As we’re about to head into the season, it’s time to take a look at the Leafs’ resident “great offensively, terrible defensively” defenseman.
No, it’s not Jake Gardiner. In fact, we’re talking about Morgan Rielly, who, despite the reputation, is mediocre at best when it comes to defending in his own zone. He’s excellent with the puck, but away from the puck, not so much.
I mean, that’s basically Morgan Rielly’s career in a nutshell. Now entering his sixth season, Rielly really hasn’t changed much in the grand scheme of things: he is fantastic at creating offense, and can drive play well enough that his underlying numbers look not bad. But, the second he’s in his own zone, he’s lost.
Offensively, he excels at generating shots and in turn goals, and he’s also good at starting the play, as seen by his 1.05 5v5 A/60 since 2015-16. Obviously he’s not getting as many primary assists, but that first pass is also very important.
Defensively, his percentages and differentials don’t look too bad because his offensive ability makes up for his defensive ability, but that also means that however good he is offensively, he is equally not good defensively. Now, since Babcock has been around, Rielly has been usually given the tough minutes, and he hasn’t exactly had amazing partners in Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin, Nikita Zaitsev, and Ron Hainsey, so to say that these numbers are all his fault would be a bit harsh. But, he still looks lost in his own zone when he’s in it, and the numbers back it up.
If we break it down even further into the microstats, it continues to prove the point. Offensively, Rielly generates offense for him and his teammates when he’s on the ice. While he struggles at retrieving the puck in his own zone, once he does, or once someone else does and it gets on his stick, Rielly really excels at getting the puck up the ice, whether he’s passing it to one of his forwards, or he’s carrying it up the ice himself with his fantastic skating ability.
Breaking down his passing a little bit more, and (in this limited sample size) it shows that he can be pretty good at it. While he doesn’t always get an opportunity to make these kind of passes (Babcock’s chip and chase style that was used a lot last year probably put a damper on that), but when he does, he’s pretty effective at them. Most importantly, he’s got a lot of shot assists, and is also pretty good at creating scoring chances with them.
At this point in his career, we’ve already established what kind of defenseman Morgan Rielly is. While he could be given more reasonable minutes, he doesn’t do terrible in tough minutes, and that’s better than getting destroyed in those minutes, and that allows the rest of the lineup to excel (although it would be great if his partner wasn’t Ron Hainsey this year).
What should we expect from Rielly this year? He set a career high in points last year, mostly because he finally got a spot on the power play and got a lot of power play points this year, so if the power play this year is apparently going to be insane this year, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say he stays in the ballpark of 50 points, and *maybe* even gets more. His even strength point production probably stays the same, but his power play production might get higher.
As for his spot on the top pair, I’d hope that if it falters, Babcock tries playing him with Gardiner or Dermott potentially, or perhaps the Leafs manage to strike a good deal for a better partner for him. He’s definitely not terrible in those minutes, but it’d be great if he wasn’t anchored to Hainsey’s corpse this season.