Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports

Morgan Rielly’s Evolution into a #1 Defenceman

There’s been a lot of talk in the past year about the Maple Leafs needing to acquire a #1 defenceman. Living in the GTA, it’s been impossible to avoid this narrative, whether it’s rumours about Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Shea Weber, or a couple of upcoming free agents in 2019. We’ve all heard the infamous mantra in sports that “defence wins championships”, so naturally most pundits will argue that you need a true #1 defenceman to contend for a Stanley Cup.

With the Lightning in town the other night, everyone seems to be wondering when the Leafs are going to acquire their very own Victor Hedman. I’m of the opinion that they already have.

It’s no secret that Morgan Rielly’s having a career year, but I don’t think most people realize just how well he’s been playing this season. He obviously isn’t back to 100% since returning from his injury, so let’s evaluate him over the course of the full season. His point production’s clearly been excellent (he’s on pace for 52 Points), but what I find more impressive is how well he’s been driving play. Despite playing some of the toughest minutes in the league (98th percentile in Quality of Competition), Rielly’s team has significantly outshot the opposition when he’s on the ice.

To give you an idea of just how difficult that is, here’s a list of defencemen who face elite competition (90th percentile or higher), have a positive shot differential relative to their teammates, and are on pace for over 50 points this season:

  • Drew Doughty
  • Victor Hedman
  • Morgan Rielly

That’s it.

It takes a special breed of defenceman to thrive against the league’s best players, and Rielly’s been doing just that this year; he’s been playing like a #1 defenceman.

All data is 5v5, Score/Venue/Adjusted from Corsica.hockey

As you can see, only five NHL defencemen drive shot differential better than Rielly while facing similar competition (Giordano, Hamilton, Letang, Doughty, Spurgeon). Of those players, only Hamilton generates more Points per 60 minutes.

Another great measure I love using is Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score, which weights multiple stats (Points, Shot Differential, Penalties Drawn/Taken) and combines them into one catch-all metric. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great way of getting lots of information down to one number when evaluating players.

Here’s a look at the Top 30 defencemen in Game Score this season:

The players above Rielly on this list are either sheltered, play with an excellent defence partner, or get significantly more power play time than him. Considering Rielly’s difficult competition, less than ideal partner, and lack of PP TOI, it’s pretty remarkable that he’s been able to crack the Top 30 in Game Score this season. You’ll notice that some of the league’s best defencemen weren’t able to make the cut (Keith, Trouba, Ekman-Larsson), which goes to show how hard it is to put up Points & drive play when you’re relied upon as a #1 defenceman.

Since I love lists so much, here are the players that were able to crack the Top 30 while facing elite competition (90th percentile) with a less capable partner (Game Score/GP under 0.4):

  • Drew Doughty
  • Victor Hedman
  • Kris Letang
  • Morgan Rielly

The evidence is pretty clear – Morgan Rielly’s been performing like a #1 defenceman this season. Now, anyone who’s followed his career will know that this hasn’t been the case in previous seasons. So what is it specifically that he’s done to reach this elite level of play?

To answer that question, we need to go back and take a closer at his development over the past few seasons.

Transitional Offence

Before we dive into the areas where Rielly has improved the most in recent years, I think it’s important to bring up the part of his game that’s always been fantastic: his puck-moving ability. It should come as no surprise that Rielly is an elite skater, but it’s the way that he uses his speed to transition the puck up the ice that separates him from other defencemen.

Not only does Rielly have exceptional acceleration, he knows how to use it to create open space. This is part of the reason that he’s always been so good at getting out of his own zone with possession throughout his career, which is an important aspect of driving results in the modern game.

The way Rielly goes about exiting the zone is always fun to watch. A lot of times he’s able to simply outskate opposing forecheckers, but there are also instances where he outsmarts them.

When he catches opposing forwards off-guard like this, he’s able to fly out of the defensive zone with possession. When forecheckers stay disciplined and don’t allow Rielly to get behind them, he has the passing ability and vision to find his teammates up the ice.

These skills have allowed Rielly to consistently advance the puck up the ice with possession throughout his career. In fact, he’s excelled in this area since his rookie season in 2013-2014, when he had the highest Controlled Zone Exit % on his team (data courtesy of Corey Sznajder).

Now, the Leafs weren’t exactly great at breaking out of their zone with possession that season under Randy Carlyle’s “system”, but it’s important to note that Rielly stood out from the pack. Zone exit numbers are heavily influenced by team effects, so I find that it’s best to compare defencemen to their teammates rather than players across the league. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at the Leafs’ zone exit numbers under Carlyle in 2013-2014, keeping in mind that the league average defenceman exits the zone with possession roughly 37% of the time.

I have no words. When your system is to essentially flip the puck up to Phil Kessel and hope for the best, you’re probably not going to drive possession very well. That’s why I find it so important to compare defencemen’s Controlled Zone Exit % to their teammates and not the rest of the league; even an elite puck-mover can’t overcome a broken system. With analytics, there are so many contextual factors that we have to take into account, and when it comes to zone exits, team effects play a huge role.

For example, when Rielly played in a system more based on puck possession under Mike Babcock in 2015-2016, his zone exit numbers were among the best in the league.

Rielly’s talent didn’t drastically change from 2014 to 2015; his coach did. After playing in a system that placed much more emphasis on puck possession, his zone exit numbers improved considerably. Another interesting takeaway from the graph is that it reveals Rielly is also elite at retrieving loose pucks in the defensive zone. When you combine those skills, you have a defenceman who can make plays like this:

He’s continued to thrive in this area in 2017-2018. Despite his team playing a dump in chase style for most of the season, Rielly’s been able to buck the trend and lead his team in controlled zone exits.

As you can see, the Leafs haven’t been getting out of their zone very efficiently this season. Their defencemen exit with control 30.8% of the time (well below the league average of 37%), which is a big reason they’ve struggled to drive possession this year. It’s not Randy Carlyle bad (19.1%), but it’s certainly not ideal.

Like we talked about earlier, though, we need to compare defencemen’s zone exits to their teammates, not the league average. In a similar vein to his Randy Carlyle days, Rielly’s zone exit numbers don’t stack up well against the rest of the league this season, but relative to his teammates, he certainly stands out from the pack.

“We get it Ian, Rielly’s good at moving the puck” – so let’s move onto an area where he used to struggle.

Transitional Defence

Rielly’s always been a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck, but he used to be quite the opposite without it. Earlier in his career, the Leafs generated tons of shots when he was on the ice, but they gave up a ton of chances as well. I think one of the biggest reasons Rielly allowed so many shots against was because of his poor transitional defence.

Before we get into the numbers, let me explain what I mean when I say transitional defence. When an opposing forward is skating up the ice with the puck, it’s important for defencemen to take away as much space as they can without getting beat – coaches like to call this “gap control.” The best defenders are able to “close the gap” before forwards get into the offensive zone, forcing them to dump the puck in or lose possession.

Taking away space in the neutral zone is crucial to driving results. The research shows that teams generate twice as much offence following a controlled zone entry compared to a dump-in. This is why us nerds love looking at how well defencemen prevent controlled zone entries. Not only is it an effective way of quantifying their gap control, it’s been proven to reduce shots and goals against.

So how well did Morgan Rielly control his gaps during his rookie season?

Ouch. Anytime you’re worse at something than Maple Leafs legend Tim Gleason, you know you’ve got some work to do (fun fact: Toronto’s still paying Gleason $1.33 million this season). Although Rielly was great at getting out of his zone with possession, he was the Leafs’ worst defenceman at preventing controlled entries, which is particularly problematic when you consider that he was getting extremely sheltered usage that season.

When Mike Babcock arrived in Toronto in 2015, he was determined to fix this area of Rielly’s game. In previous years, Rielly had been getting sheltered usage at 5v5 and plenty of power play time. Babcock completely reversed this trend by force-feeding Rielly tough matchups at 5v5, giving him tons of PK minutes, and limiting his power play opportunities.

Rielly’s first year in this new “shutdown” role didn’t go too well. His pairing got consistently outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a large margin in 2015-2016. It turns out that playing on your wrong side with Matt Hunwick against the toughest competition in the NHL isn’t the greatest recipe for success.

Many of us were willing to write off Rielly’s chances of becoming a true #1 defenceman following that season, myself included. Although he certainly wasn’t put in a position to succeed, I thought his poor shot differentials indicated that he couldn’t handle first pairing duties, especially considering most of the shots the pairing allowed were actually coming from Rielly’s side of the ice. This led to a lot of Leafs fans thinking that he might be better suited for a second pairing role. Personally, I set my sights on him becoming an effective #3 defenceman moving forward.

Then the 2016-2017 season happened:

Although this wasn’t necessarily a great season, it was certainly a step in the right direction. Despite facing top competition (96th percentile), Rielly was able to break even in the shot differential department, which is no easy feat for a player with his usage. When you take a closer look, it becomes pretty clear that he was the one driving the bus last season:

In 2016-2017, Rielly got out of his zone with possession effectively, while drastically improving his gap control (Carry-in Against %). Meanwhile his partner, Nikita Zaitsev, exited the defensive zone less efficiently than Kris Russell and allowed more clean zone entries than Andrew MacDonald. To say that Rielly carried his pairing would be an understatement in my opinion.

What jumped out to me the most about Rielly’s play last season was how aggressive he was in the neutral zone. Earlier in his career, he had a bad habit of conceding clean zone entries by backing up onto his goalie, but last year he started cutting off players at the blueline much more often.

By being more assertive with his defensive play, Rielly was able to drastically improve his gap control, resulting in him allowing the fewest Shots Against per 60 of his career.

RelT CA/60 refers to the number of Shot Attempts Against per 60 you allow relative to your teammates (you want this number to be low, ideally negative)

In the 2017-2018 season, Rielly’s taken his aggressive approach to another level, using his skating ability to take away space in all three zones. He’s pinching more often to keep pucks in the offensive zone, he’s playing a tighter gap in transition, and he’s always looking to jump passing lanes so he can take off with the puck following a turnover.

The great thing about a defenceman like Rielly playing so aggressively is that even when he gets beat the odd time, he has the skating ability to recover and not get burned.

He’s finally using his speed to his advantage, and it’s done wonders for his gap control. Despite facing some of the league’s best forwards this season, Rielly has been able to deny controlled zone entries at an above average level:

Anytime you can say that you’re forcing more dump-ins than Victor Hedman and Zdeno Chara, you know you’re doing something right.

What I find interesting about Rielly’s evolution into a #1 defenceman is that he never had a great defence partner to help ease him into his tough usage. Unlike other Norris candidates, Rielly didn’t get to play with an Anton Stralman, a Jake Muzzin…or even a Jake Gardiner (since Babcock arrived in 2015, Rielly’s played less than 5% of his 5v5 minutes with Gardiner). I mean just look at what he’s had to deal with:

This isn’t to take anything away from Ron Hainsey, who’s been a stabilizing presence and excellent penalty killer for Toronto this season. If we’re being realistic though, he’d be better suited on a second pairing, probably as a #4 in a perfect world. Zaitsev’s honestly been playing more like a #5 at even strength throughout his NHL career, Hunwick’s a #6, and Polak’s ideally not on your roster if you’re a contender.

Despite having so little to work with over the past few years, Rielly’s developed into a defenceman that can come out on top against the best players in the world. As much as Leafs fans love Hainsey for outperforming their expectations this season, it’s pretty clear that Rielly’s the one responsible for the pairing’s success:

These are percentile ranks (ie. Rielly is in the 93rd percentile of Controlled Zone Exits per 60, while Hainsey is in the 8th percentile)

While strapped to a 36-year-old partner who can’t get out of his own end, Rielly’s been able to drive play up the ice and generate offence. I keep coming back to this, but the fact that he’s been able to outshoot some of the toughest competition in the NHL (98th percentile) is what separates him from other defencemen.

Throw in some power play usage, and he looks like he’s going to be a 50-point threat for years to come. I haven’t even had a chance to mention his elite penalty differential this season, or break down some of the magical plays he can make in the offensive zone.

There’s just so much fun stuff to unpack when you analyze Rielly, but it’s worth noting that he does have his warts. Just like every NHL defenceman, there are some areas of weakness in his game. As great as he is with the puck, and as much as he’s improved his transitional defence, Rielly still struggles in the defensive zone without the puck.

Having a defensively responsible partner like Hainsey this year (or Chris Tanev at the world championships) allows Rielly to do what he does best – retrieve loose pucks and drive play up the ice with possession. Unfortunately, he isn’t as good at taking away passing lanes to dangerous areas, which is part of the reason his team allows more high danger chances with him than without him.

Now like I said, no defenceman is perfect. Brent Burns is a disaster in the defensive zone; Shea Weber can’t skate; PK Subban’s a crazy person. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if the pros outweigh the cons with these players, and the answer is unequivocally yes!

Rielly’s scoring chance differentials aren’t as good as his shot differentials because of his aforementioned defensive zone play, which you can certainly bring up as a point of criticism in his game. If you’re going to use that as a reason to claim he’s not a #1 defenceman, though, you better be prepared to make that same argument for PK Subban, Victor Hedman, and Drew Doughty.

Those first three guys are widely considered the best defencemen in the NHL, yet their scoring chance differentials (xGF%) are also significantly worse than their shot differentials (CF%). It appears that no defenceman is perfect, even a perennial Norris candidate.

So what is Morgan Rielly? Well, he’s a defenceman who:

  • Leads his team in Controlled Zone Exits
  • Is above league average at preventing Controlled Zone Entries
  • Outshoots the opposition when he’s on the ice
  • Is on pace for over 50 Points
  • Does all this while facing extremely difficult competition

There’s only one other defenceman in the NHL who meets these criteria. His name is Drew Doughty.

If Rielly can keep playing at the level he has this season, I don’t think the Leafs don’t need to go looking for a #1 defenceman – they’ve found him.

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  • Ty

    Who would be a good role model for Rielly to get better at the part of the game he is weak at? Is there some intel you could find that would be good example? The other thing I see is he gets really mad at himself for mistakes. I say he shouldn’t let it get to him, kinda like Hainsey or use it to energize himself instead of getting down. Everyone makes mistakes. He also improved on walking the line this year and getting shots in. That’s a Brent Burns special. Did he ever work on the foot pivot for the one timer if he’s on an odd man rush? I don’t even think I saw him on an odd man rush this year lol.

    • It’s tricky trying to quantify it (unfortunately we don’t have access to data on players who do a good job of preventing cross-ice passes into the slot), but some players who come to mind are Weber, Chara, Tanev, Vlasic, Hjalmarsson in his prime, even Hainsey’s really good at (he struggles with other areas of his game, but without the puck in the D-zone he’s great).

      When it comes to Rielly’s one-timer, I know he’s talked about essentially abandoning his slapshot this year. He finds that the quicker release of his wrist shot allows the puck to get through traffic and result in a deflection or rebound more often (which is typically the goal of a point shot – you’re rarely going to beat an NHL goalie from the blueline).