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Morgan Rielly is leading the way on the Leafs’ blue line, offensively and defensively

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Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
3 months ago
There has been no shortage of storylines early in this Leafs season. From William Nylander’s historic start to the campaign and his contract status, Auston Matthews filling the net, the uneven performances of some of the club’s offseason acquisitions, and the battle for playing time between Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll – well, you get the point.
However, one story that hasn’t gotten as much attention revolves around another member of the Blue and White, one who is used to not getting his due. Morgan Rielly has seen his share of ups and downs over the years, but now in his 11th season with the Leafs, he is playing the best hockey of his career.
Rielly has been something of a lightning rod in years past. Lauded for his mobility, puck-moving skills, and offensive abilities, his defensive game has routinely drawn the ire of fans and media alike. He has long served as the poster boy for a Leafs’ defensive core that has often been undermanned and overtasked, leading to a disproportionate level of criticism and a lack of appreciation for the things he does well.
When things have run smoothly for the Leafs, credit has been bestowed more often than not on the other stars in the organization or a hot goaltender, but when the club has struggled, many have pointed to the shortcomings on the blue line led by Rielly. A consummate professional and one of the team’s most respected leaders, Rielly has always taken it in stride and continued to play his game, but his game has reached another level so far in 2023-24.
The 2022-23 season was a difficult one for Rielly. Already relied upon to lead the charge from the back end, he was tasked with even more minutes and responsibility as injuries mounted, and he struggled at both ends of the ice before an injury of his own knocked him out of the lineup for over a month. Once a 20 goal scorer, Rielly didn’t find the back of the net until January 29th, and finished the season with just four goals in 65 games.
But then, as he has always seemed to do, he elevated his play in a big way during the postseason. Paired with the bruising Luke Schenn, he formed one half of what was easily Toronto’s best defensive pairing in the playoffs.
Not only did Rielly face difficult assignments against some of the Lightning’s star offensive talents, but he scored a couple of the biggest goals in what went on to be the Leafs’ first playoff series victory in the salary cap era. There was the overtime winner in game three to give the Leafs a 2-1 series lead, then the tying goal to help Toronto force overtime and complete a miraculous comeback in game four, and he also opened the scoring in game five.
As we all know, the wheels fell off the entire operation in the second round against Florida, but Rielly did his part to give the Leafs a chance at postseason success. All told, he finished the playoffs second in team scoring with four goals and eight assists in 11 games, led the club with a mark of +11, and finished with a 57.4 xGF%, which was second to only his partner, Schenn, amongst Leafs blueliners, all while playing more minutes than anyone else on the team.
Coming into the 2023-24 campaign, many wondered what version of Rielly the Leafs would be getting – the version who struggled mightily at times last season or the version who was both a stabilizing presence and offensive catalyst in the postseason.
Just 17 games into the season, not only has Rielly been the Leafs’ best defencemen, but he’s been one of the best defencemen in the entire NHL.
Rielly has always been in the upper echelon of offensive, puck-moving defenders, and while he sits just outside the top 10 in points among defencemen, he is currently on pace to match his career-high of 72 points set back in 2018-19 without consistent minutes on the number one power play unit. Where the real improvement has come, however, is on the other side of the puck, where Rielly is limiting chances and goals against at a level we haven’t seen in the past.
Goals Above Replacement (GAR) is a catch-all metric comprised of several different on-ice numbers, similar to WAR in baseball, that attempts to capture a player’s overall impact on his team’s success. The GAR metric is broken down into two aspects: offensive GAR and defensive GAR. In the 10 seasons he has played prior to this one, Rielly has always come out as a net-positive player in terms of GAR, but it has been on the back of his offensive contributions, and he has never finished with a positive defensive GAR, topping out at -0.4 in his rookie season.
Heading into Wednesday’s slate of games, Rielly’s defensive GAR of 2.2 was tied for the 10th-best mark in the NHL, helping spur him to an overall GAR mark of 7.4 – just ahead of Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes (the current NHL scoring leader) for the most among NHL defencemen.
It’s great to have numbers that back it up, but the shift in Rielly’s game has been apparent when watching the Leafs this season. He has continued to drive offence from the back end but has done a much better job of picking his spots and mitigating the risks involved with joining the attack. He has been more physical in his own end of the ice, and the biggest improvement may be in the way he defends the rush. Rather than giving up the blue line with poor gaps as he has been prone to do in years past, he has limited space for oncoming attackers and forced them to make a play or dump the puck in. He has always excelled at retrieving pucks and moving them up ice, and now that skill is shining through even more as he has consistently limited controlled entries for the opposition.
Given the number of injuries and the struggles on Toronto’s blue line outside the top pairing of Rielly and TJ Brodie, number 44’s ascension has been crucial to keeping the Leafs’ collective heads above water in the early part of the season. Free agent acquisition John Klingberg has been a complete flop, and there are already questions as to whether he will ever suit up for the Leafs again. Jake McCabe missed six games with a groin injury. Timothy Liljegren has been out of action with an ankle injury since the beginning of November. William Lagesson has stepped up, and Mark Giordano has given the Leafs some solid minutes, but neither of those players should be deployed beyond third-pair roles at this point.
Frankly, it’s scary to think where the Leafs might find themselves in the standings if not for the play of Rielly and, to a lesser extent, Brodie so far this season.
There have been plenty of bumps in the road for the longest-serving member of the current Leafs roster, but we are now seeing the fully formed version of Morgan Rielly. Much maligned for his defensive shortcomings throughout his career, it’s time that he is given credit for the improvements he has made this season and acknowledged as one of the top two-way defencemen in the NHL.
 
Statistics from Evolving-Hockey.com & Hockey-Reference.com

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