Having taken a look at whether the Leafs should trade their bevy of forwards (including those on expiring, short term, or long term deals), let's now discuss one of the crown jewels of the Leafs rebuild in 21 year old defenseman, Morgan Rielly.
Rielly's entire NHL career has been with the Leafs, who drafted him (to mixed reaction) with the 5th pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The first round in that draft was dominated by defensemen. Despite being picked 5th overall, Rielly was the 3rd defenseman off the board, and would be followed by 9 more in the first round.
Rielly missed much of his draft year with a torn ACL, making his selection somewhat controversial, with names like Mikhail Grigorenko and Filip Forsberg still on the board (one of those worked out much better than the other, huh?). Nonetheless, he had an excellent post-draft year in Moose Jaw, and saw himself competing for, and winning a spot on the Leafs in the 2013/2014 season.
What's He Done As A Leaf?
Rielly acquitted himself quite well as a rookie defenceman, especially considering he was operating within the confines of Randy Carlyle's 'system'. He saw his defensive partners move around a fair bit during the year. He started being paired with Cody Franson, before being moved to Jake Gardiner's pairing, and finally, to Tim Gleason's (like going from a GTR to a Pinto). In general, his rookie year confirmed that Rielly was who we thought he was - an all-world skater with offensive skills that are nearly unparalleled, but with significant defensive deficiencies. The prevailing opinion at the time was that the Leafs finally had someone who could develop into a top-end defenseman in the NHL - with work on his defensive issues, there was no doubt Rielly could be a star.
In his second year, we saw much of the same thing from Rielly. Again, he was hampered by Carlyle's system, which was mercifully eradicated upon his dismissal. Paired mostly with Roman Polak, Rielly again showed his incredible offensive potential, but did little to assuage concerns about his defensive ability. Rielly's ability to suppress shots relative to his teammates was among the worst in the league, and undid a lot of his brilliance at the other end of the ice. Going into this year, I felt it was critical we see defensive improvement from him.
Unfortunately, that hasn't really happened. In fact, in some aspects of play, his results are worse than a year ago. For the first time in his career, he has a negative CorsiRel% (5v5, score adjusted). There may be some teammate effects with that number, as he's played a lot with Matt Hunwick, but for a player that we're hoping becomes an upper echelon defenseman, that's not an encouraging sign. His CA60 (5v5, score adjusted) is actually worse than last year, despite the Leafs being a notably better defensive team (though their shot suppression numbers are slowly approaching those of last year).
Granted, he is being deployed in tougher situations than his rookie and sophomore season, but work by Micah McCurdy(@IneffectiveMath) has illustrated that the effects of deployment are often overstated. At this point, I think we have to consider the possibility that this is what Rielly is. A guy with magical skating, insane offensive talents, and little ability to defend. That's not a bad player, by any means, but for someone who many Leafs fans have earmarked for superstardom, it may fall below expectations.
Rielly is still just 21 years old, so he does have time to grow and mature his game further, and it's entirely possible I'm being too harsh on him. A 21 year old with his offensive gifts and talent is worth betting on. And it should be noted that Mike Babcock has declared this a learning year for Rielly, who has slowly seen his role increase throughout the season. It's possible his somewhat disappointing results are nothing more than the standard defenseman learning curve. However, the Leafs have to make a multi-million dollar contract decision on him soon, and if I were in their shoes, this year would concern me slightly.
What Do The Leafs Do With Him?
Rielly is a restricted free agent (RFA) this year, meaning the Leafs retain the right to match any offer Rielly received. Generally speaking, RFAs hold little leverage. It seems like there's been little news regarding this contract negotiation - the Leafs almost certainly want to retain Rielly (we're not the Bruins), and we've had nothing indicating that Rielly is unhappy with the Leafs. The question becomes, what type of contract do the Leafs give him. They could opt to give Rielly a bridge deal that would see him through to his unrestricted free agent (UFA) years (where he would presumably get a healthy raise), essentially putting the onus on Rielly to prove that he deserves big money. In Rielly's case, a deal that eats up all his UFA years will be a 4 year contract, and in theory, would be at a fairly low cap hit.
Alternatively, the Leafs could bet on Rielly improving his defensive play and becoming the star they want him to be - potentially offering him a long-term deal that eats up some of his UFA years, much like the contract John Klingberg received. If Rielly drastically improves, then the Leafs could be getting surplus value on a star defenseman in his prime, and in the Leafs window to contend. If not, then it could be a deal that ends up a little rich for their tastes.
There's a lot of considerations here, including whether you think the cap will go in the future (which depends heavily on the Canadian dollar, among other things), how Rielly's development will progress, and your opinion on the Leafs defensive prospects.
Comparing Rielly To His Draft Class
As mentioned earlier in the piece, Rielly was part of a NHL Entry Draft that was very heavy on defensemen, especially at the top of the draft. Some of them are also RFAs this year, and it's curious to see how Rielly's level of play compares to theirs, and how it will affect the contracts they receive. In addition to Rielly, Ryan Murray, Olli Maatta, Hampus Lindholm, Jacob Trouba, and Matthew Dumba will all be RFAs. Personally, I think Lindholm is clearly the best of that group, followed by a jumble of Rielly, Trouba, Dumba, and Maatta, with Murray bringing up the rear. Any one of these players signing would provide a solid precedent for the others to follow, so it will be fascinating to see how their agents take that into consideration when negotiating for their client.
In any case, let us know what you would do with Morgan Rielly this offseason. How do you think his progression has been thus far in his career, and where do you think it will go from here (and why).
All stats and information in this post were taken from war-on-ice.com and hockeyviz.com. WOI is shuttering it's doors soon, but I would encourage anyone to support the work of HockeyViz and Micah McCurdy through his Patreon. He does some phenomenal work - the best in the public sphere (and probably private too), and if anyone deserves your support, it's him.