Defence has always been a weakness for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team has always had trouble producing from the blue line, however in 2018-19 Morgan Rielly stepped up to solidify himself as Toronto’s top defenceman.
Having debuted in 2013-14, Rielly has experienced his fair share of highs and lows with the Maple Leafs. He was always a solid cog in the machine, but for his first three seasons the team around him was exceptionally poor. After being allowed to develop under head coach Mike Babcock, Rielly came into his own last season. Here we will analyze his career year and give him a grade for his efforts.
A Career Year
Prior to last season, Rielly’s career-highs in goals and assists were nine and 46 respectively. By Nov. 16 he had tied his career-high in goals en route to his first 20 goal season. He also accumulated a career-high 52 assists for good measure.
Rielly came into his own as an offensive contributor in 2018-19. The Maple Leafs are known for their explosive offence, highlighted by Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Rielly’s breakout added another weapon to their repertoire.
Last season saw Rielly take his place on the top power-play unit. Alongside Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nazem Kadri, he was able to garner 18 power-play assists by setting up his linemates. A good chunk of Rielly’s production came from the power play, especially early in the season when the Maple Leafs’ unit was firing on all cylinders. It was his early-season play that made him an early contender for the Norris Trophy.
There were two games where he scored four points. He had only one such game in his career prior to last season. On Oct. 9 he got two even-strength points and two power-play points as the Maple Leafstook down the Dallas Stars 7-4. He repeated the process on Dec. 18 with another two even-strength points and two power-play points as they beat the Florida Panthers 6-1.
Leading the Blue Line
Toronto’s defensive core in 2018-19 consisted of Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, and later Jake Muzzin and Travis Dermott. While Rielly is not a perfect defensive player, he led this crew as the best defenceman on the team. Beyond just the team, Rielly was a Norris contender for much of the year.
The rest of Toronto’s blueliners faced their own challenges in 2018-19. Gardiner has never been a particularly good defensive defenceman, Zaitsev struggled mightily with puck possession and handling, Hainsey‘s age had taken much of his speed, Muzzin was joining a new team and Dermott dealt with a shoulder injury.
Amidst the struggles of his teammates, Rielly was a model of consistency. His 72 points led all Toronto defencemen in scoring with the next closest being Gardiner with a mere 30. His success on the ice led to him finishing fifth in Norris Trophy voting as one of the NHL’s best defencemen. This was further illustrated when the NHL ranked Rielly seventh on their list of the game’s best defencemen.
Rielly’s name has always come up in the discussion for the next Maple Leafs captain and he showed why he deserves the nod as much as anyone else in 2018-19. Insiders remain on his side, as Brian Burke, Jeff Marek and John Shannon reiterated their thoughts that he would be a great captain. He finished fourth in voting for the Lady Byng Trophy as one of the league’s most sportsmanlike players. He discussed his leadership and why it was so important to him in an interview with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
Overall Grade: A
This was by far Rielly’s best season to date. Had he scored the points necessary to win the Norris Trophy he would have undoubtedly scored an A+.
Rielly has the potential to go further in the future, even after a career season in 2018-19. As the clear leader of the Maple Leafs’ blue line, the ball is in his court next season. He could take a step backwards, maintain his position, or continue his climb up the NHL’s ranks.
With Tyson Barrie joining Toronto this summer and Hainsey and Zaitsev departing the organization, it is possible that Rielly could be paired with a better partner next season. If that is the case, there is no telling the heights he could reach.