Toronto Maple Leafs: The Evolution of Morgan Rielly


Morgan Rielly has proven one of the few bright spots for the Toronto Maple Leafs on the blue line over the past two seasons

It’s often simply asserted that Morgan Rielly represents the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ defence corps.

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He’s young, he’s talented and he has the trust of his team. With all that on his side, it seems foolish to doubt Rielly’s potential, but how has he actually performed and evolved as a member of the Leafs?

Rielly has only two NHL seasons under his belt so there isn’t exactly a huge body of work to examine. On the surface, his performance over those two seasons appears very similar.

In 2013-2014, Rielly put together a 73-game season with 27 points (two goals, 25 assists), including 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) on the power play. He finished the season with 12 penalty minutes and a minus-13 rating. Those numbers represented a very respectable rookie season debut for the then-19-year-old defenceman.

Mar 31, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (44) skates past Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov (86) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Tampa Bay 3-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Fast-forward to 2014-2015 and the story doesn’t really change on the surface. Across 81 games, Rielly registered 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists), collected 14 penalty minutes and finished with a minus-16 rating. Even his performance on the power play looked familiar: one goal and eight assists for nine points in total.

If we turn our attention to advanced stats, however, we begin to see a different story. For 2013-2014, has Rielly listed at minus-245 for Shot Attempts and the same for Unblocked Shot Attempts. This improved to a minus-90 Shot Attempts rating and a minus-80 Unblocked Shot Attempts rating in 2014-2015 (though it must be added that virtually everyone on defence, including Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner, saw a strong improvement in these two categories for the same period).

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  • Reflecting these numbers, Rielly saw almost three extra minutes of ice time in 2014-2015 while increasing his shots on goal total from 96 (2.1 shooting percentage) to 148 (5.4). It’s these numbers that really speak to Rielly’s growth over the past two seasons – he’s more confident with the puck, taking ever-greater chances without any obvious setbacks or failures, while the team has put him in ever-increasing high-profile situations.

    Towards the end of last season, for example, we saw more of Rielly on the power play and on the ice in general. For the last nine games of the season, he didn’t average less than 21 minutes of ice time per game, hitting a high of 28:06 minutes against the Montreal Canadiens on April 11 and a low of 21:42 minutes against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 31; those are both tough teams. Rielly was also one of the lone bright spots on the team towards the end of the season as virtually everyone else seemed more interested in the pending off-season than playing meaningless hockey games.

    Mar 19, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; San Jose Sharks center Chris Tierney (50) turns to shoot the puck as Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (44) defends at Air Canada Centre. The Sharks beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    When evaluating Rielly’s evolution as a player over the past two seasons, it’s best to focus on how his trust in himself has grown and how this has been rewarded by greater trust shown in him by the team. Even when Rielly got himself into trouble off the ice last season, he was quick to apologize and defuse the situation. This speaks to someone who’s quickly growing into a leadership role at just 21 years of age.

    We’ll ultimately have to wait and see if Rielly continues progressing in the right direction next season, but from what we’ve already seen, there’s little reason to doubt his steady performance on the ice and in the dressing room won’t continue.

    What are your thoughts on Rielly? Is he the real deal or just another bust waiting to happen? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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