The Morgan Rielly Conundrum

Morgan Rielly holds a special place in almost every Leafs fan’s heart. The dynamic defenceman has been with the team longer than anybody else on the roster. We have watched him grow from a top prospect to an elite offensive defenceman with a few flaws. We’ve always ignored his defensive inabilities because of how exciting he was to watch offensively. At his best, Morgan Rielly is a possession machine in the offensive zone who jumps up in the rush and helps his team generate a ton of chances. As you can see below, Rielly was brilliant the last three seasons. 

Even while playing the majority of his minutes with less than stellar partners in Ron Hainsey and Cody Ceci, Rielly still was dominant offensively at even strength. His expected goals for was near the top of all defencemen, and his 18-19 season was one of the best by a defenseman in years. Rielly encapsulated the Babcock Leafs at their peak perfectly. He was scary good going forward, but at times hot garbage in his own zone.

This year though, playing with the best defence partner he’s ever had, Rielly’s offensive play isn’t outweighing his defensive frailties. Out of the 25 pairings who have played over 100 minutes together this year, the Rielly-Brodie pairing is ranked 3rd worst in xGF% at 41 percent. Furthermore, Brodie and Rielly have allowed 32 high danger chances this season at 5 on 5, yet the Leafs have only generated 20 high danger chances when the pairing has been on the ice. Lastly, but certainly not least, Rielly is last on the entire Leafs team in Even-Strength Defense Goals Above Average, or EVD for short.

Compare that to last year where the Leafs owned roughly 52% of the high danger chances when Rielly was on the ice at 5 on 5, it’s a quite the difference. His most common partner last year? Cody Ceci. I don’t think anyone would make the argument that Cody Ceci is better than T.J. Brodie. Clearly, something is off for Rielly this season.

It is early and adjusting to a new partner isn’t easy, but even disregarding the stats. Rielly’s decision making has just not been good this season. There were multiple times in the 2 game series the Leafs just had against the Oilers where you just couldn’t help but shake your head at 44’s play. 

This is just nonsensical by Rielly. When your team is cycling possession in the O-zone you do not throw the puck in the middle of the ice to a a teammate covered by 2 Oilers. You also have to know who you’re on the ice with. Lazy plays like that when last year’s MVP is on the ice just won’t fly.

Here, Morgan gets caught, which is fine, you’re going to get caught deep sometimes, I don’t have an issue with that. The problem for me here is that Rielly is the last guy back and barely even gets to his own blue line by the time the puck ends up in the net. It’s just unacceptable. He should be hauling ass back there to help out his team, instead the puck’s in the back of his net.

Same game, another boneheaded play by Rielly. I’m really not sure what the plan was here, but it ends resulting in a good chance for the Oilers. He leads the Leafs in giveaways and plays like this is the reason why, he’s overconfident in his skating ability.

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m ragging on Rielly here, although I kind of am, but that’s just because we all know how good he can be. The Leafs have been pretty bad at 5 on 5 in terms of generating offence and I think part of that is down to Rielly’s subpar play. Thursday’s performance against the Canucks was better for Rielly. Despite making a few bad pinches, he picked his spots a lot better overall.

Classic Morgan Rielly

This is the Morgan Rielly we all know and love. He slows the play down, spreads it out and picks a great pass which results in a Leafs goal.

It’s also important to keep a close eye on Rielly’s play this season because he is going to be a UFA in 2 years. The flat cap isn’t going away anytime soon and the Leafs have a ton of options at D. Will it be worth it to gut some of the team’s depth to sign Rielly to a long term deal that could cost them 8 or 9 million a year? If Rielly hits the open market, he’s going to ask for something similar to Alex Pietrangelo’s deal, and he’ll be just 27.

The way Rielly is playing now, the Leafs might be more inclined to look at a trade this summer so they don’t lose Rielly for free like they did with players like James Van Riemsdyk and Jake Gardiner. That’s going to be hard for a lot of Leafs fans to hear, but it’s the hard truth. Even if Rielly is able to turn it around offensively this year, do the Leafs try to cash in on him and pick up a younger, more cost effective defenseman. Maybe a deal revolving around Dante Fabbro or even Noah Dobson plus a few other pieces? 

There is no easy answer, but the Leafs have some flexibility. Rielly’s future also depends on their confidence in players like Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin, does the organization believe they can be everyday defenseman in the NHL? I sure do, and if they do as well then using that 9 million you were going to give to Rielly somewhere else is probably the way to go. One thing’s for sure, if they do decide to trade Rielly, I’m going to be very, very sad.

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