By Terry Koshan
Don’t underestimate the Toronto Maple Leafs’ off-season matchmaking skills.
When the club signed T.J. Brodie of Dresden to a four-year contract in October, the plan was to hook Brodie up with Morgan Rielly on the blue line with the hope that the partnership eventually would flourish.
As the Leafs have gone about taking control of the North Division and first place overall in the National Hockey League, Brodie and Rielly have formed a solid working relationship that’s bound to only get better.
“It’s a new pairing, no training camp, no exhibition games, unlike what you’ve had in previous years, so you don’t know how those things will go,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said on Wednesday before the Leafs and Oilers finished a three-game set in Edmonton. “It takes some time, but I’ve been happy with the way it has come together.
“They’ve helped each other. Morgan, the way he skates, is active in the rush, helps move the play up the ice. Brodie is responsible with a good stick, a good gap and when it’s time to help the breakout, he makes a good play and that allows Morgan to activate.”
Of the eight defencemen used by Keefe through the Leafs’ first 23 games, only Rielly, Brodie and Justin Holl played in every one.
In the Leafs’ 6-1 victory against the Oilers on Wednesday, Rielly had one assist to give him 18 points in his past 18 games.
With 19 in 24 overall, that was on pace for what would be 65 in an 82-game schedule. That’s not far off the 72 points in 82 games he recorded in 2018-19, when he finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting.
Prior to Wednesday, Rielly’s 17 points since Jan. 23 were tied with Tampa’s Victor Hedman for the most among NHL defencemen in that span.
Brodie’s calm demeanour and sound defensive positioning has been an aid for Rielly, but the latter’s skill and ability to push the offence comes from within. And as he has in four of the previous five seasons, Rielly leads Leafs defencemen in ice time.
There’s no doubt Rielly is playing with a bigger spring in his stride in 2020-21.
The experience factor helps, as the two have combined for 1,199 NHL games.
“You have guys who have played a bunch of hockey and working together has been easy for them,” Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin said. “It has been a good pair and we’re going to need them to continue being a good pair.”