03/22/2016 14:24 EDT | Updated 03/23/2017 01:12 EDT

Leafs blue-liner Rielly adjusting to jump in ice time on youthful defence

TORONTO — Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly is logging the most ice time of his NHL career these days.

Rielly, who set a career-high with over 31 minutes in a win over Detroit last week, is averaging more than 26 minutes per game in March. It's a heavy load for the 22-year-old, but he's well aware it's the norm for players like Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, L.A.'s Drew Doughty and other top blue-liners around the league. 

"When you're tired the next day you look at them and that's what they do every night," Rielly said in a recent interview. 

The Leafs have needed Rielly to assume a bigger load after veteran defencemen Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak were traded last month and Matt Hunwick was lost to season-ending sports hernia surgery. Toronto's defence is young and inexperienced with 25-year-old Jake Gardiner the only blue-liner who has cleared the 300-game plateau.

Rielly, the fifth overall pick in 2012, has the second-most experience on the team with 226 career games played. He was playing big minutes before the uptick in March — about 22 minutes per game — but not nearly this much on a regular basis.

"I think it's just less rest," he said of the increase. "You're a bit more tired."

"At the same time you want to be out there that much, you want to get an opportunity to play big minutes," Rielly added. "It's fun."

Rielly hovered around 28 minutes in three straight games last week and ranks 11th among league defencemen in average ice time this month. Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock knows it's a significant difference but thinks Rielly is up for the challenge.

"I think when you're an easy, easy skater, I don't know if it's a big deal," Babcock said. "The other thing about it is I've never heard one (defenceman) in all my years coaching come to me and say, 'Could I play less?' Never, ever heard that.

"But some guys when (they) go from 12 minutes to 20 minutes they end up (getting scored on) all the time. And other guys just seem to get better so you just watch and go from there."

Rielly has maintained positive puck possession numbers despite the increase in minutes. Playing alongside 24-year-old Martin Marincin, they are often tasked with facing top lines.

Rielly played 28 minutes in a game last week against Florida and matched a career-high with his eighth goal of the season. He played 25 minutes in a game against Buffalo over the weekend and set a new career-high with his 31st point of the campaign.

About 13 defencemen are averaging 25 minutes or more per game this season, led by Karlsson, who pushes past 29 minutes nightly for the Senators. Maintaining effectiveness under such strain is the challenge, a task Ottawa's captain certainly succeeds at and one that Rielly is adjusting to.

"I'm not really used to it at this level, but (I'm) getting there," Rielly said. "The first couple times it might be a little much. I might be a little tired by the end of it, but you get to a certain point where this is kind of your comfort zone now. You're playing these kind of minutes and you're used to it and it's good."

Getting through 31 minutes against the Red Wings was a grind, Rielly said, adding it was more challenging on the body the following day. He has led the Leafs in ice time in 13 of the past 16 games, including Monday night in a win over Calgary.

"It's not easy," he said. "But if you're able to do it and you're good at it and the coach wants you out there that much, I think that it's a big asset."

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press