Babcock named Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri as key pieces of the team’s future, saying that trio is better and more competitive than he thought when he took the job. He then pondered whether Rielly was a future No. 1 defenceman for the team.
“We really like him,” he emphasized. “He’s got huge upside.”
Babcock also spoke about how he has challenged Rielly to be better this season, asking him to play against the best players on opposing teams and spend more time on the penalty kill. Those are big signs of trust for a 21-year-old blue-liner.
So, is Rielly trending to be a No. 1 guy? His skillset definitely suggests so, but let’s look at his performance.
Rielly’s skill level shines through the strongest in his transition game, where his incredible skating makes him difficult to handle. He leads all Leafs players in possession-driving plays by a wide margin, and the same goes for loose puck recoveries.
Though Rielly is currently a bit below average in personally removing possession from the opponent, once there’s a chance to get the puck and move it in the right direction, he’s the most likely player on the team to do so.
Rielly is also tied with Gardiner for the most scoring chance-generating plays from the defence, though neither of them tremendously stand out from the league average there.
One area I like to focus on with elite defenders is controlled carries out of the defensive zone. They don’t happen a ton, but almost every defenceman you can think of who’s elite carries the puck out a lot more than average. Rielly isn’t at the level of Erik Karlsson or Roman Josi yet, but he’s just behind Victor Hedman, with a lot of room to grow.
Rielly still has some weaknesses he needs to improve on, such as his below-team average pass success rate, but the way Babcock is challenging him — and the way he has been meeting those challenges — it likely won’t be a question for too much longer whether or not Rielly can be a true. No. 1.
He’s already close.