Toronto Maple Leafs: Why Morgan Rielly is an underrated defenceman

TORONTON, ON - JANUARY 6: Morgan Rielly
TORONTON, ON - JANUARY 6: Morgan Rielly /

The NHL Network released their latest ranking of the top 20 defencemen in the league but Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly did not make the cut.

When Brian Burke drafted Morgan Rielly with the fifth overall pick of the 2012 draft, he made it known that the Toronto Maple Leafs thought highly of the defenceman.

Burke told reporters at the time that Rielly was ranked No.1 on their board ahead of defencemen like Hampus Lindholm, Matt Duma, and Jacob Trouba who went after him in the first round. Other defencemen like Colton Parayko, and Shayne Gostibhere went past the first and second rounds at that time too.

There has always been a lot of pressure on Rielly since he was drafted because of the lack of talent the Leafs blueline had. Going into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season the team’s backend featured Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Kostka, Cody Franson, Mark Fraser and Mike Komisarek for four games.

As a result of the condensed season, it made the Leafs decision to send Rielly back to the WHL a no-brainer considering he missed the majority of his draft year with a knee injury.

When he finally broke in with the Leafs it was at a point where the team was looking to build off of their first playoff appearance since 2004. It didn’t go well for the Leafs and Rielly still managed to put up a positive CF% rel of 1.3 but he was a long way off of establishing himself as a top-four defenceman.

It was not until Mike Babcock arrived in 2015 that Rielly started to reach his potential especially the defensive side of his game. Babcock reduced Rielly’s time on the powerplay (averaging 1:50 a game) so that he could work on his even-strength play, safe to say it was a decision that was well worth it.

Now going into this season, the Leafs are looking to take the next step after signing John Tavares and the pressure is on the blueline to improve. While the team’s blueline isn’t held in high regard, as the NHL Network did not have any Leafs defencemen in their top 20, Rielly is no doubt Babcock’s go-to defenceman with Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev not too far behind.

The only move that general manager Kyle Dubas made to address the backend was signing Igor Ozhiganov from the KHL which could work out but it’s a big unknown at this point.

When you look at the NHL Network’s top 20 defencemen the list is impressive so for Rielly to not be featured is not a snubbing by any means.

One thing that Rielly has on most of the players on that list is his zone start percentage where he was used 52.1 per cent of the time in the defensive zone. The only defencemen in the top 20 who were deployed at 50 per cent or more in those situations were P.K. Subban, John Carlson, Alex Pietrangelo, Parayko, Ryan Suter, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

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So more than half of the defencemen who are believed to be the best in the league do not even start a lot of their time in their own end. Granted, there are some great defencemen on this list but some benefit from being used heavily in offensive situations.

Rielly is one of those defencemen that doesn’t get featured heavily on the powerplay, part of that has to do with the fact that Gardiner gets the majority of the play on the first unit and the Leafs only use one defenceman at the point. Last season,  Rielly ranked 48th in powerplay ice time among defencemen averaging 2:12 a night.

There are certainly parts of his game that Rielly could try to improve on but his play has inspired some players to try and model their game after like Victor Mete. The young defenceman told Luke Fox of Sportsnet that he tries to follow how Rielly balances his offensive and defensive game.

Back in 2017, Pierre LeBrun predicted his 2018 team Canada Olympic roster for ESPN (which never happened because the NHL chose to not participate) and Rielly was among his choices for the blueline on the left side. That’s some high praise considering the talent that Canada has on the backend.

Whether you think Rielly is a top-tier defenceman or not doesn’t discount the fact that he has an underrated impact for the Leafs. He told Dave McCarthy of Sporting News that having Frederik Andersen in net makes life easier for the defenceman which is true considering the volume of shots that the Leafs allow.

But considering the expectations placed on Rielly since he was drafted and how he’s been able to handle the ups and downs of the Leafs rebuild, it should speak highly to his character and abilities.

People might forget that Rielly took a Zdeno Chara slap shot off the face in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins and came back to the game, talk about showing some toughness.

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What are your thoughts on Rielly’s play? Is he an underrated defenceman in ths NHL? Let us know in the comments below.