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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Morgan Rielly had a career year and might even get better

Coming into this season, every Toronto Maple Leafs fan expected number-one defenceman Morgan Rielly to be his usual offensively-capable skater, but he took it to a whole new level for his 2018-19 season.

A mostly-unknown prospect when the Leafs took him at fifth overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Rielly has developed into a powerhouse offensive defenceman that fits perfectly into what style the club wants to play.

Joining the rush with the ability to make tape-to-tape passes or put the puck into the back of the net himself, the 25-year-old blue liner will make opposing defences sweat when he’s on the ice.

If he’s able to fix his other side of the game, there’s no doubt that he will be in the conversation for top defencemen in the entire NHL.

Season Recap

Scoring a career-high 20 goals and 72 points, Rielly really showed every Leafs fan and the hockey world in general where he lies in the echelon of defencemen in the NHL.

In his sixth NHL season, he’s considered a veteran player now, as weird as that sounds. His prescence on the ice could not go unnoticed this season, hitting that goal mark and contributing so much offensively is what you want to see from the Vancouver native.

Playing all 82 games in the regular season and all seven in the playoffs, Rielly has blessed the Leafs with no major history of injuries or health problems. He will be there everyday and be extremely hard to replace.

Unfortunately, he had to play 71% of his time-on-ice with Ron Hainsey. Not saying that Hainsey is horrible, but it could have been better, especially when most of Rielly’s numbers away from Hainsey are better than with him. His shot attempt percentage improves by almost five percent, his expected goals against rate decreases significantly — if Hainsey is returning, then maybe we’ll just continue to never see Rielly fully blossom into the unruly defenceman we hope for.

Stats and Charts

5v5 P/60 P1/60 CF% CF/60 CA/60 GF% xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60
RATES 1.64 1.08 51.40 68.69 64.94 59.28 50.36 2.84 2.80
RELATIVE -0.54 6.51 7.41 8.09 -0.56 0.46 0.5

You can’t ask for much better from your top defenceman. The percentages for actual goals scored approaching 60% and having a positive impact on the game overall. But when it comes to defending, Rielly isn’t the key player you look towards.

His offensive numbers are absolutely astronomical — his xGF/60 of 2.84 is seventh among all NHL defenceman (min. 250 TOI) and his 68.69 CF/60 ranks fifth in the same category.

But defensively, Rielly has struggled this season. His xGA/60 of 2.80 is seventh-worst among that same category of defenceman, meaning that he is an extremely high-risk, high-reward defenceman. Those numbers can improve if some linemates or tactics change, but all of that taken out of the equation, Rielly is still lacking.

via evolving-hockey.com

Probably the most stark representation of Rielly as a player, his RAPM chart beautifully describes the fact that Rielly is among the NHL elite offensively, but among the goons of the NHL when it comes to defence.

On the power play, of course Rielly is elite and a top-3 quarterback on the man advantage in the league, but since the Leafs don’t get a lot of penalties going their way, it’s unfortunate.

But one way that Rielly has greatly contributed to the Leafs this season is his goalscoring. As described earlier this year, he has a unique ability of actually scoring well-thought-out goals for a player in his position.

Unlike most defencemen we see now, Rielly doesn’t have a giant slapshot from the point, but a sneaky way of getting behind opposing forwards and using his wristshot to put the puck behind the goalie. Rather than just mindlessly shooting from 30 feet out, *cough* Brent Burns *cough*, Rielly has the skill to increase the likelihood of the puck actually going in with his skating and shooting skill.

Preseason Predictions

Here’s what Scott Maxwell had to say about Rielly before the season started:

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.

Well we’re clearly experts here. Rielly did see an increase in power play opportunities and therefore increased his production. He broke that 50-point prediction handedly as well.

He did sacrifice a little bit of defence for more offence this season, but since he played so much against top forwards, that might have been expected. The high-risk, high-reward player worked for the regular season at least.

Highlights

If only his goal meant a little more and we got to see that one-timer against Columbus, but alas.

Grade

It’s difficult to grade a player that is so heavily depended on like Rielly. His production and results clearly point towards him doing an excellent job, but being in the bottom-tier of defenders when they don’t have the puck, doesn’t sit well.

He surpassed the high expectations he had before the season started and broke records, so bumping him down for giving up some high-quality chances when he’s next to Ron Hainsey seems a little cruel.

For that, he will get a solid A.

Final Thoughts

With the likely exit of long-time friend and past roommate Jake Gardiner, Rielly may need some added depth behind him. If Hainsey departs as well, then maybe we’ll see some improvement on his defensive numbers, but sacrificing some offence. If that leads to more wins, who the hell cares.

Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Nikita Zaitsev and Calle Rosen are the defencemen that will be on the Leafs for the majority of next season, barring any trades. It’s decent, but not championship-calibre. Dubas will have his work cut out for him with upcoming contract negotiations, but if he’s also able to swing a trade for any top-four defenceman, it would go a long way to putting Rielly up among the top defencemen overall.

It will be an interesting offseason followed by an extremely interesting 2019-20 season, so we shall see what Rielly can do with any new teammates.

There is no doubt in my mind that if Rielly continues with this success and improves his defence, in a decade from now they will be talking about him as the best defenceman the Leafs have ever had.



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