David Alter has good news from the Maple Leafs morning skate.
Morgan Rielly is on the road trip, and was skating today with Mac Hollowell (called up on emergency basis) and Rasmus Sandin (on IR, the cause of the emergency).
Later Sheldon Keefe told reporters that Both his injured defenders are day-to-day. They won’t play tonight, but they could appear in Arizona or Colorado on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
With both the power play defenders out, the Leafs have been using five forwards on the top power play unit over the past two games. We should expect to see it tonight again. So far, so good on this experiment. When the entry works, the combined talents of the five players is intimidating — it would get better with more opportunities. The counter attacks have come, and it’s usually Mitch Marner near the blueline to play backchecking defender, and he does it well.
It’s true that most NHL forwards can’t skate very effectively backwards. That’s a skill reserved for the very few with more advanced skating training when young or those who flirted with the defence position. But defending against a rush is a race, not like defending more controlled offensive pressure. It might not always work. But it is a very intriguing idea.
With the return of Rielly in particular, the question will be of ice time. He is the Maple Leafs leader in average minutes per game, as without him, the ice time has been shared out differently. He might not go back in to a power play, occasional penalty kill and top five-on-five minutes per night right away.
Sandin, who doesn’t seem to be hurt very badly, with what remains a bit of a mystery ailment, had been bumped off the top power play unit even before he was hurt, but he’s been playing 20 minutes a night all-situations in the month since Rielly was hurt. Justin Holl is tops with 22.28 minutes, and Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie are less than half a minute apart at approximately 21 minutes. Since all of that structure worked very well most of the time, there is no need to rush Rielly back in.
Brodie, while nominally listed on the third pair each night, has been in the top three for defender minutes played in every game. The defender emergency has given the Leafs a chance (or forced them) to be flexible with defence usage to the point there are so many options now that it reminds me of the glory days of the Carolina defence corps. There is no clear line between top-four and bottom pairing at the moment.
Given all of this, is the 5F PP no more? That might depend on the opposition and how aggressive they are on the PK. Or it might just be that Rielly is worth more than Michael Bunting, and the decision is easy for Keefe and his assistants.
Mo D is always better, and it will be good to have Rielly back. (No, no one is getting waived.)