After a disappointing season offensively in 2016-17 where he struggled to handle the tough minutes assigned to him by his coaches, Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly is only 10 points back of last season’s total after just 20 games, and on pace for a career-high 70 points.
On the surface the only thing that has changed for Rielly is that he has a new defence partner, and a lot of credit has been given to Ron Hainsey. But I think before we make that judgment we should delve into Rielly’s game a little bit and see if anything is different.
The biggest change in Rielly’s results at even strength comes from a regression in his on-ice percentages. Last season, Rielly was brutalized by a PDO of just 97.52, leading to an on-ice goals for percentage of just 41.67%, despite a relatively strong Corsi of 50.28%.
This season, Rielly has been slightly better at controlling play while he’s been on the ice, with a 52.17% Corsi, +2.84% relative to his teammates, and his PDO almost dead-on league average at 100.1.
As those statistics are on-ice stats, accounting for all players on the ice, there’s no guarantee that they’re a result of Rielly’s play. They could mean the difference has been Hainsey, but when you look deeper there are some good signs in Rielly’s individual play.
Over the summer, I listened to Gus Katsaros, a hockey analyst for McKeen’s on the Steve Dangle Podcast, speak about Rielly and one thing he mentioned was that while Rielly was a strong puck rusher, his rushes rarely created offence. Rielly was indeed one of the best defenceman in the NHL last year at transitioning the puck up the ice with his skating but, like Katsaros said, there were a lot of failed plays mixed in with his success.
Katsaros’ analysis encouraged me to look a bit closer at Rielly’s transition game, and he’s made some changes.
This season, Rielly has cut down both his carry outs and his stretch passes, instead relying on the shorter outlet passes that have a higher success rate, hitting his teammates with passes in stride much more often. Delegating a bit of the transition game to his forwards and then joining the rush has given Rielly a bit more versatility and lead to fewer mistakes.
He has also increased his tendency to make passes in the offensive zone, without seeing a drop in his success rate, meaning more puck movement before shots when he’s out there than before.
The result has been a 42 per cent increase in Rielly’s involvement in creating scoring chances at even strength, surpassing Jake Gardiner as the team’s best offensive defenceman so far, which has also led to Rielly having more confidence on the power play, an area he has struggled for most of his career.
Unfortunately for Rielly, this doesn’t mean that he’ll put up 70 points this season. While Rielly’s PDO is stable at 100.1, its components are pretty wonky. He has an on-ice shooting percentage of 11.48%, and an on-ice save percentage of 88.62%. As the season moves along, that shooting percentage should drop significantly, and the save percentage should rise.
Rielly could easily maintain the same level of performance, but his goals for and goals against should go down over time; it’s just how hockey works.
Even if it’s not sustainable in terms of point production, this start is excellent progress for Rielly, who has all the tools to be a top-end defenceman but hasn’t quite found his peak level of performance yet.