By Gareth Bush
When Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner were first paired together, the possibilities were endless.
By forming a dynamic duo of high-octane, inexperienced defensemen fuelled by promptitude and youthful enthusiasm, Maple Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle knew he was “taking a risk.” Both love to push the tempo, enter the opposing zone and create scoring chances as if they’re forwards. If you didn’t know better, you’d think someone is controlling them on Xbox.
“I think they’re the fastest pairing in the league,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “They’ve got great skating ability and have been really good for us when you look at their age together.”
When he made the club out of training camp at the start of the season, Rielly, 19, was put to work right away, averaging more than 17 minutes a game. His defensive partners, however, were experienced blueliners expected to make up for potential rookie mistakes and ease his transition to the NHL. By Jan. 9, Phaneuf, Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles, Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser had all been paired with Rielly, who Toronto drafted fifth overall in 2012. Thus far, the reviews have been positive.
“I talked a lot with (Rielly) just to make sure he was comfortable and everything was going fine, but he’s well beyond that,” Franson said. “He plays with ice in his veins. There’s not much to be said with him anymore.”
Added Phaneuf: “There’s an adjustment period coming from junior to the NHL and Rielly’s really adjusted well and Gardiner’s helped him out a lot.”
Since being acquired from Anaheim late in the Brian Burke era, Gardiner, 23, has been widely perceived as a blue-chip prospect with the upside to become an elite puck-moving defenseman. With 142 games and a playoff series on his resume, he’s much more experienced than Rielly despite still being in the early stages of his development. Once Rielly made the team, comparisons between the two were inescapably self-evident. Naturally, the two became best friends. When Rielly later moved in with Gardiner, his road roommate, the correlation only escalated.
“We get chirped a little bit because we’re the two young guys living together,” Rielly said. “We’ve really become quite close and always enjoy hanging out at home and joking around.”
Fast forward to Jan. 10. The Leafs, mired in a three-game losing streak, were freefalling down the Eastern Conference standings. Looking for a spark, Carlyle pitted the young duo together on the bottom pairing against Washington. While the Capitals won 3-2, Gardiner and Rielly quickly adapted to each other’s game and finished the night as the only Leafs D-men without a minus rating.
The experiment showed promise and the two were kept together on the third pairing. Next thing you know, the Leafs won the following six games, allowing 15 goals over that span, a sizable improvement over the 26 in the six prior to that. The team stands at 9-1-1 since they were paired together and both are now well accustomed to one another on the ice.
“We have good chemistry,” Gardiner said. “We know where the other is going to be on the ice a lot of the time and we’re both pretty good skaters that move the puck, so we complement each other pretty well.”
As one would expect from players their age, the tandem hasn’t played mistake-free hockey. Both love to join the rush and attack the net, relying on the other to cover the blueline. Occasionally, one misses the memo to stay back, as they both acknowledged after some sloppy defensive play in Colorado Jan. 21. High reward comes with high risk, but progress comes with trial and error.
“You just learn to pick your spots,” Rielly said. “If there’s a time when (Gardiner’s) up in a rush I’m probably not going to join it too often. Randy (Carlyle) would probably lose it on us.”
As friends and D-partners with countless similarities, they’re growing up together on the most scrutinized team in the league. Both have also been subject of trade rumors throughout the season. According to Phaneuf, they’re taking it all in stride.
“They’ve handled it very well,” he said. “They’re in the biggest hockey market in the NHL and they’ve done a great job handling it. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
In the mean time, all they’re focusing on is becoming one of the most dynamic young defensive duos the league has seen in years, and having a blast doing it. When Rielly was asked if playing with Gardiner has been the most fun he’s had in the NHL, he answered honestly.
“Yeah, I think so,” Rielly said. “But I’d never tell him that.”