TORONTO — Mike Babcock cautioned not to read too much into Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly playing together to open the pre-season. It may just a training camp experiment by the new Leafs head coach, but it’s a fascinating one.
Gardiner and Rielly are young, smooth-skating, offensive-minded defencemen who could thrive under Babcock. Even with Dion Phaneuf around, they would seem to make up the ideal top defensive pairing now and for the future.
“I think we just use each other to our advantage,” Rielly said. “We just like using each other as outlets, whether we’re in trouble or whether we’re trying to get going. … He wants to try to create offence, and I do as well, so we can’t both be trying to do it at the same time.”
Gardiner is entering his fourth full NHL season and Rielly his third. At 25, Gardiner has the security of a long-term contract, while Rielly has the potential tools to be a No. 1 defenceman.
Babcock, who figured he wanted to see Gardiner and Rielly play together because they’re good young players and buddies off the ice, said at training-camp media day that they need to improve defensively. But he sees more in Gardiner than perhaps other Leafs coaches have.
“Everyone talks about Morgan Rielly and everyone knows that he has elite upside (as an) offensive guy,” Babcock said. “But Gardiner, when I watch him, I think he should be a good player. So let’s build him up, let’s get him going, let’s get him playing good.”
The best way of doing that may be pairing him with Rielly, which Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek tried last season. Even though each player is left-handed, Rielly adjusted to playing the right side spectacularly as a 21-year-old.
Gardiner and Rielly have enough experience playing together that they know the drill by now. Since they’re quick to think offence, Rielly said they have to take turns jumping up in plays and getting back to cover for each other.
“You just have to kind of read off each other,” Rielly said. “I can usually tell from a mile away when he’s thinking about playing offence. When that happens, I’ll just drop back and he’ll do the same.”
Gardiner considers their off-ice friendship an asset because he and Rielly aren’t shy to communicate. Instinctually they’re a good fit, at least on paper, because they’re so skilled and like-minded.
“We’re both really good skaters,” Gardiner said. “Playing with a guy like that, he’s so strong, he’s an easy guy to play with.”
Babcock is stressing holding onto the puck and pressing on offence as the best defence, something his new players are familiar with from facing his Detroit Red Wings over the years. That fits Gardiner and Rielly’s game perfectly.
Defensively, Gardiner and Rielly could be an adventure in the defensive zone this pre-season as they adjust to another new coach and another new system. But breakouts could be especially effective if they can develop some familiarity and improve their chemistry.
“(Gardiner is) highly skilled and he’s a smart player, and I think that he’s able to see openings that a lot of people can’t,” Rielly said. “And if he’s able to get there and I’m able to make the pass, I think it makes us look good.”
Rielly’s ascent at a young age could make any defence partner look good. Gardiner has seen that quick development up close and could be a beneficiary of it.
“You see glimpses of greatness, basically, with him,” Gardiner said. “Whether it’s scoring a highlight-reel goal or defending some of the best forwards in the league. I expect him to have a great year. Not to put pressure on him, but he’s going to be a big part of this team.”
Note — Babcock hopes to play the organization’s young goaltenders Tuesday night at the Montreal Canadiens. Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks are expected to form the goaltending tandem for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies this season.
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press