Morgan Rielly entered the 2019-20 season at an all-time high. Fresh off a career high 20-goal, 72-point season that saw Rielly finish fifth in Norris Trophy voting, I for one was very excited to see what kind of encore performance Rielly would give us this year. Unfortunately, Rielly failed to improve upon or even replicate his performance from last season. Injuries to himself and others on the team, ice-time allocation, a coaching change and more all contributed to Rielly have a down year. Fortunately for Rielly, this extended lay-off has presumably provided Rielly (and others) with ample time to get healthy in time for the NHL’s return to play plan.
By the Numbers
One of the biggest reasons for Rielly’s production nosediving this season is the powerplay. Rielly recorded a pedestrian seven powerplay points this year, compared to 21 the year before. The decrease in powerplay production can be chalked up to Keefe flipping Rielly and Barrie on the powerplay. With the powerplay struggling late into Mike Babcock’s final games as head coach and continuing once Sheldon Keefe took over, something had to be changed and Rielly got the short end of the stick. On top of this, the fractured foot Rielly suffered in January killed any hope there might have been for him to rejoin the top unit.
Aside from the powerplay, Rielly also saw his shooting percentage dry up this season after riding a career high 9.2 shooting percentage to a 20-goal campaign. For his career, Rielly’s shooting percentage is at 4.9%, meaning the 2.4% he rocked this season suggests he was more unlucky.
I went back and looked at the game sheets for this season and Rielly actually started the season red-hot. In the month of October, Rielly recorded 14 points in 14 games, including a three-point game against Columbus and a career high four assists against Minnesota about a week later. Rielly was also playing a ridiculous amount too, which culminated in him playing 33:16 in the team’s final game of October against the Capitals.
The concerning part is everything that came after. Rielly recorded 27 points over the entire season, meaning from November onward, Rielly tallied 13 points in 34 games. This includes zero goals scored as Rielly recorded all three goals in October. Pro-rated to an 82-game schedule, Rielly was on pace to produce 47 points, a total that would be his third best offensive totals career wise, but still not at the level you would expect from your number one defenseman.
What we’ve seen so far
Early on in the season, it was pretty apparent something was not quite right with Rielly. He wasn’t jumping into the rush as much, he wasn’t using his elite skating ability to its fullest to evade opponents and break-up plays defensively, Rielly looked like he was in conservation mode. Just before Rielly fractured his foot in January, he finally revealed that he was playing through a nagging lower-body injury, one that had been prevalent since around late October or early November.
This is the last goal Rielly scored in the 2019-20 regular season and is a prime example of vintage Morgan Rielly. Watch Rielly skate back, evade the oncoming forechecker and then make a clean breakout pass while under pressure, then get on his horse and join the rush as the trailer.
We did not see this enough from Rielly as the season progressed. Injuries to himself and the rest of the Leafs defense definitely played a factor in Rielly being unable to find his groove offensively. When Rielly is at his best, he is constantly involved in plays all over the ice (in a good way).
How will he do against Columbus?
In two games against the Blue Jackets this season, Rielly recorded three assists; all in the first game against the Blue Jackets back in early October. Columbus plays a very heavy game, headlined by a strong forecheck and willingness to wear down their opponents physically. The game plan to defend against Rielly is not all that different from the one teams use on Zach Werenski. Get on him quickly and often, finish your checks and clog up the neutral zone to prevent him from going for a skate.
It will be interesting to see how Sheldon Keefe utilizes Rielly in this play-in series. He could pair Rielly with Barrie and load them up with offensive zone starts and have them try to overwhelm the Blue Jackets. Keefe could also pair Rielly with Ceci and have them in a match-up role, taking on whoever the Muzzin – Holl pairing does not. Regardless of who Rielly plays with, he will be an integral part of the Leafs 2020 Playoff run.
Rielly has actually been a solid point producer come playoff time. In the last three postseasons, he has recorded five points each year to give him a respectable 15 points in 20 playoff games.
With Rielly at or near 100% health, I would expect to see the 2018-19 version of Morgan Rielly. An elite skating, puck-moving defenseman who can and will break-up a play in the defensive zone and then lead or join the rush offensively shortly after.
If the Leafs are to defeat the Blue Jackets in this play-in series, the Leafs are going to need Rielly to be at his very best throughout the entire series.