Time for Maple Leafs’ Fans to Lay Off Morgan Rielly

After watching the Toronto Maple Leafs lose 6-3 to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night (Dec. 29), it was pretty easy to know what critics in Maple Leafs Nation would say about Morgan Rielly‘s first game back after 15 missed with a knee injury. Social media seems to gravitate to stories critiquing the star players on the Maple Leafs.

Related: Maple Leafs’ 3 Most Disappointing Players for 2020-21 Season

As expected, a number of people were taking the opportunity to trash Rielly for his performance in the game. Specifically, they were ranting about how terrible a player he was and how much better the team played without him in the lineup.

The Maple Leafs Played Well When Rielly Was Out, But…  

Much was made about the Maple Leafs posting a 12-2-1 record in Rielly’s absence and then losing 6-3 in his first game back. While he did record an assist in the game and was an integral part of the second power-play unit’s success in scoring two goals, he did go minus-3 in the contest. In addition, his turnover resulted in Arizona scoring the game-winning goal. It was not by far his best performance.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But, to those who seem to take pleasure in putting Rielly down and delight in the claims the team is worse when he plays, I say two things. First, it is unreasonable to expect a player who missed five weeks with a knee injury to be his old self in the first game back. That injury would have prevented him from skating for the majority of the time his injury healed. As such, it would have been tough for him to be at his best.

Second, and more importantly, fans who diss Rielly are ignoring the Maple Leafs’ 6-1-3 record from the first of November until the 21st of the month. He was playing with the team then because he wasn’t injured until the game against the New York Islanders late in November. They are also ignoring the nine points in ten games he registered while averaging a team-high 22:08 of ice time before he was hurt.

Related: No Question: Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly Is a Norris Contender

Fans who critique Rielly are also ignoring the fact that the Maple Leafs posted a franchise-record 115-point season in 2021-22. Last season, he once again led all Maple Leafs’ players by averaging 23:44 of ice time. He also led all Maple Leafs’ defensemen with 68 points. That was an amazing 40 points more than TJ Brodie, the team’s second-highest-scoring defenseman, scored. Brodie registered 28 points in 2021-22.

Rielly Has Been the Maple Leafs’ Best Defenseman and Still Is

Rielly has been by far the Maple Leafs’ best defenseman for at least the past two seasons and it isn’t even close. Furthermore, it seems that he draws even greater appreciation from those who know hockey at the NHL level than he does at home. As for how he ranks amongst all other NHL defensemen, here are a few samples of what other sources think:

Bleacher Report ranks Rielly as the 10th-best defenseman in the NHL; The Sporting News has him 12th, and in Oct. 2022, Dobber Hockey ranked 120 defensemen and ranked him fifth. [By the way, Dobber Hockey ranks Rasmus Sandin as the league’s 56th-best defenseman.]

Those sites together note that, although it’s difficult to play hockey in Toronto because of the pressure to win the Stanley Cup and the lack of playoff luck, he has been successful. That’s been especially true because there has been a bright spotlight shined on the Maple Leafs’ defense.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Rielly Is On Pace to Become Franchise’s Best D-Man

Suggesting that Toronto thrives on offense, Bleacher Report noted that Rielly has helped drive that offense most of his nine NHL seasons. Twice he’s scored double-figures in goals, including 20 in 2018-19. His 68 points last season were only four shy of his career-high of 72 also set in 2018-19.

As a puck carrier, Rielly has excelled and has been the Maple Leafs’ top power-play defenseman. Bleacher Report said that for the Maple Leafs to have had so much regular season success they need to have a defenseman capable of driving play, carrying the puck, and setting up the forwards. That, they note, is Rielly in a nutshell. And he’s doing it all in such a high-profile context.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sporting News also stated that, although there is lots of star power up front in Toronto, Rielly is the stud on the back end. Not repeating all of what Bleacher Report said, they agreed that he was a premier puck-mover who’s improved from being a pure offensive defenseman to having more of an all-around game. 

Believing Rielly Is Anything Less Than a Top Defenseman Isn’t Realistic

While I realize that rankings similar to the ones I’ve cited here are subjective and open to argument, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of respect for Rielly around those – perhaps especially outside of the Toronto area – whose job it is to know hockey.

Related: Terry Sawchuk – How the Maple Leafs Snagged the Hall of Fame Goalie

For those of us who breathe blue and white air, to believe that Rielly has somehow become a terrible hockey player and a detriment to this team is a suggestion not based in reality.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]