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The Maple Leafs defence without Morgan Rielly: By the Numbers

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
With Morgan Rielly set to return to the lineup, it seems like a worthwhile to take a look back at how the Leafs blueline performed without him.
The Leafs were done a favour by having a couple of games against the Blues, a game against the Coyotes, and of course, the Ducks. Even the Flyers fancy themselves sellers come trade deadline time and the schedule was certainly in Toronto’s favour.
While Rielly returning likely ends the Brodie and Liljegren pairing, there might be something to take away from Brodie doing better on the left side and Liljegren looking better when working with a partner like Brodie and top six forwards on the ice rather than his usual mid to bottom six forward groups.
Here are the 5v5 on ice numbers:
PlayerGPTOI/GPCA/60CF%GA/60GF%xGA/60xGF%
TJ Brodie519.1657.0047.700.00100.002.1350.90
Simon Benoit517.6456.4646.792.7255.562.5548.35
Jake McCabe517.2943.7353.680.6975.001.6357.45
Timothy Liljegren517.2064.9046.862.7963.642.9546.02
Max Lajoie315.0262.5736.490.00100.002.6728.00
Mark Giordano212.6844.9762.000.00100.001.0671.21
Marshall Rifai211.4857.5247.620.00100.002.5439.04
William Lagesson39.0442.0167.242.2150.002.0563.75
Starting with the obvious, the Leafs only gave up five goals at 5v5 while Morgan Rielly was away for five games. That’s outstanding. The bulk of them (4 a piece) came with either Benoit or Liljegren on the ice (or both) So there is a bit of a lesson to be learned about those two as a potential pairing, I guess.
Season to date 5v5 on-ice numbers:
PlayerGPTOI/GPCA/60CF%GA/60GF%xGA/60xGF%
Morgan Rielly5019.5462.3449.652.7052.173.0147.13
TJ Brodie5418.4460.8049.602.4156.522.7948.98
Jake McCabe4917.4858.3451.092.3850.002.5252.28
John Klingberg1416.3059.7051.913.6839.133.4942.02
Timothy Liljegren3816.0664.5048.711.9757.452.4253.15
Simon Benoit4114.8259.1749.662.1747.622.3252.36
Mark Giordano3613.8860.4052.502.5253.332.7250.86
Conor Timmins1613.5854.1155.151.9365.002.3759.48
William Lagesson2512.8055.8850.252.2545.452.3248.55
Max Lajoie711.6055.4044.031.4850.002.1438.23
Marshall Rifai211.4857.5247.620.00100.002.5439.04
While the CA/xGA numbers have generally decreased from their usual Leafs numbers in Rielly’s absence and shows the Leafs potentially playing a more conservative game, and the % based differentials aren’t significantly higher, it’s important to add the context that the Leafs were often playing with a lead and potentially a big league in some games and this small sample of numbers is going to reflect that the majority of 5v5 hockey was spent limiting opportunities not trying to create them.
For the most part, the takeaways seem to be that Brodie is a better option on the left side and that will need to be something the Leafs plan their lives around and the pairing with Liljegren seemed to be successful.
McCabe and Benoit continued to do what has been working for them, and it seems that the Brodie/Liljegren pairing matches well when the Leafs need strong positional defensive zone coverage and the Benoit/McCabe pairing is best suited for clogging the high danger areas of the ice, taking away shooting lanes and tying up the opposition in front of the net.
The return of Morgan Rielly means that the Leafs will revert back to what makes sense for utilizing their star defenceman but it also makes a strong case that if the Leafs are adding to defence, it is best to pursue the right partner for Morgan Rielly as the other players on the Leafs roster will help give the team three strongish defence pairings.
As for the third pairing options the Leafs leaned on, it is a matter of saying that they performed adequately but there wasn’t a breakout option that looks to be a long term solution. Mark Giordano, when he returns will be the 6th defenceman, bumped down to 7th defenceman post trade deadline. The rest have shown they can be worthwhile callups from the Marlies at this point but aren’t pushing for Giordano’s spot.
PlayerGPGoalsFirst AssistsSecond AssistsTotal PointsHitsHits TakenShots Blocked
Timothy Liljegren5043792010
TJ Brodie5031421414
Jake McCabe51012161913
Max Lajoie3001110142
Mark Giordano20101764
Simon Benoit5001125149
William Lagesson300003130
Marshall Rifai20000541
Liljegren more than replaced Rielly’s offence in the short term as he was above a point per game in Rielly’s absence, and Jake McCabe managed to hammer home a memorable goal. Brodie was also a regular offensive contributor and the Leafs blueline also seemed to step up their physical game as well, both hitting more and not being shy about taking a hit to make the play. This might be a small sample against ideal opponents but given that Toronto was already looking weak defensively beforehand, this was a win they needed and proves that trades aren’t the only solution to their issues and some of it can be handled by coaching, players stepping up, and examining what is the right situation for each player.
With the return of Rielly, it seems that at least temporarily the Brodie/Liljegren pairing will be broken up, and that might be a mistake. Given that Morgan Rielly’s defensive partner history includes Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, Luke Schenn, and late career Ron Hainsey, he might be able to handle some time with Giordano and/or Lagesson until Brad Treliving is done cooking.
If that is not the case, it might be better to put Rielly with Liljegren, letting Rielly get used to a right shot partner and it will allow TJ Brodie to continue to play where he has been noticeably improved on the left side.
We’ll see what Sheldon Keefe does, but the return of Morgan Rielly is welcome news, it’s just also a question of how much the Leafs should disrupt what has been working for the past five games.
Data from Natural Stat Trick

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