With a full day to digest the news that the NHL Department of Player Safety had left open the possibility of suspending Morgan Rielly six games or more for his cross-check of Ottawa’s Ridly Greig, the Toronto Maple Leafs were unable to hide their dismay at that decision.
“We spent a lot of time watching pretty much every cross-check that’s happened in the last number of years and the ones that I thought were similar in nature to Morgan’s were nothing close to requiring that,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said Monday. “At the same time, I think there’s a history also of events that happen in Toronto and with the Leafs that get more attention and more hype that tend to lead to something such as this.
“To that end, not surprised.”
Given the lengths the organization typically takes to stay above the fray and to avoid bulletin board-type comments, it was a sign of bubbling frustration behind the scenes.
Rielly’s hearing at the NHL’s New York office will take place at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday. It’s a shame it won’t be recorded for all to see.
The Leafs never imagined their top defenseman might be sidelined for as long as two weeks when the bus pulled away from Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday night.
After seeing Greig fire a slap shot into an empty net to cap Ottawa’s 5-3 win, Rielly immediately sought retribution for a perceived slight against his team. He delivered a cross-check to Greig’s head with enough force to knock him off his feet and was ejected with seconds left on the clock.
“I think it definitely deserved a reaction,” said Leafs forward Auston Matthews. “Obviously Morgan’s not a malicious player or somebody that’s dirty, by any means. I think him approaching (Greig) was something that was just bound to happen, somebody was going to do it, especially after a play like that.
“I don’t think it’s really necessary to go down there and have a hardest shot competition into the net.”
Rielly has no history of supplemental discipline, and Greig suffered no apparent injury on the play. He was a full participant at Senators practice on Monday.
Had the NHL Department of Player Safety opted to conduct Rielly’s disciplinary hearing over the phone, they couldn’t have handed down a suspension longer than five games. That they instead extended him the option of an in-person hearing was a clear sign that George Parros’ group is leaning toward something longer.
“I thought it was going to be a fine, to be honest,” said veteran Leafs forward Ryan Reaves. “A fine, maybe a one (game suspension). But I come from a different era of hockey where I don’t even think that would have been a fine, to be honest with you.
“The other kid might have got a call and said ‘Smarten up.”’
As Rielly gets set for his hearing in New York, here’s a look at the factors that will determine how long he’ll be out of the Leafs lineup.
How does the process work?
It’s notable Rielly elected to take the NHL up on its offer of an in-person meeting. He’ll travel to New York with his agent (J.P. Barry of CAA Hockey), members of Leafs management and representatives from the NHL Players’ Association to state his case.
Since the COVID pandemic, players have had the option to conduct “in-person” hearings remotely via Zoom and many of them have opted to take it, including Detroit Red Wings forward David Perron when he was suspended six games for cross-checking in December.
Rielly will apply a more personal touch.
It’s believed the biggest thing working against him is the fact his cross-check was delivered after the play, and after a goal, rather than in the course of normal game action. It’s expected he’ll try to explain to Parros what he was thinking as he pursued Grieg and how the play got away from him.
“Morgan just made it clear that he had no intention of the way that it looked or the way that it played out, but he’s going (to New York) to just make a point that he’s not just going to let it go away,” said Keefe.
The NHL Department of Player Safety has handed out a range of different punishments for cross-checking infractions in recent years — ranging from a one-game suspension to Edmonton’s Alex Chiasson in 2021 to a four-game suspension to Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin in 2022 to the six-game ban handed to Perron.
While the in-person hearing allows player safety to give Rielly six games or more, it has the discretion to come in below that threshold.
Every game he might reduce the ban is valuable, both for the Leafs as they continue battling for playoff positioning and for Rielly who stands to lose more than $39,000 in salary per game he’s ultimately suspended.
The comparisons to the Perron incident are unavoidable. He appealed his six-game suspension to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, only to have it upheld, and will take the case to a neutral arbitrator this summer.
In his ruling, Bettman noted that Perron had other options when he elected to defend an injured teammate rather than cross-checking Senators defenseman Artem Zub in the side of the head.
“He could have pushed or jabbed him or even dropped his gloves to fight, but he did not. Had he chosen other options to support his teammate he might still have been penalized, but the episode may have ended without supplementary discipline,” Bettman wrote.
The same, undoubtedly, applies to the decision made by Rielly.
What about Rielly’s history?
Rielly doesn’t run afoul of the rules very often.
He’s coming up on 800 regular season games in the NHL and has taken a grand total of 100 minor penalties. For context, Hampus Lindholm, taken one pick after Rielly in the 2012 draft, has taken 205 minors while playing in 45 fewer games.
Forty defensemen have played in at least 700 games from the start of Rielly’s career in the 2013-14 season to the present. Only five — Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jared Spurgeon, Cody Ceci, Nick Leddy, and Cam Fowler — have taken fewer minors.
Rielly finished fourth in voting for the Lady Byng Trophy in 2019 following a season that saw him get whistled for only seven minor penalties while playing over 23 minutes a night. Rielly was on the road to another Lady Byng-like season this year, with only four minor penalties through the first 50 games. He didn’t take the first one until game No. 41.
“I don’t think Mo has ever done anything dangerous before,” said teammate William Nylander. “What does he have, like, three penalties this year or something?”
Rielly has been called for only three five-minute majors in his entire career and that includes the one he got for cross-checking Greig on Saturday.
Last season, when the Leafs were playing the Jets in October, Rielly got five minutes for fighting and a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct when he confronted Winnipeg defenseman Josh Morrissey.
Morrissey had just run over Rielly’s young teammate, Nick Robertson.
As with Greig over the weekend, Rielly was standing up for his team.
What are the options if Rielly doesn’t want to accept his punishment?
There’s a high probability this suspension will result in an appeal.
Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, players have 48 hours after a decision is handed down to officially file one in writing. They remain suspended if the term of the suspension is still ongoing, and Bettman is required to hear appeals on an expedited basis.
In the event the commissioner confirms a suspension at six games or longer, Section 18.13 of the CBA allows the player to take his case to a neutral arbitrator. He must file that appeal within seven days of Bettman’s ruling.
As Rielly awaits his fate, he’ll be hoping there’s no reason for his case to get that far.
(Top photo: Richard A. Whittaker / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)