Morgan Rielly is the Maple Leafs’ Undisputed Best Defenseman

For a number of years, Morgan Rielly has been considered to be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best offensive defenseman. However, numerous arguments have been made that he’s not their best all-around defenseman because his great offensive play has been offset by his poor defensive play. 

Comparing Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin’s Play

Since being acquired by the Maple Leafs in  January of 2019, Jake Muzzin has been regarded by many as a better all-around defenseman. The argument is that his superior defensive play makes up for any differences between his, and Rielly’s, offensive abilities. That’s also an argument that has been backed up by advanced analytics. 

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Since arriving on the scene, Muzzin has also taken over the tougher defensive assignments, allowing Rielly the luxury of playing in situations that have allowed him to make the best of his offensive abilities. One example is their zone starts. In the previous three seasons, Rielly has started 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Muzzin has started 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For whatever reason, injuries, age, etc. Muzzin is off to his worst start since he’s been in Toronto.  Much has been written on The Hockey Writers, and other media sources, about the struggles of the Muzzin/Holl pairing this season. Holl has been benched as a result, and the pairing has been broken up in recent games. 

More Responsibility Has Been Given to Morgan Rielly and Partner T.J. Brodie

The struggles of Muzzin and Holl left Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe with few other choices. He had to rely on Rielly and his partner T.J. Brodie to get the toughest assignments against the toughest opponents. That pairing came through.

While we cannot ignore the important role that Brodie has played, we think it’s safe to say that how Rielly goes, that pairing goes. Rielly has not only accepted the tougher assignments, but he has also thrived in the role. He is producing better offensively than he has the past two seasons, and his defensive numbers are also the best they’ve ever been.

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If we compare his offensive production during the past three seasons expanded to 82 games (to make it easier to compare} we get the following:

SeasonNumber of GoalsNumber of Points
2018-192072
2019-20549
2020-21752

Currently, Rielly has four goals and 22 assists (for 26 points) in 30 games this season. If we expand Rielly’s numbers over a full season, that projects to 11 goals, 52 assists, and 63 points for the 2021-22 season. Those numbers are not quite the level he reached in the 2018-19 season, but they are well ahead of both his 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.  

Rielly’s Contract Extension Has Energized His Play

Taking a little side trip here, Rielly signed his new eight-year $60 million contract recently. After the signing, his on-ice play has improved and he seems to have shown a renewed self-confidence. Since signing the extension, Rielly’s scored four goals and 22 points (for 24 points) in 22 games. 

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

Rielly has exceptional offensive talents. It’s his defensive game that’s come under fire in the past. What improvements has Morgan made in his defensive game?

To answer that question, we’ll use advanced analytics provided by naturalstattrick. Looking at Rielly’s four categories (Expected Goals For, Expected Goals Against, Actual Goals For, and Actual Goals Against), the following numbers emerge.  

Expected GoalsExpected Goals For per 60 Expected Goals Against per 60
Previous 3 Seasons 2.952.75 
2021-22 Season2.852.37

Expected Goals Notes: 

In Expected Goals For, five-on-five Rielly is actually down slightly, by a tenth of a goal per 60 minutes played. However, his Expected Goals Against has dropped by more than a third (by .38).

Actual GoalsActual Goals For per 60 Actual Goals Against per 60
Previous 3 Seasons 3.382.55
2021-22 Season3.181.65

Actual Goals Notes:

Advanced statistics show that his Actual Goals For five-on-five is down slightly (by .20), but his Actual Goals Against is down by almost a full goal (by .90).

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Rielly’s Special Team Contributions

For those wondering why Rielly’s five-on-five production is down while his overall production is up, the difference is in his power-play production. In the past three seasons, Rielly has produced five points per 60 minutes on the power play. This season he’s producing seven points per 60. The Maple Leafs’ power play has been much improved.

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammates (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

This season Keefe is relying on Rielly more on the penalty kill (PK) as well. During the past three seasons, Morgan has averaged just over a minute per game on the PK. Last season he played less than 30 seconds a game on the PK.  To this point this season he is averaging close to two minutes per game on the PK.

Rielly Is Leading the Maple Leafs in Many Ways

To sum everything up, Rielly is leading the Maple Leafs’ defensemen in five-on-five Goals and Points. He’s the quarterback on what is presently the NHL’s second-best power play (success rate at 30.6 percent), and he averages close to two minutes a game on the NHL’s eighth-best penalty kill (82.1 percent).

Related: Maple Leafs’ Sandin Has Higher Potential Than Rielly

There’s no question that, this season, Morgan Rielly is the undisputed best defenseman on the Maple Leafs.

[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.]


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