October 05, 2016 - 1:21 PM
TORONTO - Morgan Rielly isn't sleeping more or eating differently, save for a few extra salads.
Life as the Maple Leafs' No. 1 defenceman has required only subtle adjustments for the 22-year-old, who first took on the weighty role for Toronto last season. Rielly played some of the heaviest minutes of any young player in hockey, absorbing the most challenging nightly duties for head coach Mike Babcock.
If it was ever too much, Rielly, who could be the youngest player on Toronto's defence this season, isn't saying so.
"No, no, no, at times maybe it was a lot to handle on the ice, but mentally I enjoyed the challenge," he said. "I enjoyed that (Mike Babcock) put his trust in me to play those minutes, I think it was a good thing."
It's a role he'll shoulder again this season and likely for the forseeable future after Toronto signed the B.C. native to a six-year deal worth US$30 million in the summer.
Rielly's job description is pretty clear, if also burdensome: keep the opposition's scariest offensive players off the scoreboard every night. The role offers no respite. Sidney Crosby might be the target on Saturday with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to follow two nights later.
Even one bad shift could swing the result of a game. There is no let-up against the game's best.
"It's just a matter of mentally making sure that when you're playing Pittsburgh the next night you know you're going up against Sid so you've got to be ready for that," Rielly said. "Each team has a team guy like that so you've got to be ready for it. It's tough."
"If that's my role again this year I'll embrace it and just try to get better," he added.
Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen (21) and Columbus' Seth Jones (22) were the only players younger than Rielly to lead their respective teams in average ice-time.
Babcock didn't wait long to plug Rielly into the gig last year, quickly shifting top-line assignments from captain Dion Phaneuf to Rielly and his veteran partner Matt Hunwick. The coach wanted to expose Rielly to challenging minutes right away so he'd learn quickly and be better served as an all-around defender down the line.
Points and power play quarterbacking would come later, Babcock figured.
Rielly was pulling in 25-plus minutes every night by season's end and faring reasonably well, especially so after Martin Marincin replaced Hunwick. Rielly finished tied for 12th among all NHL defencemen in even-strength scoring (27 points), his production eclipsing even Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty (25).
He also more than tripled his penalty-killing duties from one season earlier, ranking as one of the more effective defenders league-wide in shot suppression.
Babcock limited Rielly's power-play opportunity until late in the year, an assignment he'll presumably garner with more regularity this season.
Rielly still turns to Phaneuf for job advice, even with the 31-year-old now playing for the Ottawa Senators. Rielly was even planning to visit Phaneuf in Prince Edward Island over the summer, but never got around to it.
"He's gone through it all before," Rielly said of Phaneuf, a fellow top-10 pick who was thrust immediately into big NHL duty. "And he's really gone out of his way to make me feel like he's always going to be there if I have any questions."
Rielly doesn't have many options on his own team, which is relatively inexperienced. The only veterans on defence are Hunwick, 31, and Roman Polak, a 30-year-old blue collar type who returned to Toronto on a one-year deal in the off-season following a mid-season trade to San Jose.
If Connor Carrick (born a month after Rielly in 1994) fails to crack the NHL club, Rielly will be the Leafs youngest defenceman at the outset again this season.
He said he hasn't changed much to handle his increased workload. He never liked salads but now eats them regularly, even adding fruit as a special twist.
Sleep-wise, Rielly is still getting at least eight hours, if not more.
"I'm still young, I can sleep for days," he said with a toothy grin.
"You want to find a routine that works for you," he added. "Whether it be your hours of sleep at night or your pre-game or what you eat. If it works you just have to learn and stick with it ... If anything it's gotten better, just with age and knowing more about nutrition and what my body needs."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016