Maple Leafs Commentary: Morgan Rielly, Better than Fans Think

Now that we have completed our player reviews of the returning forwards on the Toronto Maple Leafs, we will be turning our attention to the returning defensemen, starting with Morgan Rielly

Related: Maple Leafs’ Rielly Has Become One of the Best 2012 Draft Picks

While Willian Nylander is by far the most polarizing player on the Maple Leafs, Rielly also has his fair share of detractors. Many of the wide-ranging differences of opinion stem from what fans think a defenseman should be. Those who think a defenseman should think defense first generally have a lower opinion of Rielly. Those who like to see more offense have a much higher opinion of Rielly as a player. 

Rielly Is Better Defensively than Fans Think

We can definitely confirm by the eye test that Rielly is more of an offense-first type of player. While defense would not be considered his strength, after spending literally hours of watching him on video over his nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, we’ve concluded that he’s better defensively than he has been given credit for. 

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

While his offense has always been there to varying degrees in his career, he has gradually improved his defensive play over the years. Last season was by far his best season regarding his all-around play. In 2021-22 Rielly truly became the Maple Leafs’ best defenseman. 

Rielly’s Biggest Strength Is Skating with the Puck, But …

Rielly’s biggest strength is his skating with the puck. We state “with the puck” because players skate differently when they have the puck than they do with the puck. It’s one thing to skate fast and another thing totally to do it with the puck. Rielly exudes confidence when he’s moving the puck up ice. He might actually be one of the best defensemen in the NHL with the puck on his stick as he’s skating from his end of the ice to the opposing blue line.

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He’s also a great passer of the puck when he is stationary. Like the whole skating with and without the puck idea, there is a reason we say “stationary” when we talk about his passing. 

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The one thing we’ve noticed over the years as a weakness in Rielly’s game seems to be that he can do one of two things with the puck. First, he can skate with it; second, he can pass it. He does not seem to be very good at passing the puck when he’s moving with speed, be it through the neutral zone or in the offensive zone.  

If he has the puck in his zone and chooses to pass it, he has a great first pass. Many times he has threaded the needle to send a forward in on a breakaway. He is also excellent at finding open players when he is relatively stationary at the point.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Mitch Marner celebrates with teammate Morgan Rielly (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

On the downside, we’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve seen Rielly enter the zone with speed and then fail to make a play with the puck once he’s in the zone. When he skates deep into the zone, more times than not he’ll skate around behind the net ending up back at the blueline on the other side of the ice. It’s not until he’s stopped circling the zone that he gets a pass away. 

Rielly is much more effective when he enters the zone and then holds up allowing his linemates to get set up before making a play. 

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If Rielly ever learned to dish off the puck at speed he could, in our opinion, be a perennial challenger for the Norris. 

Rielly Is a Great Shooter from the Point

Going back to strengths, another of Rielly’s skills is getting unblocked shots through at the point. All the other Maple Leafs’ defensemen except for Rasmus Sandin have as many shots from the point blocked as they get through to the net. Rielly not only has great lateral movement at the blue line, but he also has the ability to change the positioning of the puck on his stick similarly to Auston Matthews to get the shot through.

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

Rielly’s shot does not have a lot of velocity on it and is not a goal-scorers shot. The season he scored 20 goals was a definite outlier. He has only reached double digits in goals one other time. That was last season when he scored 10. When Rielly shoots the puck, he does so with the plan to either have the puck deflected in front of the net or to create a rebound. That’s how he gets a lot of his points and assists. 

As we noted earlier, Rielly draws the most criticism for his defensive play. Is that deserved? Yes, but to a point. A lot of times Rielly is not in a position to make a defensive play. That’s because he’s thinking offense and trying to create offense.  It’s his mentality. As a result, he gets caught up-ice more often than a typical defenseman. That creates a situation where a forward or his defensive partner has to bail him out. 

When Rielly is in a defensive position or posture, he’s actually pretty decent defensively. He’s an excellent shot-blocker. He’s also good at using his strength in the corners to win battles. There’s a reason he’s averaged well over a minute a game on the penalty kill in his career. Both Sheldon Keefe and Mike Babcock before him felt that Rielly’s defensive play was good enough to give him substantial time on the penalty kill.

Rielly Is a Hard Worker on the Ice

Rielly is one of the hardest-working players on the ice. You’ll never see him take a shift off. If he makes a mistake and turns the puck over, he never gives up on the play. He makes every effort to remain in the play. Many times he’s coughed the puck up and has seemed well out of the play only to catch up and at least bother the opposing puck carrier enough to prevent him from making a clean play. 

Whatever deficiencies Rielly might have in his game are far outweighed by his strengths. There’s a reason he’s plus-67 in five-on-five play over the last five seasons. 

Related: Morgan Rielly is the Maple Leafs’ Undisputed Best Defenseman

One other big part of Rielly’s role with the team is his leadership on and off the ice. He’s one of the most interviewed players on the Maple Leafs between periods. He doesn’t just string together cliches when asked about the game. He gives honest, clear answers to questions. He’s also the player who talks the most with the referees when something questionable has happened on the ice. 

While we don’t think giving John Tavares the “C” was a bad idea, we believe Rielly should have been given consideration to be the team’s pick for Captain.

After spending nine seasons wearing the Blue and White, Rielly’s now signed to play eight more years with the Maple Leafs. We have no doubt he’ll be a “Leaf for Life” and the Maple Leafs are a better team for it. 

[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.]