In a Leafs season plagued by darkness it has been difficult to find any sort of positive light in this team. Yes, we in Leafs Nation have found some solace through ‘The Tank’ and a possible albeit very slim hope in drafting McDavid, and yes we have also shared a few laughs through a number of cleverly manipulated photos of military tanks, 18-wheelers and massive tire fires, but we also have something else REAL to cheer for. In the middle of that black hole of an organization there is a shiny bright star growing ever brighter by the day. It however, only just recently was given a chance to truly shine and show the world how bright it actually was. So without dramatizing this metaphor any further let me introduce you to the Leafs young bright star, Morgan Rielly.
Rielly was drafted 5th overall from the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League in the 2012 NHL entry draft. His pedigree was accompanied with high expectations but also with a certain degree of reservation. This reservation came as no surprise, as this organization has had a storied history of mishandling its youthful talent. Steen, Rask, Tlusty and Schenn are just some recent examples of how the Leafs have miserably failed from a youth development standpoint. So, for a team that has been notoriously known for torpedoing its top young talent, it has been a rare but ever so welcome occurrence to witness the growth of Morgan Rielly.
The speed of Rielly’s development has exceeded even the most optimistic of fans. On the back of a very strong 2013 training camp Morgan literally shoved his way onto the Leafs opening day roster as the 7th defenseman. A large consensus amongst Leafs nation forecasted this would be an excellent experience for him and that he would see himself back to the WHL before he played his 10th game, which if played would consequently trigger his entry level contract (ELC). Yet, what transpired was quite different. Rather than only playing 9, he instead only missed 11 games of an entire 2013-14 campaign that saw him play a regular shift, put up 27 points and establish himself as a name to watch for in the future.
Enter a 2014-15 season marred with failure and it wouldn’t have been at all shocking that a young star like Rielly would get lost in the shuffle adding yet another name to the long list of casualties in this travesty known as the Leafs youth development program. Again, what has transpired is quite different. Instead of falling victim to hesitation and indecisive play, which has claimed the majority of this Leafs lineup during “The Collapse IV”, he has gained confidence, earned more ice time and asserted himself as a potential elite talent in the NHL.
I like to believe I take a patient approach when assessing NHL prospects. Experience has shown me that absolute base line stat production is not something to rely heavily on when evaluating the performance of young talent. What I do rely more on is the rate of change in base line stat growth and also the pattern of progress in key but less easily measured hockey areas. Some of these areas include the ability to play within a team’s system, adapting to changing roles assigned by coaches and an individual’s effort to improve in problem/weak areas. All in all, it’s not what the numbers are at the end of the season, but rather how they got there that’s important.
The Scouting Report
Watching Morgan Rielly play hockey is easy on the eyes to say the least. He skates well is strong on the puck, has a nice release and is a solid physical presence on the ice. He may not lay out that big bone bruising hit, but he uses his strong frame well to box out opponents, shield the puck and pin guys along the boards.
Over the course of this and last season Rielly has made a noticeable effort in improving his all around game. For one, his shot has more zip, is quicker off his stick and is being seen far more frequently with every passing game. Second, his skating continues to improve, which is frighteningly impressive considering it was never a weakness to begin with. Opposing rushers appear to have far less time with the puck when Rielly is closing gaps nowadays than compared to earlier in his career. His improved skating is even more evident in his increasing number of end-to-end offensive rushes. It’s possible that this level of skating and quality shooting may have always been in Rielly’s repertoire and that an increase in comfort level or confidence has brought it to the forefront. Either way, whether confidence induced or effort driven, Rielly has shown steady growth in this hockey area, which is a great sign in his development so far.
Defensive pairings have changed quite often this season, which can be a difficult adjustment for any player no matter what caliber or experience level. Rielly has been paired with Polak and Robidas for the most part of this 2014-15 season and in doing so saw his role dramatically change with each pairing.
While paired with Robidas on the team’s 3rd pairing, Rielly faced easier minutes and saw a relatively lower TOI as compared to other pairings. Though he faced easier competition, I was particularly impressed with his performance at both ends of the ice opposite the wily veteran, which saw Rielly play a more conservative yet still effective style of defense.
He was then bumped to the 2nd pairing along side Polak, his current and IMO most likely best fit in a defensive partner. Switching defensive partners also saw Rielly’s role change. He would now face a tougher level of competition, increased TOI and assume a more focused role as a puck carrying defenseman. When the change first occurred, I expected Rielly would encounter some growing pains, but I was pleasantly surprised with how he handled the increase in responsibility. Yes, he was exposed on a number of occasions early on, however I felt as time progressed he chipped away at that exposure and started to settle nicely into his new role.
Cue the firing of Randy Carlyle and the injury to Dion Phaneuf and Rielly yet again would see his role take another significant leap. Under Randy, Rielly was closely monitored and watched over, not unlike a parent to a teenage child. According to many interviews with people close to the team, players included, it was a far more stressful environment under Randy as compared to Horachek. Where Randy would sit and scold young developing players on their mistakes, Horachek is now taking a more hands-off approach and letting them work it out more for themselves.
“The mistakes will happen, but the focus going forward is on trying to play the game right.” Horachek (essentially summarized)
The above methodology sounds great at first, but when you think on it further is somewhat self-defeating and possibly even contradictory. No matter, it appears the players, particularly the young talent, have warmed up to Horachek because of it.
With Dion out Rielly saw his TOI jump to 22-23min/game and he is handling it just fine. Confidence seems to ooze from this kid when he’s on the ice these days. According to the Rangers broadcast crew, “That Reilly kid is dangerous when he has the puck.” Coming from an opposing fan base, one could chalk that up as being a ‘stamp of approval’ in that Reilly is certainly on his way.
The Numbers Report
Below is an illustration depicting Rielly’s CF% (% of Leafs’ shot attempts while Rielly is on the ice) as compared to the Leafs’ CF% when he is off the ice.
For most of the season, Rielly showed he pushed possession for the Leafs since his results were consistently better while on the ice as opposed to while off. However, the gap came to a quick close at the time Horachek replaced Randy. This I believe is primarily the result of Horachek’s system change and how it improved the overall shot metrics of this team rather than the result of a decrease in relative performance from Rielly. Disclaimer: Please, don’t mistake my statement of an improvement in shot metrics as an improvement in this team’s ability to win games. I’ve stated many times in the past, possession is just a cog in the machine that is the evaluation process.
The above graph looks at Rielly’s goals against per 60 minutes of play versus the Leafs team as a whole. Since this is a 15-day moving average you can add 15 games to each data point to have an idea of where in the season we are looking at. For example, the 1st data point on the graph would be indicative of changes represented as a result of the 16th game of the season. That first spike at around the 3rd to 11th data points represents his first change in role and increased responsibility on the 2nd pairing. He experienced some difficulty, but did well to adjust and adapt, hence the consequent drop afterwards. Yes, he was also switched back to the 3rd pairing with Robidas, but that occurred somewhat after the trend began its decent. Further down, at around the 30th data point we see Rielly’s GA/60 start to become volatile once again, but not as volatile as the first role change. This represents the 2nd time he had been paired with Polak and hence, another change in role. Also in and around that time, Dion fell from the lineup due to injury. Though his numbers aren’t great averaging around 2.3 goals against per 60, he is performing far better than the team has as a whole and on a fairly consistent basis.
What’s been most impressive about Rielly’s development this year is his increase in TOI/gm. If we take into account his performance as it relates to CF% and GA/60, it hasn’t fallen off much at all with respect to his corresponding increase in usage. That stat shows improvement more than any other, because it indicates a trust from the coaching staff. Let me stress that this increase in usage started while Randy was still coaching and continued on through to Horacheck; an indictment that Rielly was able to impress and perform no matter who was in charge.
I’m not saying that Rielly is our best defenseman right now, but he’s certainly close to it. What’s promising is that in the midst of this disaster of a season we have a 2nd year player that has shown tremendous growth in difficult conditions. Sophomore jinx? Bah, Rielly will have none of that!
From what I’ve seen thus far, I have no doubt in his potential of becoming an elite defenseman in the NHL. If he continues to be a student of the game, as indicated through my scouting and numbers reports, he will most certainly tap that potential.
Yes, there are holes in his game as it pertains to positioning in the defensive and neutral zones, but Morgan Rielly has demonstrated time and time again that he CAN correct his mistakes. I have the utmost confidence that he will address these positional concerns in due time.
Hey, Leafs Nation, we have finally found ourselves a #1 defenseman! 1 down… 22 to go.
Stats via war-on-ice.com