Photo credit:James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Which defenseman is going to give Morgan Rielly a much-needed break?
30 days ago
There’s never a dull moment with the 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs and in many ways, you could view them as a study of disparate parts strung together. The core five of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly occupy rarefied air, while the remainder of the team often struggles to pull their collective weight. This dynamic is especially pronounced on the blue line, where Morgan Rielly’s Herculean work is now subject to diminishing returns, so without entering the philosophical realm: the Maple Leafs need someone other than Rielly to elevate their game or run the risk of burning out their premier defender.
I wrote about the risk of Rielly’s game declining due to his increasingly high volume on Dec. 20 and through the new year, this is becoming increasingly apparent. Since Dec. 16 — not an arbitrary starting point, we’re using this date because it’s when Timothy Liljegren returned to the lineup after a one-month absence — Rielly and TJ Brodie are the 14th-most used pairing in the league at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, on the ice for 13 goals, 10 against, with a 45 percent share of the expected goals in 259:38. Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit have formed Toronto’s second-most used duo at 154:22, on the ice for three goals with five against. Benoit has exceeded all expectations but he’s not supposed to be functioning as an effective No. 4 on a team with deep playoff aspirations and it may dictate how the Maple Leafs approach the deadline. Despite the stellar counting stats, Rielly needs some help!
Rielly has been balling out individually, with seven goals and 38 points in 46 games, while averaging over 24 minutes per game, but there are small fractures slipping into his game. Although he’s been one of the focal points of the offense in addition to his tremendous defensive responsibilities, the Maple Leafs only control 47 percent of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, his worst share percentage since his sophomore season. Rielly is hovering above a 2:1 giveaway/takeaway ratio, and he committed a season-worst four turnovers during Wednesday’s win against the Winnipeg Jets that could’ve been punished were it not for Ilya Samsonov’s best start of the season.
It’s incumbent upon the rest of the defensemen to elevate their games after the All-Star break in order for Rielly to be in top form during the postseason. Liljegren is a point of interest here because he’s one of the premier skaters on the team and at his best, he can fluidly break out of the defensive third, while showing signs of increased confidence offensively. There are some nights where Liljegren seems capable of taking a massive leap forward — granted, it was against the worst team in the NHL but Liljegren generated seven scoring chances against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 9 and was arguably Toronto’s best defenseman against the juggernaut Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 13. These performances are too sporadic. There are too many nights where he’s a non-factor or regresses into a timid player that struggles to make quick decisions.
We’ve touched on Benoit earlier and the analysis of his game is a lot simpler. Benoit was expected to be a train wreck frankly, coming off a disappointing season with the 2022-23 Anaheim Ducks, one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era. He’s performed well above expectations, he’s proven to be positionally sound and his teammates love him for his physicality. It may be too early for a declarative statement but Benoit is evidently hell-bent on bolstering his reputation as he ranks 37th league-wide in expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, the best figure on the Maple Leafs — for context, Liljegren ranks 3rd on the Maple Leafs and he’s 187th league-wide with a 2.39 expected goals against per 60. In some ways, Benoit is what the Maple Leafs have been missing. Expecting Benoit to play above expectations while providing next to nothing offensively isn’t a winning formula and Toronto’s optimal lineup cannot account for this void.
Is it time to up Jake McCabe’s minutes significantly? I was incorrect in my original assessment that McCabe could operate as a shutdown defenseman, he’s better suited in a second-line role, but he may have to eat up more minutes in order for the Maple Leafs to optimize their playoff lineup. McCabe sports a dead-even goal differential at 5-on-5, with a 52 percent share of the expected goals. He’s not going to be a defensive stopper but he’s a more willing offensive contributor than anyone but Rielly on the back end. Perhaps the Maple Leafs need to play the Benoit-McCabe pairing more often and live with diminishing returns, but ensuring Rielly can be at his best during the playoffs is the larger priority.
It’s going to be a compelling deadline for the Maple Leafs and with the All-Star break on the horizon, it’s incumbent upon McCabe and Liljegren to be more consistent and play with more confidence or else Brad Treliving is going to have work his magic and find one of the scarcest pieces in professional sports: a capable, puck-moving defenseman who can soak up minutes and alleviate the workload of Toronto’s No. 1
No pressure or anything, guys!
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