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'A LOT OF TALENT': Rielly confident Leafs defence corps can get job done in his absence

Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up prior to action against the Boston Bruins in an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 19, 2019. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up prior to action against the Boston Bruins in an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 19, 2019. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Morgan Rielly isn’t the kind to wallow in misery.

The Maple Leafs defenceman will be out of the lineup for the next eight weeks after suffering a broken left foot against the Florida Panthers on Sunday, but when he met with reporters on Tuesday morning at Scotiabank Arena, Rielly was matter-of-fact.

“Just part of the journey,” Rielly said as he leaned on crutches outside the dressing room. “It happens to everyone. I’m not going to be overly dramatic about it.

“We’ve got a great training staff, great doctors, so we’re going to work hard to try to get back.”

Rielly took a shot from Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov off the inside of his foot in the first period and departed from the game, though he returned and gutted it out for the rest of the evening.

“Our whole team would have done it,” Rielly said of playing with the injury. “It’s just something you do. You play through it and deal with the consequences after. Unfortunately, it was a little more severe than I thought.”

Rielly’s absence gives Rasmus Sandin an opportunity to prove he can make an impact in the National Hockey League.

Following a six-game trial with the Leafs to start the regular season, Sandin excelled for the Toronto Marlies before dominating for Sweden at the recent 2020 world junior championship.

“He wants me to score 10 goals,” Sandin said jokingly about his initial conversation on Tuesday with coach Sheldon Keefe.

“He wants me to play my game and be confident out there. I think we’re both looking forward to see how I do.”

The loss of Rielly will put a strain on a defence corps that couldn’t afford one, but there was some good news from Keefe on Jake Muzzin, who is nursing a broken foot. The expectation was that Muzzin had progressed to the point that he could be on skates on Wednesday.

Even if Muzzin returns not long after the bye week ends, general manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t have much choice but to add to a group that could use a bolstering. Keefe answered “absolutely” when he was asked whether the corps as it stands now can get the job done.

We’re not as sure.

“There’s definitely some heightened awareness to (emphasizing team defence), which I think is a healthy thing for our team,” Keefe said in the wake of the Rielly injury. “It’s a good opportunity for us to rally.

“It’s time for reflection for us as a team of where we need to get better and where we can make up for these types of losses.”

Will Keefe ask his defencemen to play more conservatively with Rielly and Muzzin out?

“We don’t think we need to change the way that we play in relation to our philosophy and how we want to play, but the execution of it needs to be better,” Keefe said. “It would need to get better even if we were fully healthy.

“The elite teams in the league don’t get fazed by these types of situations. We believe we are an elite team and have the ability to take big steps.”

The Leafs recalled Timothy Liljegren from the Marlies, but there is no plan at this point to use Liljegren in a game.

Rielly, who was leading the Leafs in ice time and has 27 points in 46 games, threw his support behind his defence brethren.

“There’s a lot of talent, lots of character,” Rielly said. “To lose one piece is not a big deal. We’ve always talked about depth of being a strength of ours and when that gets tested, it’s time for guys to accept that responsibility and prove that. That’s what the challenge will be.”

Rielly will be off his foot for the next few weeks. He didn’t realize the severity of the injury when it happened.

“It definitely didn’t feel good, but you don’t know until you take the skate off,” Rielly said. “I got the imaging done (Monday) and came back with a little bit of bad news. It could have been worse.”

Is there a silver lining in that Rielly, who already was playing with a minor injury, will be rested for the final stretch?

“You can put a spin on it,” Rielly said. “You try to take opportunity to rest, heal other injuries, do what you can to prepare mentally to get back and be in a good place.

“I don’t know what the time frame is. It’s a bit sensitive in terms of how the healing process goes, but I just want to get back and be healthy and help the team.”

LEAFS ‘NEED MORE’ FROM BARRIE

Memo to Tyson Barrie: Time to buckle down.

The defenceman hasn’t played with a ton of consistency with the Maple Leafs after being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche last summer, and with Morgan Rielly joining Jake Muzzin on the sideline, it’s on the shoulders of Barrie to make a greater impact than he had through 46 games.

How much more can the Leafs get out of Barrie on the defensive side of the game?

“We think lots on both sides and we’re going to need that,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Tyson is such an important piece of our team. There’s a lot more emphasis on (Rasmus) Sandin and (Travis) Dermott and (Justin) now. Barrie is a guy that we need more from.”

Barrie, who has four goals and 20 assists, has wandered at times from his spot on the blue line, leading to odd-man rushes against. Now, he is the most experienced of the Leafs’ defence corp.

“I have to do a job of continuing to push the pace offensively, but stepping up my defensive game as well and focusing more on that,” Barrie said.

tkoshan@postmedia.com

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