No Question: Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly Is a Norris Contender

On Nov. 5, The Hockey Writers’ Jim Parsons wrote a piece titled “Morgan Rielly: Way-Too Early Candidate for Norris Trophy.” In the Toronto Maple Leafs’ win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, who only five days earlier had beaten the Leafs in the Sunshine State, Rielly made a stronger case for his consideration for the Norris Trophy by adding four assists to Maple Leafs’ winning cause. When Parsons first suggested Rielly for Norris consideration, although the season was young, Rielly was the NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman with six goals and 12 assists (18 points) in 14 games. He was also the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer. But, noted, it was early yet.

As of this writing, the season is closing in on its halfway point; and, Rielly is still the NHL’s top-scoring defender with 11 goals and 29 assists (40 points) in 35 games. That’s still well over a point-a-game. However, Rielly is no longer the Maple Leafs’s top scorer: that honour goes to Mitch Marner, who has 10 goals and 37 assists (47 points).

Related – Morgan Rielly: Way-Too Early Candidate for Norris Trophy

Rielly Is the Maple Leafs’ Best Defenseman Since Kaberle

That Rielly has continued his early season’s scoring pace suggests his game has grown to a yet higher level. What’s most noticeable to me, as I continue to cover the Maple Leafs, is that fans rarely speak of Rielly. Rightfully, he doesn’t generate negative comments; yet, surprisingly, he doesn’t generate much explicit support, either. Could this mean that Rielly has become a taken-for-granted staple in the Maple Leafs’ line-up – accepted by both the team and its fans that he is the No. 1 defender the Maple Leafs have needed for years – since Tomas Kaberle.

Morgan Rielly was a home run pick last year (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

For young fans of the Maple Leafs, Czech native Tomas Kaberle was a Leaf for 12 years (1998-2011), until he was traded to the Boston Bruins. He played 878 games for the Maple Leafs, scoring 83 goals and 437 assists (520) points. His best season was 2005-06, when he had career highs of 58 assists and nine goals (67 points). Kaberle was also a power play wiz, scoring more than half his points (263 of his 520 points) on the man advantage.

When Rielly scored 52 points during the 2017-18 season, who guessed that season would NOT be his breakout? But, with 40 points in 35 games so far – and less than half the season completed – it’s possible Rielly can break career highs before the season hits the 41-game mark. His 11 goals this year are already two more than his career high of nine goals set in 2015-16.

Rielly’s Pace Likely Won’t Slow Down

With Auston Matthews back now and continuing to score at a point-a-game pace, Reilly’s scoring isn’t likely to slack off. He consistently averages over 23 minutes of ice time per game, and has only had three games all year where he has played fewer than 20 minutes per game – a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 15, another 5-1 win over those same Kings on Nov. 13, and a 6-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 24. Basically, Rielly plays until Babcock is certain of a win.

Where does Rielly stand this year among the best in the NHL? Interestingly, Elite Prospects noted in 2012, that Rielly was an “offensively very skilled defenseman” who plays a “decent defensive game” and is a “gifted skater with nice puck skills and a good shot.” It was also noted that Rielly was not a “physical player.”

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Here’s saying: Who cares? Certainly not Mike Babcock, who keeps riding his No. 1 defenseman – unless the Maple Leafs have put the game out of reach.

Related: Babcock’s “Ontario Guys” Evolution: Is Don Cherry Right?

Rielly Is Still Ignored

Most fans believe the Maple Leafs’ defense must improve. But, Rielly is hardly one of the Maple Leafs’ problems. This year, Rielly is currently one of the best defensemen in the NHL – if not the best. However, as recently as Oct. 8, 2018, a panel of five experts placed Rielly no higher than 15th on its list of NHL defensemen.

Call me a homer, but that evaluation seems to ignore what’s going on currently in the NHL.