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Top 25 Under 25: Morgan Rielly stays the course at #4

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Consensus wins the day with the Leafs’ top defenceman

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t need me to tell you much about Morgan Rielly. A veteran of four full NHL seasons at the age of 23, Rielly broke into the league young, and has been performing in a large role ever since. He’s a veteran of the T25U25 process, having been ranked highly in every year since he was drafted. By the standards of this list, he’s a grey-bearded veteran. So it’s not surprising that Rielly engendered a consensus only one other player on this list could match. Every single voter put him 4th in this year’s rank, with the same three players ahead of him.

There was a time when Rielly was the crown jewel of the Leafs organization. In his early years, the hope for Rielly was that he would become the do-it-all defenceman of the next decade for Toronto. The Leafs’ version of Drew Doughty.

So far, that hasn’t quite happened. Don’t get me wrong, Rielly is by no means a bust, and he’s only a disappointment when viewed through the most optimistic lens of what he could have been. Rielly has all the physical tools - he combines size, mobility, and strength in an astounding athletic package. He has all the hockey tools - a brilliant skater and puck carrier, he does things with the puck that are not in the repertoire of 80% of NHL defencemen. No one doubts his offensive gifts, and indeed, his individual scoring (even strength and power play) and shot generation impact are in line with what we’d expect from a top pairing defenceman.

However, his defensive play has never risen above mediocrity. When he was 19, that could be written off as something he’d develop in time. When it’s been exhibited in four straight NHL seasons, it’s time to accept that it’s part of who Rielly is as a player. Former PPP writer Draglikepull studied this back in 2016, and the article holds up very well.

As to whether he can improve as he gets older, he obviously can, but the history of young offensive defencemen suggests that players who go on to become real stars during their peak years are much better defensively even at a young age. That suggests to me that we should think of Rielly as a highly skilled offensive player who will need to be sheltered defensively, and likely will throughout his career.

Interestingly, the Leafs don’t seem to agree with that idea. Over the last two seasons, the coaching staff has trusted Rielly enough to use him as the de-facto top defenceman on a team that doesn’t have a prototypical version of that player. Accordingly, Rielly has tended to face a disproportionately large amount of top forwards. We can see this via HockeyViz.com’s competition/teammate charts:

What we’re interested in here are the top right and bottom left quadrants. The former indicates that Rielly faces top forwards more than the average defenceman does. The latter indicates that Rielly is often the most played Leafs defenceman - he’s being used the way a top defenceman tends to be used.

Now, it’s one thing to earn the trust of your coach - it’s another to deserve it. Getting big minutes and tough competition is nice, but if you’re getting beat down by it, you’re just Rasmus Ristolainen. Rielly is not getting beat down by his usage, but he’s also not rising above it the way that we’d hope a top level defenceman would.

With Matt Hunwick in 2015/2016, Rielly fell short of parity in terms of shot-share. Honestly, he’d have to be superhuman to have done so - Hunwick was vastly overplayed, and the Leafs forwards were nothing to write home about either. The real test was last year.

With a more capable (though still not elite, to be sure) partner in Nikita Zaitsev, similar usage, an actual team in front of him, and an actual goalie behind him, Rielly’s shot share did improve. Not by much, though. In terms of score adjusted CF%, Rielly almost exactly broke even when paired with Zaitsev (a proxy for when he’s being used as a top pairing defenceman).

Is that a good thing? Depends on how you look at it. You can say that Rielly went up against tough competition and neutralized them on average, while playing big minutes, freeing up the Leafs other defence pairs to feast on the depth. In particular, Rielly faced a relatively large number of FOGO shifts - face off, get off.

In these shifts, a player takes a defensive zone faceoff, and gets off at the first opportunity. This can depress shot metrics, because their shifts are being cut short as soon as the puck goes outside of their zone, meaning that they can absorb shots against, but have no chance of accumulating shots for. Tyler Dellow of The Athletic noted that this was also the case for Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and was partially responsible for the San Jose stalwart’s poorer shot results in 2017.

On the other hand, you could say that the Leafs first pair, presumably the pair they think is best, is essentially trading chances with the opponent. You could also note that tough competition is relative - Rielly faces top line forwards and starts in the defensive zone more often than his peers, but he doesn’t face those circumstances exclusively. Much of Rielly’s time on ice was with mediocre or poor players as his opposition, and with on-the-fly or OZ shift starts.

Of those two camps, I lean more to the second. Rielly is being played over his head - not by all that much, but he’s overplayed nonetheless. It wouldn’t surprise me if the coaching staff and front office knew this - the Leafs have one other feasible option for their top pairing left defenceman, so it’s not like they’re spoilt for choice here.

So where does that leave Rielly as a player? In most other walks of life, a 23-year-old is considered very young. In the NHL, it’s at the point where we can no longer expect large year to year improvement. So what is his current level of play?

He’s clearly a good NHL defenceman. As much time as I’ve spent exploring his defensive frailties, the offensive gifts he has don’t grow on trees, and he’s truly talented on that end of the ice. Some all-in-one metrics, like Goals Above Replacement (GAR) rate him as a solid #3 defenceman, which sounds a little ungenerous, in my (biased) opinion. It should be noted that Rielly wasn’t one of the Leafs top two defensemen in terms of power play TOI, which depresses that component of his overall play in GAR. That said, it’s clear that Rielly isn’t an elite top-pair defenceman right now, and he’s not a guy you build your entire blue-line around.

Which is fine. It’s time we as Leafs fans stopped dinging him for the things that he isn’t and appreciate the things he is*. A minute eating, puck-rushing, offensive machine (for both teams) who can be an important part of a good team.

Besides.... we have the top three of this list to build our entire team around.

*I recognize the irony of saying this in a piece that is at least 75% concentrated on his defensive flaws. Do as I say, not as I do.

Morgan Rielly via EliteProspects

SEASON TEAM LEAGUE GP G A TP PIM +/- POST GP G A TP PIM +/-
SEASON TEAM LEAGUE GP G A TP PIM +/- POST GP G A TP PIM +/-
2008-09 Notre Dame Hounds Bantam AAA SSMHL 43 41 43 84 10 Playoffs 6 4 8 12 2
Notre Dame Hounds Midget AAA SMHL 4 0 2 2 4
2009-10 Notre Dame Hounds Midget AAA SMHL 43 18 37 55 20 Playoffs 13 7 2 9 0
2010-11 Moose Jaw Warriors WHL 65 6 22 28 21 -15 Playoffs 6 0 6 6 0 -3
Canada Pacific U17 WHC-17 6 2 3 5 4
Canada U18 WJC-18 7 2 1 3 0 -3
2011-12 Moose Jaw Warriors WHL 18 3 15 18 2 6 Playoffs 5 0 3 3 0 -1
2012-13 Moose Jaw Warriors WHL 60 12 42 54 19 -8
Toronto Marlies AHL 14 1 2 3 0 -1 Playoffs 8 1 0 1 0 -2
Canada U20 WJC-20 6 1 2 3 0 2
2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 73 2 25 27 12 -13
Canada WC 8 1 2 3 0 3
2014-15 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 81 8 21 29 14 -16
2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 82 9 27 36 28 -17
Canada WC 10 1 2 3 2 7
2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 76 6 21 27 21 -20 Playoffs 6 1 4 5 2 1
Team North America WCup 3 1 1 2 0 0
2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL - - - - -