Morgan Rielly’s Defensive Game Is A Legitimate Concern

The Maple Leafs first round selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has had a good start to his career. Morgan Rielly has 92 career points in 236 games and has shown to be a fierce competitor. He gained the trust of Mike Babcock to lead the Leafs in ice time at 23:14 minutes this past season. At the very least, the Buds have a capable top four defenceman. It is up to Morgan Rielly to take the next step and for Mike Babcock to help him reach greater heights.

Rielly F3S
Rielly’s First Three Seasons

Rielly’s offensive game has been his hallmark throughout his career. Rielly combines his tremendous skating with solid puck skills to make plays out of the zone and into the offensive zone. Whenever one watches a Leafs game, Rielly’s gifts are on full display as he  carries the puck out of the defensive zone and make either a good pass or bring the puck in himself. He routinely makes crisp, tape to tape passes to help create scoring chances. That’s why he is one of the league’s best young offensive defenceman and will be the Leafs powerplay quarterback this season.

This video of Rielly’s goal against the Edmonton Oilers highlights his offensive strengths. Rielly picks up the loose puck, accelerates past the Oilers “defence”, stick-handling and pivoting his way into the slot before finally burying the puck into the back of the net.

We’ve also seen when things can get really bad.

While Rielly’s offensive game continued to grow, his defensive game stagnated. His shot suppression (CA/60) did not improve as well as many had hoped. Moreover, Rielly posted the worst relative CA/60 of his career. As you can see from the Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic (HERO) Chart, Rielly’s offensive game has been mighty impressive for a 21 year old but his defensive game is almost a polar opposite. It can’t get much worse.

Hero Riely
Morgan Rielly HERO Chart

It’s apparent he is abysmal defensively. This is his biggest area of weakness and it will ultimately dictate how good Rielly will be. We know he has the offensive prowess, but defensively he is weak. His CA/60 was the 18th worst in the league this past season to go along with the 22nd worst Relative CA/60 (minimum 500 minutes among Defenceman).

The West Vancouver native faced arguably the toughest competition among Leaf defenders to go along with the toughest zone starts of his career. It has been debated as to how much zone starts matter (not as much as you may think). The majority of shift starts begin on the fly (approx. 60%) with few players having meaningful deployments. I do believe quality of competition (QoC) is important and likely the next step in evolving hockey analytics, however, we need greater research into QoC to understand its effects and distributions. Current research indicates it washes out over a large sample (matters in a 7 game series, washes out over a season). Therefore, we can consider quality of competition  and zone starts but they cannot be the final arbiter for his struggles.

There are couple of areas where Mike Babcock and the coaching staff can help Rielly grow. Primarily, based on the eye test, Rielly struggles to limit space between him and the puck carrier and generally has poor positioning. Combine these with poor stickwork, and there is a reason as to why Rielly had the second worst relative xGA/60 on the Leafs this past year. The coaching staff will need to help Rielly focus on play when he doesn’t have the puck and become better at making defensive reads. This is easier said than done. If Rielly lacks the mental skills then it will become much tougher for him to become a number 1 defenceman. The eye test has many faults. By using possession metrics, we can figure out which players are strong at different areas of the game. A player who generally posts good Corsi Against numbers likely has good stickwork and gap control which stifles the opposition. We can use context, roles, and statistics to help us paint a better picture.

Matt Hunwick played valiantly for the Leafs. He was given just over 17 minutes of ice time at even strength and had Babcock’s trust throughout the season. For Morgan Rielly to grow, he needs to be partnered with a better player.  Hunwick is not alone to blame. Coming into the season, he was the kind of undervalued asset most teams could use on the back-end and contribute.

Story 1

Leafs blogger Draglikepull wrote an article earlier in the season concluding Hunwick is not the reason for Rielly’s lackluster defensive game and sheltering Rielly may be the route to take if there is little improvement in his own zone. Rielly definitely shoulders some blame for the poor performance of the pair. The duo had the seventh worst relative CF% among defence pairings with a minimum of 400 minutes. Throughout the season, it was apparent Rielly needed to get away from Hunwick and Hunwick away from Rielly. Hunwick can be fine in a third pairing role, however; Rielly needs a more capable partner. In addition, he needs to play on his correct side.

Babcock is notorious for wanting players to play on specific sides. This is how he tailored Team Canada and how he would tailor the Leafs if given the best options. In this article by Ansar Khan, Babcock says,

“I just think it’s so much easier when you have a right and lefty on every pair. All you got to do is look at L.A. (Stanley Cup champion Kings), a right and lefty on every pair. Makes it easier to get through the neutral zone, easier off D-zone faceoffs to execute. You have the puck more. You can get it off the wall and shoot it in the offensive zone. To me it just makes sense.”

The idea is that players playing on their correct side can begin the transition game faster and make more accurate passes. Research from Domenic Galamini shows that on average, players are less effective when playing on their offside. This chart shows clearly that an optimal defence should have a lefty-righty balance.

Hockey Graphs pairings

Mike Babcock will have to play Rielly on the correct side. There are no excuses this year: Zaitsev, Corrado, Carrick, and Polak are four right hand shot defenceman under contract. This will also keep him away from Hunwick and hopefully Polak as well. Martin Marincin makes the some sense as well despite being a left hand shot. He is very good at suppressing shots leading the Leafs with a -4.65 REL CA/60. Nikita Zaitsev is another intriguing option but it may be a better idea to pair him with Gardiner as he adjusts to the NHL.

Using Hockey Reference play index, I attempted to create a list of comparable players who were in similar situations to Rielly since 2007-2008. Here are the parameters (All Possession Stats are at 5 on 5, Score, Venue, and Zone adjusted from Corsica Hockey):

  • PPG over first three seasons must be 0.35 or higher
  • Must have played at least 75% of games (minimum 175 games, 159 if in lockout shortened season)
  • Average 20 minutes of ice time/game
  • Play at least 2 more seasons

Rielly Comps Points

Rielly Comps CF

Ultimately, there were 15 players that fit the bill. It is not a large sample by any means but it will do. The player list for the most part includes defencemen that you want on your top pairing and in the last seconds of a game to hold the lead or set up a scoring chance. Looking at the metrics, Rielly performed well in regards to point production and driving offence. His points/60 (all situations) and primary points/60 at even strength are close to the average. His CF/60 was above average illustrating his knack for offence. Moreover, Rielly posted the tenth best iCF/60 among defenceman with a minimum of 500 minutes this past season. If he’s not already elite offensively, he’s definitely trending in the right direction. In his three year sample, his relative xGF% is similar to league average. The biggest concern once again the lack of shot suppression. His relative CA/60 is the second worst to Roman Josi.

Next, I took a look at how they did after their third season.

Future Comps Rielly.png

Future comps CF.png

We see that point production increases and they become better at driving offence. Shot suppression is similar in both. CA/60 decreases (gets better) but CA/60 Relative increases slightly which could be chalked up to an overall better team around them. Roman Josi is an outlier in this data as he has a relative CA/60 of 11.71. Taking him out of the data changes the average relative CA/60 to -1. To maintain some consistency, I took out Jake Gardiner as he had the best relative CA/60. This changed the average to -0.55. Both are closer to the average in the first chart (-0.82). Based on this data, I am inclined to conclude that these defencemen did not necessarily get better at defence or they slightly improved. A couple of players saw a marked improvement (E.g. Tobias Enstrom) whereas others saw a steep decline (E.g. Roman Josi).

I mentioned Draglikepull’s article above. In that article there is a chart that shows similar aged defenceman who played a similar role and produced at similar rates to Rielly with their respective relative CA/60. It found that the majority of comparable defenceman were good in their own end at a young age. The average relative CA/60 of the group was -1.53. Age is one thing, NHL experience is another. I attempted to create another comparable players list. The parameters were the following:

  • Age 24 and under
  • Player must be in their third NHL season
  • PPG greater than 0.39

<24 Comparables to rielly

There were 20 total defencemen with a few names from the previous table. Similar to the previous method, we can see the relative CA/60 tells a similar story. The defencemen for the most part showcased above average skills at shot suppression and were good in their own end at a young age. This doesn’t mean Rielly will not improve. We shouldn’t expect him to become elite at defence (like Gardiner) but he could (I hope) grow to be at least average.

Despite his defensive shortcomings, Rielly does other things very well in his own zone that are important to the transition game. He is adept at carrying the puck out of the zone which is key for a defender (note that this Sportlogiq article does come with sample size issues). Furthermore, Andrew Berkshire wrote that Rielly has displayed signs of being a number 1 defenceman and, once again, that he is solid at moving the puck out of the zone to begin the transition game.

Morgan Rielly needs to take the next step defensively if he is to become an elite NHL defenceman, or at the very least a solid number 2. He needs aid from the coaching staff in developing his defensive abilities and putting him in situations to succeed. He’s a strong skater and puck mover with an abundance of creativity. Ultimately, how much he rounds out his defensive game will dictate how good Morgan Rielly will be.


* Stats from Corsica Hockey and Hockey Reference





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