Morgan Rielly is bad defensively. That’s it. That’s the secret.
You can stop reading now if you wish.
On Monday night, the Leafs played the Edmonton Oilers at home, a fixture which had become nearly as guaranteed as two points come in the NHL. It hadn’t been since December 2, 2010 since the Oilers won in Toronto, which is just 11 months shy from hitting the full decade.
But with the score 5-3 at this point in time in Edmonton’s favour, a boy who was just 13 at the time of that last win scored one of the prettiest goals of his career to date.
If it wasn’t already over, Connor McDavid seemed to ice the game. The Leafs would score once more to make it interesting, but the collective soul of Morgan Rielly and the entire lineup seemed cooked after that one. That, and there was just over eight minutes left in the game, with a three goal mountain to climb.
For any team, even these Leafs, that’s always a lot easier said than done.
The goal doesn’t really hurt the Leafs, or Rielly, in the long run. The game already seemed to be lost, and it’s okay to drop a few contests after going 9-0-1 over their last ten. Maybe it would’ve been nice to pick up another win on home ice against a Canadian opponent, but no one’s really too worried about the result in the long run.
Rielly remains the Leafs’ top minute-muncher at even strength and overall, and his 72-point year last season earned him his first Norris Trophy votes of his career.
Getting walked by Connor McDavid is the expectation for most every hockey player on the planet when they’re in a 1-on-1 scenario, and despite a little bit of embarrassment, a veteran player like Rielly has earned the chance for a stinker once in a while.
Since the beginning of 2017-18, Morgan Rielly is 6th amongst defencemen league-wide when it comes to raw point totals. There’s no question he’s elite in that skillset, with Tyson Barrie and him forming the league’s top 1-2 punch of current teammates in terms of point-producing blueliners.
But as mentioned in the beginning of this post, Rielly has never developed into the shutdown defenceman the Leafs may have envisioned when they picked him fourth overall back in 2012.
In fact, he’s pretty much always had ugly numbers when it comes to his defensive game.
I’ve picked three different but similar numbers over the last three seasons for Rielly, and shown where he ranks amongst regular Leafs defencemen throughout the season in Corsi Against/60 minutes (to see his raw defensive output against), Corsi For % (to see the effect of his offensive game), and Goals For % (to see, well, how well the Leafs score and get scored on when Rielly is on the ice).
(Note: all-stats are at 5v5 & provided via Natural Stat Trick).
Here are the numbers:
Leafs D-man rank
Leafs D-man rank
Leafs D-man rank
This comes with the obvious caveats that:
a) Rielly hasn’t really had great partners over the years
b) Rielly plays a lot of minutes
c) Rielly plays against other team’s top lines a lot
d) these stats aren’t truly isolated and you need other factors yadda yadda yadda
A few notes:
2017-18: Rielly was only ahead of Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak in CA/60, who are in all honesty three of the worst defensive players to put on a Leafs uniform in the past decade. In my opinion, that could be better.
2018-19: Rielly was first in GF/60 and last in GA/60.  In a year where he was heralded as one of the league’s best defencemen, no Leafs defenceman was on the ice for goals against more frequently than Rielly.
2019-20: Rielly’s GF% has risen to 60% under Keefe as opposed to 43.32 under Babcock this season, but we’ve also seen a rise (in a bad way of his CA/60 and his CF% has dropped as well.
These are nine arbirtrary stats and rankings, but they do a decent job of painting an overall picture: Connor McDavid’s goal was exceptional, talented, and hard to defend, but not an anomaly for Morgan Rielly at all. From a purely statistical standpoint of his raw defensive numbers, there’s very little that you can dig into that paints a positive picture of Rielly as defensively sound, whether in relation to his teammates or the rest of the league as a whole.
I’m not sure if there’s a solution here.
The Leafs are still almost definitely a better team with Rielly in it than without, and there’s still a strong usefulness for Rielly’s skillset. While he may not be putting up another 20-goal season in his career again, Rielly does possess the ability to move the puck at a level only Barrie can come close to on the back end.
In the modern NHL game, Rielly has been able to work himself into some high-octane offences, and as noted, appears to have bounced back after a tough start to the season.
But as comes with the territory, Rielly occasionally gets embarrassed on a national stage, and there’s no worse feeling than your secret getting exposed like that.