No better time than now for Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly.
That’s the thinking of Leafs captain John Tavares regarding the National Hockey League all-star festivities in Toronto Feb. 1-3. Rielly has never played in the game, and Tavares would be thrilled if fan voters changed that before voting comes to an end on Thursday at midnight.
“He should have been there already, in my opinion,” Tavares said after practice on Wednesday. “I think it’s long overdue, and there’s no better way for his first one than to be in Toronto, especially what he has given to the city and this organization, the level that he’s playing at and how much we rely on him on and off the ice.
“He’s one of the most unselfish players, teammates that I’ve had in my time in the league. It would be great to see him get that recognition.”
Rielly, the longest-serving current member of the Leafs, has played in 757 games for Toronto. That’s 12th on the franchise list, and 20 games behind 11th-place Tie Domi, who played in 777 games with the Leafs.
Before NHL games on Wednesday, Rielly was 10th in scoring among defencemen with 32 points in 38 games.
Auston Matthews, who was the Leafs’ initial NHL choice for the all-star game, agreed with Tavares’ take.
“(Rielly is) the backbone of this team and the backbone of our defensive end, what he does for us, the effort he puts in on the ice, off the ice, his leadership,” Matthews said. “He really does it all. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
There will need to be some rallying for Rielly. Tabulation of fan votes on Tuesday had him sitting 11th among skaters. It’s possible that Rielly could be named as an injury replacement.
It’s a different situation for William Nylander, who also has never played in the NHL all-star game. He was atop the fan voting list on Tuesday.
“I think he would bring a lot, on and off the ice,” Matthews said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in our minds that he deserves to go and that he’s going to go. I’m sure he’ll have a couple of special things, whether it’s his outfit or something on the ice that he’s got planned for us. I’m looking forward to it.”
Mitch Marner was fifth in voting and if he gets in, would be playing in the game for the third time.
With 32 players already named to the game by the NHL, fans will vote in 12 additional players, including eight skaters and four goalies.
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ROBERTSON ‘HAPPY’ WITH HIS PLAY
Nick Robertson is carrying a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and it’s hard to blame the 22-year-old winger.
After scoring in the Leafs’ 7-1 win against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, Robertson was wearing a grey extras sweater at practice.
Robertson had been a healthy scratch for two games before playing against the Sharks when Noah Gregor sat out with an illness.
Gregor practised on Wednesday at his usual spot on the fourth line with centre David Kampf and Bobby McMann, bumping Robertson back into reserve category.
When Matthew Knies departed practice with a leg issue, Robertson took his spot with Matthews and Marner. But with Knies not ruled out of the road game against the New York Islanders on Thursday, Robertson could sit again.
What did Robertson, who has scored in three of his past four games, take away from sitting two games?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Robertson said. “It’s just to be ready. I’m happy with how I’ve been playing.
“I’m happy with how simple I’m keeping it and when you’re playing the right way, things open up and you get more confident with the puck. I think I’ve developed the way I wanted to and I’m happy with it. You just keep going and get better every day.”
Tavares on the NHL’s new mental health initiatives to help players, unveiled on Wednesday: “Very important. Speaking for myself, you know the stress you go through on a daily basis. Being out in the public eye and all the demands they have on you, and certainly what the families go through, isn’t always an easy thing. A lot of guys aren’t always set in stone in their situation and are changing cities year to year, or frequently, and that can be difficult on families, on kids. The importance of everyone having those resources when they feel necessary, to be able to talk and get help when needed (is crucial).” … Defenceman Mark Giordano was absent on Wednesday as he had a recovery day, but is expected to play against the Islanders … Goalie Dennis Hildeby and forward Alex Steeves of the Toronto Marlies were named to the American Hockey League all-star classic in San Jose Feb. 4-5. It’s the first AHL all-star nod for both Leafs prospects … The Islanders, who beat the Leafs in New York in overtime on Dec. 11, have sputtered since Christmas, going 2-4-1 in seven games. They’ve lost their past two games, both by a score of 5-2 to Vegas and Vancouver.