When the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Morgan Rielly with the fifth overall pick in 2012, it was the impression that the Leafs would hope to have a top tier, first pairing defenseman in the works for the future.
When I first started writing for Leafs Hub, one of my first articles focused on the emergence of Rielly as a potential top pairing defenseman. We are approaching three years since I wrote that article.
It takes a while for defensemen to develop and come into their own as it is a difficult position to take on. Leafs fans have been waiting patiently for a guy who can handle the pressure of being on the top pairing. And since his first season, we have seen Rielly progressively get better and better.
Now, at 24- years- old, we have seen even more proof that Morgan Rielly has already established himself as the top- pairing defenseman that this team has needed for a long time. We’re not even at the end of October and Rielly has already broken his personal best-regarding production for this month alone. He had a goal and nine assists last year.
Rielly is currently on pace to have his best offensive production this season, and he recorded 52 points last year. He has tallied 13 points in six games played, averaging 2.17 points per game. But with his torrid start, is there the possibility that Morgan Rielly could win the Norris Trophy this year? Based on comparisons to other past winners, it’s quit possible.
|Year||Player||Goals- Assists- Points|
|2012-13 (Lockout shortened season)||P. K. Subban||11- 27-38|
|2013-14||Duncan Keith||6- 55- 61|
|2014-15||Erik Karlsson||21- 45- 66|
|2015-16||Drew Doughty||14- 37- 51|
|2016-17||Brent Burns||29- 47- 76|
|2017-18||Victor Hedman||17- 46- 63|
Rielly is well on his way to earning as many points as the above winners. These players were all on teams that had great offense while making it to the post- season. Even last year, Rielly was among tops in the league regarding offensive production finishing in the top 20 in scoring among defenseman. And we thought that was impressive. But, to have a defender who is a two- way threat at both ends of the ice, this is crucial for any team looking to make a long stretch in the post-season.
— NHL.com (@NHLdotcom) October 14, 2018
While Reilly may not be classified as “elite” as the others above, he does have the skillset to become a winner for this category. Drew Doughty has been in the league since 2008-09. He’s an exceptional defenseman and has been given high praise for his two-way game, yet he didn’t win the award until 2015-16. Defenseman doesn’t necessarily need to be the highest scorer to win the prize; it’s mostly based on the impact they had. So far, Rielly is having a bigger impact than the previous winners.
With defensemen that have played over 300 games from the 2012 draft, Rielly has the most points and third most from the draft overall (behind Filip Forsberg and Alex Galchenyuk).
Rielly is constantly going up against other teams top units ever since Babcock took the helm behind the bench in 2014/15. From that point on, Babcock saw something in Rielly and was transitioning him to become a well- rounded defenseman. We knew that he was a great puck mover, but his defensive game is becoming more noticeable. To shut down, the other teams top players while still providing offense is a big challenge for many defenders. Rielly is taking each game by stride but is up for the challenge every night.
We still see mistakes in the defensive end, but everyone makes an error now and then. The progression from what Rielly was then, to now, is a step in the right direction for him to be classified as one of the top defensemen in the league. But even from last year, what we see early on is a Morgan Rielly that is on a mission for success, not just for himself, but for the team.
Brian Burke, who drafted Rielly in 2012, had this to say about the defender:
“To me, his skating was so advanced – and you could see it was going to get better with some power – that he could skate the puck out of trouble at all times, his decision-making was good. His maturity as a kid was good; this is a guy who when he was hurt he’d go meet the team when they’d come back after a road trip at 3 or 4 in the morning, he’d go and meet the bus on crutches.”
While attending the Marner Assist Fund, they held a skills competition. During the event, I noticed that Rielly was different from what we’ve seen in the past and I mean that in a good way. His conditioning, skating, and the shot has tremendously improved from previous years, which has been beneficial for the Leafs both at five-on-five and with the man advantage this year.
Morgan Rielly has now scored the most points from a defenceman in the first five games of a season (modern era)
The previous record was held by Bobby Orr (11 points, 1973) pic.twitter.com/1LzLQvxCwP
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) October 12, 2018
Let’s look at a couple of his goals this year.
His game winner against the Chicago Blackhawks shows a combination of his vision and speed that allowed him to make a quick stop, get into the middle of the ice and shoot it five- hole on Cam Ward. While it wasn’t the hardest shot, it was extremely accurate for it to get through that far out.
This next clip is a better representation of Rielly’s improvement on his shot. To give some context, while attending the Marner Assist Fund, Rielly won the hardest shot competition against Auston Matthews. While Matthews spent all summer mastering his already impressive shot, it seems that Rielly worked on his as well. Seeing it up close, you can tell that he was going to use his shot more this year.
Mitch Marner enters the zone and makes a drop pass to a trailing Rielly who is in the middle of the ice. Rielly has enough time to wind up a slapshot and goes opposite corner on Jimmy Howard. The power and accuracy behind his shot is a significant improvement, which will give the Leafs another strong shooter behind Matthews and John Tavares. Rielly is already on pace to break his record in goals (9 in 2015/16).
Here are Rielly’s ice times and advanced numbers, comparing them from last year to the early start of this season.
|EV TOI/ GP||18:16||18:37|
|PP TOI/ GP||2:12||2:13|
|PK TOI/ GP||1:08||0:26|
|5v5 CF %||50.89%||55.33%|
|SCF (All Situations)||1010||96|
|GF (All Situations)||101||18|
Still a small sample for this season, but dating back to his stats last year, Rielly is maintaining a good percentage of possession, while having a plus ratio in both scoring chances for and goals for. All while handling first pairing minutes and having to go up against teams top forward’s every game.
While he may not be getting the opportunities on the penalty kill as he did previously, players like Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev have provided some relief for him as they are the kind of players to be utilized in that situation more often. Although, he has proved that if he needs to be used in that situation, he’s more than ready for when that time comes to kill a penalty.
Whenever he’s on the ice or if the puck is on his stick, he’s making an immediate impact offensively. With his offensive production, he’s put himself in some good company.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) October 12, 2018
It’s a good sign that Rielly is in the same class as former Norris Trophy winner’s Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey. The way that’s he’s producing and holding his own defensively, there’s no doubt that he has put himself in the early discussions for the Norris Trophy as one of the best defensemen in the league.
We knew that Rielly was going to be a good defenseman. But it wasn’t until a couple of years that he started to make a name for himself and develop into the player that he is now.
There’s been an on-going discussion whether if he is a real number one defenseman. While it may be up for debate, he’s the best defenseman the Leafs have had in a while. As a result of his performance and drive to get better as a player, he’s having the best start of his career, a record-breaking one that will have him break his personal best in goals, assists, and points.
Morgan Rielly is a number one defenseman on the Leafs. At the moment, he has been the best defenseman in the league or establishing himself as one. If he continues to perform at a high level on the ice, there’s no doubt that a Norris Trophy might be in his future.
** All stats are up to date as of October, 15th before the game against L. A.