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Five Questions: Maple Leafs' Rielly on change in focus

by Dan Rosen's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly:

NEW YORK -- Coach Mike Babcock's plan for Morgan Rielly is in motion and it's even resulting in some unintended production from the Toronto Maple Leafs' developing No. 1 defenseman.

Rielly is tied with fellow defenseman Dion Phaneuf for the Maple Leafs lead with 11 points through 18 games. It's not a number that jumps off the screen, but it's still a lot of points considering Babcock's plan for Rielly this season is to play him against the opposition's top lines and give him more time on the penalty kill than the power play in order to keep his focus on improving his play without the puck.

"He's getting better at that and I think is relishing the opportunity to play against the best players," Babcock said. "If you just go through who we've played of late, we've played a lot of the best players. He continues to get better. We throw him on the power play every once in a while but we're trying to get his focus to be on the penalty kill. Even though he's leading us in scoring we've got a long term plan here."

Morgan Rielly
Morgan Rielly
Defense - TOR
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 11
SOG: 34 | +/-: -6
Babcock's belief is that Rielly's offensive game will improve if he learns to be better away from the puck and is able handle a heavy workload against the opposition's top players, especially since he already has good offensive instincts and is a strong skater.

He's averaging 22:12 of ice time per game, third among Toronto defenseman behind his partner, Matt Hunwick (22:32), and Phaneuf (22:26). He averaged 20:20 last season.

The big change is on special teams, where Rielly is averaging 2:34 per game on the penalty kill and 1:09 on the power play. Last season he averaged 44 seconds per game on the penalty kill and 2:26 on the power play.

"When I was in training camp I didn't really know what to expect," Rielly said. "But now I really embrace it and really enjoy that role of playing against the top line. My whole life coaches have always told me, 'Just play defense and the offense will come.' It's hard because you want to go play offense, you want to create stuff. But with [Babcock] and the way the team has been playing, it's true and that's kind of what has been happening. I'm really enjoying the role I'm in now and just embracing it."

Rielly talked more about his role, the progress he's making, the plan and his unintended offense in an interview with prior to Toronto's game against the New York Rangers on Sunday.

Here are Five Questions with … Morgan Rielly:

The plan for you is to get you playing well away from the puck because Babcock thinks your offense will be there regardless, and will be better if you're better away from the puck. How do you think it's going so far?

"I think it's been good. As a young guy it's common that you want to do everything all at once, make giant steps. But the fact of the matter is it takes time. You've got to work at it, and over the course of however many games we've played I think it's been going well. I've taken some steps forward and have improved in areas. But I also know I have a long way to go before I get to where I want to be and to where [Babcock] wants me to be. It takes time. It's not going to happen overnight. I have to learn from mistakes and move forward. I think I've been able to do that. I've been able to improve in some areas that we've really hit on and there are also some areas that I haven't quite gotten to where I have to be. It's a process and it takes time."

What are the areas you've improved on? What still needs work?

"The main one [I've improved on] would be playing defense when you don't have the puck. Boxing out when your guy moves the puck or he shoots. Not turning away; trying to get a piece of him. And closing gaps quicker. It's a just-worry-about-your-guy kind of thing. Previously I kind of had a tendency when the puck got moved to move with the puck and go towards the play as opposed to keeping closer to my guy and making sure he's not dangerous when he doesn't have the puck.

"In terms of areas he wants me to improve, there's always something. It might change every game. I might play a game and have a meeting with him and he might have a couple clips for me that I had no idea was even a problem with my game before. He has a good eye for that kind of thing and I think that's what makes him such a great coach."

The point seems to be, at least to me, that if you're gravitating toward the puck and there is a change of possession, you'll be out of position and your guy might be open in a prime scoring area. That seems obvious, but is that part of what he's hitting on with you, to make it instinctual for you to stay with your guy?

"Yeah, exactly. It's also to stop me from cheating for offense occasionally. You might leave your guy early in hopes that they're going to turn it over and we're going to get an odd-man rush. But [Babcock] wants me to play my guy tighter, be harder on him, maybe give him a shot, don't give him any space and keep him away from the net. That's his big thing."

This is all part of a plan to have you be a cornerstone part of this rebuild in Toronto. Does that elevate your focus on honing in on this part of the game because you know the future and the future includes you?

"Yeah, for sure, but it's tough because as a team we don't like the word rebuild and we don't want to even associate with that. But for me it just has really motivated me to try and do everything [Babcock has] asked and really take note of what he wants from me. In the long run I know that he knows what he's doing and he wants what is best for this team, and he knows how to get there. You've got to be patient with it as well. You can't try to rush it, like I said. It's a matter of really keeping it focused and keeping the big picture in mind, knowing what the future holds. With him as our coach and the players in this room, when you think about that, it's extremely exciting."

At the same time you're shooting the puck more this season than in your previous two seasons and your offensive production is up at a time when they want you to focus on playing without the puck. How do you explain that one?

"I think it's just a product of [Babcock] coming in here and changing the system, changing the attitude of this team, changing the environment. I think it has changed a lot not just for me, but for the entire team. Whether it's JVR [James van Riemsdyk] or whether it's Naz [Nazem Kadri], they've been playing really well. Jake [Gardiner] has been playing really well. Dion is having a great year. It's not just me. I know I've taken some attention, but the truth of the matter is the whole team is playing well. We've gotten points in a lot of games and we're happy with that. It hasn't crossed my mind really whether my production is up or whether I'm getting more chances. All I'm really worried about heading into games now is playing against the other team's top line. I think that is an aspect that can keep you really focused on the task at hand. He makes sure I know who I'm playing against and what I have to do. He makes it pretty clear.

"Mike, though, he won't take away your confidence. He has told me he wants me up in the rush, trailing or carrying the puck. But he also wants me to be smart, be responsible just because of who else is on the ice. He's been really good. He hasn't taken away my confidence at all, but he's really kept me in check. We've had some meetings where he's had to pull the reins in a little bit on me, but it's great. All of our meetings have had smiles. I'm not going in there and coming out beaten or anything like that. We're keeping it positive. He has clips for me that are good and bad, but the bad ones, again, he's smiling and saying how I can improve. It's been really good. That's just an example of the environment of this team changing. It all starts with him."


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