The Maple Leafs Need Morgan Rielly

It was a season to remember for Morgan Rielly in 2018-19. He set a career-high in goals, assists, and points (20-52-72) and was in the conversation for the Norris Trophy. Many expected the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman to go one step further and replicate the success he had from the previous season.

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However, this season has been far from a repeat performance. Rielly has progressively gotten better production-wise since his rookie season in 2013-14, trying to be a two-way defender in the process, but things have changed. Even though we’ve seen Rielly at his best, we’ve also seen him at his worst. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While Rielly hasn’t been the same defenseman as the previous year, his absence since sustaining a broken foot in early January against the Florida Panthers is noticeable. The fact that he made the California road trip and started skating is a good sign that he’s on the verge of a return. The Maple Leafs are in a playoff spot, but the team needs Rielly more than ever to provide that added depth on the blue line. 

A Tale of Two Rielly’s

From the very first game of the season, it was evident that Rielly wasn’t himself. While he was expected to be a big contributor again this season, there was also the chance that he would regress after a career year. While it wasn’t a John Carlson-esque pace where he was above a point per game, he was doing pretty well with 27 points in 46 games (0.59 points per game), but the defensive issues persisted. 

He didn’t start off with the same confidence that he did the previous season and seemed to be a step back most of the time. It also didn’t help that he spent 400-plus minutes with Cody Ceci who wasn’t helpful on the top pairing. 

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It was reported that he was dealing with a lower-body injury and he was playing through the pain, which would be a good reason as to why his play seemed to have been impacted. Once he overcame that, it looked like he was getting back on track to improve his play, especially under Sheldon Keefe. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s understandable for a player to play through the pain to help the team, but it does come at a cost if it’s having an impact not only on your own play but the team’s play, as well. In Rielly’s case, the team was going through a lot of emotions, dealing with disappointing starts, a coach firing and the defensive depth issues that persisted. 

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It’s difficult to try and do everything you can to turn your team’s misfortunes around. But there comes a point where you have to realize that if you’re unable to play, take the time to regroup and heal, otherwise things can get worse. For Rielly, it did with the broken foot. And with him out of the play, it didn’t get any better for the team.

Leafs a Different Team Without Rielly

While Rielly’s play was up and down, the team’s play was suffering without one of their top defenseman in the lineup. 

CategoryWith Rielly (5v5)Without Rielly (5v5)
Record24-16-611-9-3
Corsi For %52.8450.28
Goals For11147
Goals Against10353
High Danger Goals For6626
High Danger Goals Against5537

Even though Rielly hasn’t had the Norris-caliber season he would like to have again, the numbers with him out of the lineup compared to when he is in the lineup does impact the team’s overall play. Despite some of Rielly’s defensive lapses early on in the season, the team has given up more goals and high danger goals against in 23 games without him. In 46 games when Reilly was in the lineup, the team had a positive differential in terms of goals for (GF) and high danger goals for (HDGF). 

Rielly was a plus-four in GF at 5v5 (44 for, 40 against) when he was on the ice. The same goes for his HDGF. Rielly has been on for 25 and 23 against. While it’s a slight positive differential, this could be attributed to playing against tough competition with high minutes every night while also carrying the load when you don’t have another top-end defensive partner.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

It also doesn’t help that the Maple Leafs’ defense has been barely American League caliber since Jake Muzzin went down with a broken hand. No matter who is playing, the effort should be there no matter what. And their recent California road trip, where the defensive miscues piled up against teams not even in the playoff picture, has become a concern. 

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It doesn’t matter if Rielly is back to that Norris Trophy candidate status, he had an impact when he played and they’ve struggled without him in the lineup. But when he’s in and he scores goals like this, he is a difference-maker. There’s no doubt that the team will benefit when he returns.

Extended Rest Might be What he Needs

There’s no doubt that many would like Rielly to be better in terms of production and play in his own end. Everyone on the Maple Leafs could be better this year. 

For Rielly, despite playing with a lower-body injury and suffering a broken foot, this time off is extremely beneficial for him to heal up and be 100% when he is able to return for the final stretch. If there’s anyone that would love to come back to the ice and make an immediate impact, it’ll be Rielly. Even through all this, he is finding a positive outlook on the whole situation.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly’s return will provide more depth and stability on the blue line. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

“I mean, you can put a spin on it. I’ve been doing that,” Rielly said according to Luke Fox of Sportsnet. “You try to take opportunity to rest and heal other injuries, do what you can to prepare mentally to get back and be in a good place and help the team. That’s the end goal.”

That’s the attitude and mentality that make players get that extra motivation, especially when they’ve recovered and are ready to get back to playing. And with a return on the horizon, we’re expecting a healthy and rejuvenated Rielly. 

After a career year, Rielly has been sub-par at both ends of the ice. This would be a season to forget with the injuries, coaching change and carrying the weight on the first pair without a legitimate top-four defenseman. 

But this injury could serve as motivation for Rielly. There’s still time to play while making a push to secure a playoff spot. He’s had the time off to recover properly and hasn’t had to worry about anything. This will bode well for himself and a team that has had a lot of inconsistencies these last few months.