In the last 30 years, the list of Toronto Maple Leafs players who have started a season with at least 53 points in the team’s first 53 games is not very long.
Ten names, in fact. It’s mostly the usual suspects — Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, etc. — but there is one common theme: no defencemen. That was before Wednesday night’s entertaining 5-4 win over the Ottawa Senators. After this particular game, an 11th player added his name to the list: Morgan Rielly.
That’s right, the 24-year-old blueliner became the first Maple Leafs defenceman in over three decades to post point-per-game numbers through 53 games. Tomas Kaberle couldn’t do it. Bryan McCabe didn’t do it. Even Larry Murphy didn’t (not with the Leafs, at least).
The last defenceman in Maple Leafs history to start a season with at least 53 points in the first 53 games was the great Borje Salming in 1979-80. Now Rielly has a realistic chance to accomplish something Salming never could: post 80 points in a season. No Leafs rearguard has ever done that.
Rielly Smashes Career High
Given his torrid pace, one would assume Rielly is on-pace for a career-high in points. Not quite. With last night’s goal — his 14th of the season, which turned out to be the game-winner — he beat it, with 29 games still to be played.
This is the first time Rielly has reached double-digits in goals, let alone 14. And it’s just the second time in six seasons he has reached the 50-point plateau.
Even before 2018-19, however, Rielly’s point totals were fairly impressive. From 2015-16 to 2017-18, Rielly’s 30 primary assists at five-on-five tied for the 10th-most in the NHL. During that same time, the goals just weren’t keeping up. Rielly scored 12 five-on-five goals in those three seasons (T-56th), mostly because of a low 3.23 shooting percentage (SH%).
This season, Rielly has the second-best five-on-five shooting percentage of all defencemen in the NHL at 10.19. He’s also shooting the puck more frequently than at any point in his career.
Rielly leads all blue-liners in the NHL in even-strength points (33), even-strength goals (11) and is second in even-strength assists (22) and individual scoring chances for with 70. So for those who say Rielly’s insane spike in production is solely due to his spot on a lethal top power-play unit, that’s just not true.
Rielly’s 2018-19 Among the Best in 20 Years
It’s clear Rielly is having a season to remember in the context of Maple Leafs history. But what if we measure it across the entire NHL? Here’s a list of NHL defencemen who have started a season with at least 53 points in the first 53 games, dating back to 1999-2000 (20 years).
That’s right, Rielly is one of five d-men to have accomplished the feat. The more important question I want to ask is if Rielly can crack 80 points, becoming the first Maple Leafs defenceman to do so (Ian Turnbull came the closest with 79 points in 1976-77). In the last 20 years, only Nicklas Lidstrom (2005-06) and Erik Karlsson (2015-16) have managed to hit the 80-point plateau.
Can Rielly Crack 80 Points?
Without getting into a Norris Trophy debate, let’s look at Rielly’s season so far compared to the other d-men who have posted at a point-per-game rate this season, Brent Burns and Mark Giordano.
|Defenceman||Points||5v5 Points||5v5 Pts/60||5v5 Goals||5v5 G/60||5v5 A/60||5v5 A1/60|
|Morgan Rielly||53 (T-2nd)||33 (1st)||2.09 (1st)||11 (1st)||0.7 (1st)||1.4 (3rd)||0.63 (T-6th)|
|Brent Burns||58 (1st)||31 (2nd)||1.86 (2nd)||3 (T-36th)||0.18 (T-65th)||1.68 (1st)||1.02 (1st)|
|Mark Giordano||53 (T-2nd)||23 (T-9th)||1.57 (6th)||6 (T-7th)||0.41 (T-7th)||1.16 (T-8th)||0.41 (T-35th)|
Given Rielly’s consistency across the board, I think it’s fair to say he has a realistic chance to crack 80 points. I used mostly even-strength stats because I think it provides a clearer picture of a defenceman’s future production. The per-60 stats help add context. Also note that A1 is primary assists, which again is a more valuable stat in my mind.
What’s working against him is the Leafs’ very high 12.62 SH% with him on the ice at five-on-five, the third highest in the league. The law of averages says that will drop as the season goes on.
What’s working in his favour is the Leafs having generated 530 scoring chances with him on the ice at five-on-five and 761 in all situations, in both cases the most of any player in the NHL. That’s unlikely to change, given he has the benefit of playing with some of the best finishers in the game. Apparently, they don’t mind playing with him either.
Tavares on Rielly: "It's a blast playing with him … his hockey sense, his smarts, ability to read the play, defend well & it's no secret when he jumps in the rush he has a really good shot, but it's also the impact he makes in the room & type of guy he is, the example he sets"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 7, 2019
So while it won’t be easy for Rielly to make franchise history by hitting 80 points, I certainly think it’s possible with him consistently passing the puck up to Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
One last thing to remember: the last time this happened — when Salming started with 56 points in the first 53 games of the 1979-80 season — he ended up shy of 80. Salming recorded 71 points in 74 games that season, which was still the fifth-highest total of any Leafs defenceman in history.
Here are the top-five point totals by blueliners in Leafs history, which, as you can see, is a list Salming dominates.
Barring injury, that list is one Rielly will crack. Just how high he ends up will likely depend on if the Leafs can keep scoring as much as they have. Their 3.58 goals-per-game average is third in the NHL. With league-wide scoring the highest it’s been since 2005-06, I wouldn’t bet against them.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.