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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: Morgan Rielly stars at No. 4

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The Leafs' top defender under 25 is the first of our big four.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

We're looking at the top guns now.  With one exception, every voter had the same top four players in some order.

Morgan Rielly, the first great Leafs' draft hope of this decade, is No. 4.

The Results

After being last year's No. 1, Morgan Rielly slipped slightly, though that's a reflection more on the shining talent ahead of him than anything wrong with Rielly.  Five voters (Achariya, Katya, Mike, Chris, and myself) had him at a high of No. 2, while Steve Burtch was the lone voter to put Rielly fifth.  You can read Burtch's T25 article on his No. 4, Nikita Zaitsev, here.

Lots of people had thoughts about Morgan.

Arvind:

We need to see him for an extended period of time with a competent partner, playing on the left side. He's already a pretty good player who can tread water against tough competition, when played with an adequate partner. The success of the Leafs blueline will largely depend on whether he can become a player who can beat tough competition and provide a formidable 1-2 punch with Gardiner.

Chris:

The way I kinda see Rielly offensively is on more of a Methot-Karlsson pairing--we'd see his true offensive abilities in the future if the Leafs managed to find a partner like Methot for him. Same type of thing for Gardiner.  Letting Rielly do his thing from the D-zone out with no fear of a forward not covering or his partner jumping up too soon.

Katya:

For most of the defenders on the list, what we talked about first was points because goals are a good thing. With Rielly, his shooting and his scoring ability are extremely good, it's the rest of his game we worry over.

I ranked him second, and I did that because a defender who can add that much to your goal total is extremely valuable. And I confess, I'm willfully indulging in recency bias too, because Morgan Rielly was outstanding defensively for Canada at the World Championships.

His Corsi was extremely high, and now I'm willfully indulging small samples, but there was none of the issues of high shots against that he shows on the Leafs.

He is the player that I think will most benefit from a rising quality of forwards. An offensive defenceman of his type absolutely must be on the ice with forwards who can cover the pinch.  And the Leafs have been lacking in forwards of quality for all of Rielly's career.

Scott:

We know at this point that he's in the upper echelon of the league's defensemen offensively, but he still struggles to suppress chances. If he can find a regular partner in a player like Zaitsev, then there's still room for growth, but he needs to start to show improvement independently too if he's going to be counted on to play on a top pairing. The World Cup should be a good test for him, and might help him step into the start of the regular season in better form than his peers.

And finally, Gunnar:

He's good.  I like him.

He is good.  I like him too.

Voter Scott Wheeler 67 Sound Birky Arvind Elseldo Emily Achariya JP Nikota Species Burtch Katya Fulemin Mike B Chris H
Rank 4 4 4 4 3 4 2 4 4 5 2 2 2 2

The Player

It can be hard to remember that Morgan Rielly is still only 22 years old.  He's easily the U25 Leafs leader in NHL games played, with 236 over the past three seasons. After being drafted fifth overall in 2012, Rielly has gone through several up-and-down hype cycles, as the Leafs' fanbase alternately hopes for and despairs of him becoming the stud defenceman every team wants.

To judge by some of the chatter in the blog world, Rielly is now at relatively low tide.  He's generally agreed to be second on the Leafs' paper-thin defence core, behind possession wizard Jake Gardiner, and as stated above, he's been passed in the rankings by more recent high draftees.  Rielly is the oldest of the shiny new toys.

Rielly is a fair size (6'1", 205 lbs.), left-shooting defender, though the Leafs' glut of LHD has often forced him to play on his off side.  His skills as an offensive defenceman are beyond doubt; his point totals have risen each season, hitting a high of 9G-27A-36P this year.  Those totals meant he tied for 27th in defenceman goals (with names like Zdeno Chara and Duncan Keith) and 34th in defenceman points (with Panthers' phenom Aaron Ekblad.)  If you'd rather a rate stat, Rielly was 34th in 5v5 points per 60 among defenders who played 30 games or more--and keep in mind, Rielly was playing behind one of the weakest forward groups in the NHL.

All these production numbers are no fluke: Rielly generates shots like an absolute monster.  Let's look at that.

Morgan is pure joy to watch in the o-zone.  He has an okay shot, but what especially stands out are his great instincts mixed with his top-drawer athleticism.  This highlight--one of my favourites from a Leafs game last season--shows both, twice, in quick succession.  The Leafs are trying for a tying goal with the goalie pulled against Arizona.

1.  Look at that lovely little backhand pass to Kadri.

2.  I have never seen a hockey player jump that high in skates.

3.  Notice how he drops back down and immediately fires the puck back in almost in one movement.

4.  Despite his good work going unrewarded, he damn near beats the puck back to the empty net, because Rielly is a great skater.

Goddamn.  I think it's become easy to take Rielly for granted simply because he hasn't morphed into Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty.  Let's not do that.  Rielly is awesome.

But of course, the issue people have with Rielly isn't his offensive game.

Yikes.  Despite the designated role for Rielly as a "complete top pairing d-man", that relative CA/60 is not good.  Rielly and regular partner Matt Hunwick routinely bled shots against.  It mitigates the benefit from Rielly's superb offensive skills, and as you'd expect, the Leafs' blogosphere has been fretting about it.  If Rielly is going to move from a highly talented, one-way defender to the complete package, he needs to improve on the other side of the puck.  What's going wrong, and how do we fix it?

I'll link to a couple of pieces on the subject.  First, here's our own Arvind looking at Rielly's defence partners.  In short: Rielly and Hunwick as a pairing do not work well, and we really ought to be trying our other options.

Second, here's Jeffler with a related look at the impact of handedness.  Bottom line: playing off-handed is really challenging, and has a serious impact on a defender's shot differentials.  Rielly's extended time as a lefty playing right-side is very probably hurting his shots against.  Partner and playing side are at least part of what's wrong for Rielly, and if we can find a suitable RHD partner for him, as Arvind suggests, that will go a long way towards fixing things.

Interestingly enough, after a few years where they were perennially short of RHD, the Leafs now have a four-four handedness split in their defence core: Gardiner, Rielly, Hunwick and Martin Marincin on the left, and Nikita Zaitsev, Roman Polak, Frank Corrado and Connor Carrick on the right.  While only God and Mike Babcock know how the coach sees the pairings this year, there's a good chance we could see Rielly in a better situation than he had in 2015-16--and see better results as a consequence.  This is not to guarantee a drastic change, or to say it would instantly turn Rielly into a Norris-winner, but it's a tangible way for Rielly to improve.

A lot of prospect discussions inevitably end in "if he develops through the next steps, we could really have something."  Rielly is already a good player, and if the Leafs can put him in a favourable situation, he may become a great one.  That's not the if-everything-goes-right hypothetical we employ with most prospects: it's a real possibility.

The last four years of obsessive focus on Rielly's development can make us forget that he's a 22-year old about to enter his second year under a very good coach.  Just by reference to our own rankings: Rielly is younger than Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Martin Marincin, Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, and Frank Corrado.  He's a month older than new young thing Connor Carrick and two months older than Brendan Leipsic. And the Leafs have shown every sign of being pleased with Rielly: he's newly signed to a six-year, $30M contract.  He's regularly brought up as a potential candidate for captain one day. And he's still developing.

Rielly has already done more than any player in the T25, and there may be better yet to come.