Auston Matthews might be the best player to suit up for the Leafs in my entire lifetime, so while his start to this season has been incredible, it’s just what we’ll come to expect. If we look beyond Matthews, in my eyes, two other standouts on the team so far in their opening run are Nazem Kadri and, a little more surprisingly, Morgan Rielly.
Looking at Rielly specifically, we knew his situation was about to change going into this year. Over the last two seasons, he’d put in most of his time with Matt Hunwick and Nikita Zaitsev, usually drawing the toughest minutes and carving his teeth against the other team’s best players. With the arrival of Ron Hainsey this summer, it was quickly reported Babcock had decided Zaitsev would be moved alongside Gardiner, and the 37-year-old would now be sort of a “settle down” presence with Rielly. The thinking was that with a more balanced top-four, the tougher minutes could be split better and everyone would benefit. In the case of Rielly and and his new partner, so far that’s meant a major uptick in performance.
Rielly is off to a rocket start points-wise through these opening games. I mean, most of the team is in some way or another, but at a point-per-game through 7 games, it’s been an incredible jump out of the gate for a player who had somewhat of a down year last season with 27 points total. And it isn’t just the boxcar numbers, Rielly has looked like an absolute demon so far. By the eye test he looks to be making better reads in the defensive zone, picking off passes, and really exploding up the ice for a few outbursts seemingly every game.
Is it Hainsey’s presence that’s driving it? Maybe. At a glance, the veteran has looked very good positionally, and while I was skeptical of his skating ability in the preseason, I’ve sort of realized it’s more so a style thing. He can actually move well for a guy with so many clicks on the odometer.
But Hainsey doesn’t appear to be sitting at home by any means. He himself has seemed to ignite a bit of an offensive spark he’s been missing the last few seasons, and that’s got to be exciting for someone late in their career on a team like this. So far he’s notched 4 points, all at even strength, through these seven games, and I’d bet on him easily eclipsing the 17 he had in 2016-17 with the Canes and Pens, barring injury.
And it’s the pace that these guys are playing that’s really blown the doors off in the early going. Hainsey and Rielly are really clipping along in terms of driving possession at evens, both at 57% score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5, and have been on the ice for the most total attempts for, at 113 and 112 respectively (from Corsica). There’s a lot going on out there when those two are on the ice.
|Time On Ice (5v5)||Raw Corsi For (5v5)||Adjusted Corsi (5v5)|
None of this is to take away from the other units, as we can see above. When you’re 6-1-0 and scoring nearly six goals a game, everyone’s doing pretty well. Borgman and Carrick have been driving play nicely as the third unit, and Gardiner/Zaitsev have stayed above water in their heavy minutes load.
Everyone’s doing their part, but Rielly and Hainsey have really jumped off the page for me in these first couple weeks, and hopefully that manifests in a career year for the former and bit of an offensive renaissance for the latter.