It looks like Tyson Barrie is gone and there is another offensive defender in the early days of the season drawing heat away from Leafs fans and it is Morgan Rielly. We’ll start by confirming that Morgan Rielly’s stats were pretty crappy this year. Rielly has the lowest xG% of any Leafs defenders, and for a more offensive player, the fact that he only has one main point in his name is a bit annoying as well. Contrary to these numbers, it should be recognized that the Leafs are once again calling on Rielly to start the year with a new defense partner who plays a markedly different style than his previous one. Is that an excuse enough, yes for some of you, no for others, and that’s why it’s always complicated when it comes to Toronto and offensive defenders.
Larry Murphy is definitely the name that stands out the most when it comes to defenders with high levels of offensive acumen but liabilities in their own zone. Murphy didn’t have the benefit of playing in a time when underlying shot stats existed, and as such, it was a much more difficult case than Rielly this year or Barrie last year. Murphy was certainly not the first defense attorney to receive this criticism. Dave Ellett didn’t get the same scorn as Murphy but was certainly a whipping boy for being a defender struggling to play defense and the Leafs decided to leave Al Iafrate at a time when the Leafs had a star Can use like him but defensive problems, not Allan Bester where that was one of the reasons the Leafs of the 80s fought. Since Murphy, we can point to Bryan McCabe, Jake Gardiner, Tyson Barrie, and to some extent even Tomas Kaberle as players who have all been treated similarly by Toronto’s fans.
The fact that Rielly’s situation isn’t new doesn’t invalidate feelings about him, and in reality his situation is quite complicated. While he’s an outstanding player in the league when it comes to blueline insults, he’s not the only Leafs defender capable of doing so. Lehtonen and Liljegren develop options and Brodie should certainly be viewed as offensive rather than defensive. Dermott, Holl, and Muzzin are all capable at times, too, and Sandin is another developing two-way defender who could lean more offensively. There seems to be a feeling that the offense Rielly brings with it is less important than his defensive skills, which are not particularly good. There’s also a valid criticism that his lack of a powerful point shot leaves the Leafs blueline missing from power play and a blistering chara slapshot would be far more useful in a power play where Marner, Nylander, Thornton and others are already on the move Skillfully carry puck.
If you look from the ice and instead look at the financial statements, there’s the little thing about Rielly’s contract. This is exactly when Rielly’s contract comes in handy. He’s playing past the $ 5 million cap hit. He has a year left after this season, and given the Leafs’ history of letting their unrestricted freelance agents run for free, the Leafs appear to be sitting on a highly prized asset that may not be part of their long-term vision. There’s also Rielly’s signing bonus that deserves consideration, and it means he only owes $ 3 million base salary when traded after the July 1st bonus. I don’t think the Leafs should act Rielly just yet, but it’s one of the options that comes up here.
That brings us back to the options Morgan Rielly offers?
Option 1: keep it and give it time
The Leafs have had the Rielly / Brodie pairing for all 10 games together. Expecting the two to click instantly and feed each other was a pipe dream and history has shown that defensive pairings clicking can take a while and perhaps time is guaranteed here. The Muzzin-Holl pairing was able to handle the defensive tough minutes and perhaps the Rielly-Brodie pairing will soon be able to handle the critical offensive moments.
There’s also the thought that maybe Rielly / Brodie just couldn’t work. If so, the Leafs could revert to their earlier attempts to anchor Rielly at home in the form of Zach Bogosian, and get Brodie and Dermott dressed up as a solid third pairing.
There’s a lot of history to show that Rielly is better than what we’ve seen this year, and Brodie’s career so far suggests the same for him. It makes sense to investigate what can be done with these talented defenders.
Option 2: try moving him forward
This seems to be the favorite of people who are fully aware of Rielly’s talent but are also aware of his shortcomings and don’t want the Leafs to deviate from him. On the surface, it’s about the issue of the Leafs needing more firepower in the front, and it creates an opening for Lehtonen or Sandin at the back end (which if you’re frustrated with Rielly how you’ll feel with increased minutes) for Lehtonen ), and the Leafs can react quickly to this.
We saw the Leafs take this step with Ian White for a couple of games, Justin Holl also played as a striker for some time in another life, and trying to convert Jake Gardiner into a striker has been a common theme of the Leafs Fans throughout his time with Toronto. We can look at examples like Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Burns and even Wendel Clark and acknowledge that it is possible, but really think about what the Leafs would get with Rielly.
Rielly doesn’t necessarily compliment what’s already in the top 6 at this point, and with his learning curve for the position, he won’t be ready for it. He’ll be in the third row at best with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev, not exactly players who will trigger his offensive growth.
There’s something to be said too, because the real value of Rielly’s offense is that this quick, playful option for the fourth striker in attack and puck cycles and removing him from that role turns him into a pretty run of the mill Mid-six winger flatten, not someone you would estimate at around $ 5 million anyway.
There should also be some appreciation for what Rielly is doing right on defense, and that means that he generally reads very good Onslaught from men (as long as Connor McDavid isn’t involved), and he provides an important opportunity when he’s up team is in their own zone to move the puck towards them so that they can make it easier to leave the zone.
Aside from his questionable positional play, cover choices, and lack of physicality, there are components in Rielly’s defensive play that justify keeping him as a defender and not experimenting all-in with him. Especially one that would likely affect its commercial value.
Option 3: trade with him
The idea of trading with Rielly right away isn’t particularly appealing to me, and here’s why:
Find me a team looking for an attacking defender whose striker has a price tag of no more than $ 5 million, which the Leafs would consider fair value to Rielly. The options are pretty slim, and with Rielly, you’d be looking for someone who is on a top-line wing or a second-line talent level. In a year where the Leafs are positioned for a significant playoff performance (or at least last stand with that core), getting Rielly up for a question mark this season isn’t particularly appealing. It’s also much more likely that teams will want to take advantage of the options available such as Vince Dunn, Victor Mete, and even Travis Dermott.
After this season, however, the situation around Rielly changes significantly. As soon as the free agency is opened, Rielly can extend his contract. If the Leafs want that and can get him at the price they’re paying him now, then toss the trade idea completely out of the window and move on. Unfortunately, the reality is that there will likely be a few million dollars left on Rielly’s annual salary and that shouldn’t be a beginner for the Leafs and then walk away from him. Waiting until after July 1st (which is likely since the season is after that date) means Rielly’s base salary is all his future team will pay him, and $ 3 million for a year Morgan Rielly is attractive everywhere, especially for those who are interested in signing it for the long term. This is where it makes sense to move on.
Go with option 1 short term and option 3 in summer
In my opinion, the Leafs are better off going with Morgan Rielly and maybe thinking a little about how varied the blueline is. In a league where players like Erik Karlsson, PK Subban, Kris Letang, Thomas Chabot, John Carlson and other offensive defenders are sought after by Leafs fans themselves, we as a fan base place a relatively low value on Rielly and a low value for appreciation the kind of game he plays. While I can fully understand that the Leafs are not strong enough to keep their top-minute defender fighting at the position, it should be explored how the Leafs can handle Rielly better and make him Rielly rather than Rielly Adding components to his game that just will never be there.
In the off-season, it makes sense to part. While we should all estimate a $ 5 million Morgan Rielly, we should be dreading a slightly older $ 7 million Morgan Rielly as a long-term part of the Leafs. In a summer when at least 8 teams lose a defender to Seattle, there will likely be a market for him too. Be patient and out of love for God don’t use him as a striker.