seen his offensive numbers steadily decline as he moved into a shutdown role.

Then again, it just might be that his luck is finally changing.

Toews’ shooting percentage has hovered around 14% for most of his career. But despite firing 211 shots last year — his highest total since 2010-11 — it dipped below 10%.

Toews won’t be able to sustain the 38.5% he’s connecting on now, but if he can continue to average four shots per game, he should be on pace to hit the 35-goal mark again … with a little puck luck.

“I remember (Sidney) Crosby had that bad one-half of the season and he came back in the second half and almost won the scoring race,” Kane said at the Player Media Tour in Chicago. “That’s the same thing with John. I would never count him out. He’ll find a way to get back.”

Looks like he has.

Maple Leafs winger Willian Nylander continues to hold out. GETTY IMAGES

NYLANDER CAME UP ONE YEAR TOO EARLY

How much does Nylander wish he could be playing with the Leafs right now? And how much does he wish he could have been a free agent after this season?

That’s the advantage Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews both have — as well as Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point — as they continue to rack up points in what should be very productive and lucrative contract years.

Considering that Matthews has scored seven goals and Marner has picked up eight points, what kind of numbers would Nylander be putting up by now? Six goals? Nine points? More? Less?

We don’t know and that’s a big reason why this deal is so complicated.

By the end of this season, we will know (if we didn’t already) what Marner is as a player. If Marner can’t put up 80-plus points while playing on a line with John Tavares and getting first-unit power-play time, he may never.

With Nylander, it’s all guesswork. On one hand, he’s burned three years off his entry-level contract. But because he only played 22 games in that first season — Matthews had not yet been drafted and Marner had been returned to junior — his resume is awfully thin.

Is he a winger or a centre? Is he capable of scoring 35-to-40 goals or is he more of a playmaker? Is he the benefactor of playing with Matthews or can he carry a line on his own?

Had Nylander’s entry-level contract expired at the end of this season, we might have been able to answer some of these questions. Instead, his next deal is all about what he’s done so far and what he might do in the future.

Your guess is as good as mine.

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Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies