Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Morgan Rielly is performing like a number one defenceman despite suboptimal circumstances

No matter how you look at it, Morgan Rielly is having the breakout season everybody has been waiting for.

Take a quick glance at the boxcar statistics and you immediately notice his point production has taken a huge leap, scoring at a 56 point pace, or a 20 point improvement on his previous career high in 2015-16. He already has four more points than he had all of last season (76 GP) in only 45 games so far this year. A lot of that has to do with getting a lot more powerplay time this year as he’s already played over 100 minutes with the man advantage this year, whereas last year he only played 72 minutes total. Twelve of his 31 points this year have come with the man advantage while he only had five powerplay points last season, so he’s also produced at a better rate on the powerplay this year, as well as at 5v5.

visual of Rielly’s jump in primary points rate via hockeyviz.com

Rielly is even ranked 16th in Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score per hour at 5v5 among defenders who’ve played over 500 minutes. The massive jump in point production is great, even though a decent portion of it could be attributed to increased opportunity, but it’s when you start looking deeper that his improvement in all assets of his game really stand out. Rielly is second on the Leafs in shot attempt differential when adjusted for score at +4.16% and he’s doing it while facing top competition every night. As you can see in the visual below, Rielly plays against the opposition’s top lines a ton and rarely ever sees time against the opposing bottom six.

visual via hockeyviz.com

Maybe the most impressive part about Rielly’s breakout season is that he’s done all this against top competition while having Ron Hainsey as his partner. This sounds like a knock against Hainsey, and I guess it is in a way, but I think Hainsey is a fine NHL defenceman. I just think he’d be better suited for a bottom pairing or maybe second pairing role at best. The Leafs just don’t have the optimal guy to take that role right now, unless they wanted to get a little crazy and put Rielly and Jake Gardiner together, but you’d have to play them a ton because the other two pairings could potentially struggle. The data in the chart below is a limited sample, so take it with a grain of salt, but it seems to confirm my thought that Hainsey really isn’t helping Rielly out much.

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Rielly has been taking care of virtually all of the exits, entries and shot contributions. The rare time Hainsey is forced to try to exit or enter the zone himself he hasn’t done so very efficiently and he’s contributed virtually nothing in the offensive zone. He does break up a lot of plays at the defensive blue line, but he still doesn’t rank very well in possession entries allowed percentage. Rielly isn’t forced to break up a lot of plays at his blue line, but when he has had to he’s broken plays up at a decent clip, something he’s struggled with mightily in the past. This tells me that the opposition is heavily targeting Hainsey’s side of the ice when attempting to enter the zone, which looks like the right plan based on the results.

As stated earlier, this data is limited in size so it could be a little skewed, but Rielly’s improved entry defence is really encouraging to me. In the four seasons prior to this one, the Leafs gave up an average of two more shots against per hour with Rielly on the ice than they did with him off of it and my theory was always that it was due to him being so passive at his own blue line. This season he’s been breaking up up plays at a significantly higher rate and it shows in the shot rates. He’s always been around break even in terms of shot differentials because as much as he creates he gave up just as much. That seems to have changed this year and the Leafs are giving up nearly three less shots against per hour with Rielly on the ice than with him off it. That really adds up over the long haul and it will be interesting to see if that holds up over the remainder of the season.

It’s easy to forget that Rielly is just stepping into his prime because it’s already his fifth season and it feels like he should be 28, but his improvements this year have been significant and he finally looks to be the number one defenceman everybody had been hoping he could be.

Now imagine what he could do if he had a partner capable of keeping up with him.

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