Day 2 of our TLN Year in Review series brings us to Morgan Rielly: a favourite amongst teammates, and the Leafs’ potential number one defenceman.
In his 4th NHL season, Rielly tallied 6 goals and 21 points through 76 regular season games. Rielly was 3rd amongst defenceman in terms of points this season, sitting behind Nikita Zaitsev with 36 and Jake Gardiner with 43.
Despite his below-average points record in the regular season, Rielly dominated in the playoffs. He tied for the team lead in playoff points (1G, 4A, 5P), averaging almost a point per game through the Washington series. He played some tough minutes against the Capitals’ big guns and was easily the Leafs’ best defenceman through 6 postseason games.
It was quite a rocky year for Rielly, who was sidelined late in the season with an ankle injury. He was not always consistent in his play, but he made several crucial improvements this year in terms of reliability throughout the season. Though there were certainly some upsides to his play this year, there are a few continuing weaknesses that still need to be examined.
Morgan Rielly was Mike Babcock’s go-to defenceman this season. Babcock seemed to throw his trust behind Rielly, and Morgan was rewarded in TOI and tough matchups. Rielly was 3rd on the Leafs in ice-time this year with 1670 minutes through 76 regular season games, and topped the Leafs in average TOI per GP, clocking in at an average 21.97 minutes per game.
His offensive capabilities remain a huge upside in his game, but his shooting percentage saw a bit of a drop this year (3.5%) in comparison to past years (5.4% in 2014-15 and 2015-16). According to Corsica, his 5v5 CF% sits at 50.43%, which is good enough for 9th amongst all Leafs and 3rd amongst defenceman. In comparison to the rest of the team, Rielly generally sits around the middle of the pack in percentage-based metrics, given the balance between his better offensive numbers and his lower defensive numbers.
His efforts in the playoffs this year were fantastic. Personally, I thought Rielly was the Leafs best defenceman through 6 games against the Capitals. Here is his only playoff goal, scored in game 2:
I know some of you may roll your eyes at this next sentence, so please, bear with me. Rielly is a great character guy and is a good guy to have in the locker room. He is basically the dad of the team, and given the fact that he is 23, this is quite an accomplishment. He seems to be Leafs’ go-to media rep and has demonstrated that he is capable of being a leader for this young team.
Rielly struggled this year in terms of defensive capabilities. As I mentioned above, Rielly’s defensive numbers are not particularly impressive. In terms of advanced stats, Gardiner and Zaitzev seem to have the edge over Rielly with regards to defensive play.
His offensive production this year was underwhelming as well. Though this seems to be a major upside in Rielly’s game, he was scoring at a slower rate than in season’s past. In terms of scoring, the 2016-17 season was Rielly’s second worst career season. Before we jump to conclusions, there may be a logical explanation for Rielly’s lack of scoring this season.
TLN’s Draglikepull looked at the quality of competition relative to Rielly and Gardiner’s defensive matchups. He found that Rielly is typically matched up against tougher competition. The gap between the 2 defencemen is accentuated in the context of defensive play, especially given that Gardiner tops Rielly on almost every advanced stat on the board. But, as DLP explains:
“It’s also clearly true that Rielly plays a large number of minutes against especially difficult competition that Gardiner is not subjected to. And I find it very difficult to believe that that gap, which could be something like 20-25% of Rielly’s minutes, doesn’t have any meaningful impact on the shot results for those two players.”
Morgan Rielly is a solid number two defenceman for the Leafs moving forward.
This season, Rielly has shown us that he is capable of playing number one minutes, but his skill doesn’t seem to catch up. As acquisition talks heat up, the possibility of trading JvR and picks for Rielly’s new defence partner remains to be a solid option for the team. Rielly will be a top-two defenceman for the Leafs next season, barring the acquisition of a top defenceman OR a dramatic improvement in Gardiner’s play.
He will peak sooner rather than later. At this point in his career, he is still considered a “young defenceman”, but this is becoming less and less true by the minute. He will be playing in his 5th NHL season in 2017-18. Yes, there is still room for him to improve, develop and grow. Given his experience and his play this year, I don’t see any drastic improvements in Rielly’s future.
I’m certainly not arguing that Rielly is a 2nd or 3rd pairing defenceman. He is a top-2 d-man on the Leafs, especially given their current calibre of defensive talent. Expectations will be high for Rielly next year, as the Leafs will look to follow up a surprising first round playoff matchup this season. In 2017-18, Rielly will need meet, if not exceed, expectations to secure his spot as one of the Leafs’ top defenceman moving forward.