Maple Leafs’ Rielly-Ceci Experiment Must End

We’re just six games into the season and it’s generally too early to make any definitive statements about players or teams. In some cases, though, the signs are so telling that they’re impossible to ignore. That’s been the case with the Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci pairing thus far, regardless of whether you prefer stats or the eye test.

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It could have been predicted months ago (and in fact, it was) that this pairing would not work. The surprise, though, comes when we dig into how and why they’ve struggled so far.

A Tale of Two Pairs

By the vital metrics, the Rielly-Ceci pairing has been a disaster at 5-on-5. Look at how they compare to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ other top-four pairing of Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie over the first two weeks of the season.

Comparing Muzzin-Barrie to Rielly-Ceci. Stats from naturalstattrick.com

Clearly the Maple Leafs have a legitimate first pairing in Muzzin and Barrie, and one much weaker pairing in Rielly and Ceci that hasn’t been pulling its weight through the first few games. That’s going to present some serious challenges for the team down the stretch, and it won’t necessarily be an easy fix either. We’ll get into that shortly.

Barrie has excelled in his new role with the Maple Leafs alongside Muzzin. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

What’s really interesting is that despite both being billed as offensive defencemen, the Rielly-Ceci pairing has actually struggled to create much offence at 5-on-5. When we look across the league at pairings that have played at least 50 minutes together at 5-on-5 so far (there are 56 in total), the Rielly-Ceci pairing ranks in the lower half when it comes to shots per hour, expected goals for per hour, and high danger chances for per hour. Predictably, they also rate poorly in most of those same metrics on the defensive side of the puck.

Rielly has struggled at both ends of the ice this season. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

These numbers point to a dysfunctional pairing that is struggling to generate offence while also giving up tons of chances against. The lack of defence was predictable, as I’ve written about before. Both players were in the bottom-25 of nearly 300 defencemen in regards to shot and scoring chance suppression over the last three seasons. On the other hand, the pair’s offensive struggles certainly aren’t what we would have expected from two capable puck-moving defencemen.

It’s even more surprising when you consider that the pairing is anchored by Rielly, who ranked in the top-10 among defensemen over the last three seasons in shots attempts for per hour, scoring chances for per hour (he was first!), expected goals for per hour, and actual goals for per hour. He hasn’t been the same offensive dynamo this season, which leads to our next point.

What’s Wrong with Rielly?

Rielly is a bonafide top-pairing defenceman: he scored 72 points last season and was even in the discussion for a Norris Trophy. All things considered, Ceci must be the problem with that pairing. Right?

Not so fast.

Stats from naturalstattrick.com

What we notice immediately is that both players improve in all categories when apart from one another. The difference is that Ceci improves immensely without Rielly (about 15 percent in each category), while Rielly only improves substantially in scoring chances for. That leads to the obvious (but shocking) conclusion that Rielly has been the main issue with the pairing. Ceci has actually been exceptional in his limited minutes without him the 25-year-old Vancouver native.

Some have speculated that the star defenceman’s struggles are down to him needing a steady, defence-first partner like Ron Hainsey, which frees Rielly up to carry the offence. On one hand, it makes sense that Rielly may be playing more cautiously with less stability on his right in Ceci. But conversely, Ceci is a much better puck mover than Hainsey, so the pairing’s offence should be better on the whole. It hasn’t been. And the fact that Rielly’s numbers are even worse without Ceci once again supports the notion that Rielly is struggling on his own – not due to Ceci or anyone else.

Is it possible that Rielly is missing the presence of a strong defensive partner like Hainsey? (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

There’s also the fact that Rielly rode a ridiculous 11.22 on-ice shooting percentage and 103.9 PDO at 5-on-5 last season. This meant that Rielly was able to outscore his defensive issues, posting a goals for percentage of 59.28 despite an expected goals mark of just 50.36 percent. Even if he continued to play to the level of last season, there was bound to be some regression. Rielly’s performed poorly this season, and so far the regression has hit him hard.

Potential Fixes

Everyone knows that Rielly is a key piece on the Maple Leafs back-end and will be a strong contributor once he gets back up to speed. But if the team wants to get him up to speed quickly, they should look into finding him a more suitable partner.

As discussed, the Muzzin-Barrie pairing has been phenomenal and shouldn’t be touched. That removes two potential options for Rielly then: he can’t play with Muzzin or Barrie on his right side.

One idea on the more extreme side would have been to try Rasmus Sandin on a second pairing with Rielly. The 19-year-old had averaged just 12 minutes per night over the first six games, but there were certainly some bright spots. He was sent down to the Toronto Marlies on Monday, though, so that dream has been squashed.

Sandin was sent down to the Toronto Marlies on Monday, erasing a potential partner for Rielly. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The final (and probably most realistic) option would be to try Travis Dermott on Rielly’s right once he returns from injury. Back in September head coach Mike Babcock said that Dermott would likely miss the first 12-14 games of the season so if that holds up, the 22-year-old could be expected back within two or three weeks. The main issue with Dermott is that he probably won’t be ready to slot right into a top-four role after recovering from shoulder surgery and missing so many games, which means Ceci would remain there for a few more weeks

Dermott will return to the Maple Leafs’ lineup shortly and looks like the best fit to play alongside Rielly. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The other concern is that Dermott is left-handed and, as is well documented, Babcock isn’t a huge fan of two lefties on one pairing. However, we did see him break that pattern with an occasional third pairing of Sandin and Martin Marincin to start this season, so it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility.

Regardless of handedness, Dermott is likely the best option given his defensive acumen. He’s the type of player that could make up for Rielly’s miscues, and despite his limited experience (just 101 regular-season games), Dermott would certainly be a defensive improvement over Ceci.

Stats from http://naturalstattrick.com/