Maple Leafs’ Rielly is Biggest Key to Advancing in Playoffs

The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to enter one of their biggest years in franchise history. That is not a stretch considering their recent history.

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Failed playoff after failed playoff continues to weigh down on the Maple Leafs. While they continue to get closer with each chance they get, this season could be the one where this current core group runs out of chances should they fail again.

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This begs the obvious question. We know the Maple Leafs have immense pressure to win now. But how can they finally do it? What must happen for them to break the curse of 2004?

We can point to several things that have to go right. Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner have to continue to pace the offense. The Maple Leafs’ depth has to step up in big moments when their top players are held in check. New goaltenders Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov have to find a way to make big saves in season defining moments.

But if we had to pick one thing that is the biggest key for the Maple Leafs to finally advance, it’s not one of the things we just listed. They are important in their own right. But one thing stands above all else if they are to finally get out of the first round.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly is the key to advancing in the playoffs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s the Maple Leafs defense. And more specifically, it’s the play of Morgan Rielly.

Rielly Holds the Cards

It’s fair to say most everyone looking at the Maple Leafs will point to the goaltending as the biggest key to advancing. In one sense, that is true. GM Kyle Dubas chose to go the Murray/Samsonov route once they couldn’t re-sign Jack Campbell this offseason.

To lay everything on the goaltending though is not 100% fair. It’s a total team effort from the forwards helping play defense to the defensemen doing what’s necessary to help keep the puck out of the net.

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We have to look at this from the perspective of recent Stanley Cup champions and their qualities that stood out. The Colorado Avalanche knocked out the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. The Lightning won in the two previous seasons. What do they have in common?

The Avalanche and Lightning have the best of all worlds. They have elite offense, strong defense and goaltending that worked for their situation. Andrei Vasilevskiy is considered by many as the best in the world. Darcy Kuemper played well in his own right and did the job he was asked to do.

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When looked at like this, different kinds of goaltending can win. You can be the best in the world or good enough to do your job. What you can’t replicate though is the elite offense and strong defense.

The Maple Leafs have elite offense. That’s never been the question. But it’s the strong defense that has gotten better but is still a question. This is where Rielly’s impact will be the biggest key as their number-one defenseman. Is he good enough to carry the defense through four rounds of the playoffs?

Stanley Cup Champions & Elite Defensemen

Cale Makar not only kept up with Connor McDavid but was able to limit his effectiveness in a way few in the NHL can do. Victor Hedman is an annual Norris Trophy candidate who is one of the biggest reasons why the Lightning are consecutive champions.

Related: An Ode to Victor Hedman’s Incredible Contract

If we want to go back further, you’ll see the same pattern. Kris Letang is elite. Duncan Keith is elite. Drew Doughty during the Kings’ runs played at an elite level. Most if not all of these defensemen will likely land in the Hall of Fame. Show me a Stanley Cup champion and I’ll show you elite defenseman who helped make it happen.

This brings us back to Rielly. He is entering the first season of his new eight-year deal with the Maple Leafs worth $60 million. The first six seasons of his deal come with a no-move clause. This is their guy. They made the decision to fully extend him given what they think of him.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly’s impact on a parts of the game makes him the biggest key. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Maple Leafs are to not only get out of the first round but also win in later rounds, Rielly has to elevate his play. He is not going to replicate the players mentioned above. But he does need to play at the level of a true, shutdown number-one defenseman.

Recent Performance Bodes Well for Rielly

Rielly is coming off a season in 2021-22 in which he set some new career highs. His 58 assists is a career high. He also had 25 power-play points and three shorthanded points which were each new highs. He also played in all 82 regular season games for the first time since 2018-19 where he scored 20 goals.

It’s clear Rielly’s game has gotten vastly better throughout his career. But to date it hasn’t been good enough to win in the playoffs. That’s even despite scoring three goals in their first-round series against the Lightning in 2021-22.

But in order to advance in today’s Atlantic Division, the Maple Leafs are going to have to defeat the Lightning and Panthers among others to get to where they want to go. This means Rielly will have to face Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk. The Senators’ top-six is vastly improved while the Red Wings and Sabres are primed to surprise some people. Rielly will have to win those battles too.

In Conclusion

All of the storylines surrounding the Maple Leafs will focus on their elite forwards and their goaltending. But don’t forget about the importance of a strong defense. This separates Stanley Cup contenders from pretenders.

If the Maple Leafs want to advance in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup, Rielly needs to be the reason it happens. His involvement with different elements of the game makes him stand apart. He needs to create offense in all situations. He needs to shut down the opposition’s best players. And he needs to help lead the rest of the defenseman in helping make the goaltender’s jobs easier.

Rielly’s play is trending up. The Maple Leafs hope that trend continues. Their immediate future now depends on it.

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