Truth By Numbers: Comparing Morgan Rielly to NHL’s best blueliners

David Amber, Nick Kypreos and Elliotte Friedman discuss whether Morgan Rielly is a legit Norris Trophy candidate.

Morgan Rielly leads all defencemen in scoring, but is he truly breaking out as an elite talent at his position? We know the Kings are struggling, but why have they been struggling?

That, and more, in this week’s column.


Earlier in the week Sportsnet’s Fan 590 host JD Bunkis had some glowing praise for Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly:

I replied teasingly with a gif, because I’m a little bit skeptical of Rielly’s offensive numbers due to Toronto’s style of play and the wealth of forward talent he’s surrounded by.

But let’s be fair here because JD said one of the most lethal, not the most.

Whenever you talk about a player being elite, the question is what definition are you using? There can be exceptions, but for the most part when I say a player is elite, I mean top-five at their position. So, behind the point production, is Rielly an elite offensive defenceman in terms of actually driving on-ice goals, or just a very good player on a great offensive team?

When I did my player rankings in the off-season, Rielly ranked as the 21st-most impactful defenceman in the league over the past three seasons, but offensively he ranked 18th. Isolating just last season when he had a breakout year, Rielly ranked seventh. Already we’re not far away from the “elite” category.

So, let’s ignore point totals and compare him to the top-five defencemen in the league in a variety of other offensive stats this season.

An important note here is that I took the top-five players in each category, so because they’re not always the same players he’s not being compared to specific defencemen so much as the ideal offensive defencemen. We have to factor that into any analysis off these charts.

Rielly is just outside the top-five in scoring chance generating plays at 5-on-5 among defencemen, ranking sixth this season, which is incredibly impressive. He’s involved in a lot of scoring chances, but he’s not a principal creator of those chances as often as a lot of other defencemen.

He ranks 12th in passes to the slot, but isn’t nearly as aggressive with his shots as the top offensive defencemen in the league, and he isn’t as active in gaining or holding the zone.

On the power play, Rielly is involved in about half as many scoring chances as the best offensive players at his position, and part of the reason for that is the way Toronto’s power play is set up. There’s no need to aggressively pinch forward when you have that group of forwards down low, and he doesn’t need to shoot much at all when he can play more of a supporting role.

I cut overall offensive zone passes out of the power play graph because there are so many that it would break the graph completely. But it’s worth noting Rielly makes 55.8 successful offensive zone passes per 20 minutes on the power play, which is more than any other defenceman in the league, plus he ranks seventh in passes to the slot and East-West passes. Usually when defencemen make East-West passes on the power play they are going to their defence partner, but Rielly doesn’t have one, so he’s more often setting up plays for Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews when he’s healthy.[sidebar]

Being the only defenceman on the power play means he plays at the middle of the blue line, which makes it difficult to stop clearing attempts. Because of this he’s not highly effective at keeping plays alive, but that has nothing to do with him, so he can’t be faulted.

While he’s clearly one of the league’s best puck distributors, I think I’d still place Rielly just a bit outside the top-five offensive defencemen because his role is more in support of a talented forward group than creating offence himself.

That’s the model of the modern defenceman, though, so it’s not a knock on his abilities or effectiveness.

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I told Steve Dangle he couldn’t ask me about the Maple Leafs this week, so we journeyed West and came up with this:

Everyone can see that the Los Angeles Kings aren’t good, but what is it that makes them bad?

The Kings are a very weird team. They play the same style now as they did when they won two Stanley Cups in three years, so it’s super interesting that it doesn’t work anymore.

Part of the reason the Kings aren’t good is they’re old and slow in a league that’s going young and fast, but that’ll hurt them more in the future than now. The bigger issue is the NHL changed around them and they stayed the same.

Every season that I’ve been able to work with microstat data, scoring chances and high danger scoring chances increased the following season. Power play efficiency increased as teams abandoned the point shot and worked more on getting the puck into the slot, and the same thing is happening at 5-on-5.

A league that was built on shot volume was losing the battle against goalies, so teams started to focus more on shot quality. Now, for the third straight year, save percentages are down, but the Kings still go for volume over quality.

Clearly last season under John Stevens the Kings attempted to increase the frequency with which they shot from the slot, but the fact their best season in this statistic ranked 25th in the league says a lot about the kinds of shots the Kings take.

This year is the most they’ve ever been behind the league average — only the Anaheim Ducks are worse.

Whether it’s a roster or system problem, the Kings are just far too willing to shoot from the perimeter. As their core has aged and some of their younger players have disappointed, the Kings don’t have the ability they once did to tilt the ice in shot volume and make up for the overall lower quality of those shots.


• Speaking of the Kings, they made a surprise trade in acquiring Carl Hagelin from the Penguins for Tanner Pearson. I have Pearson ranked as the 39th-best left winger in the NHL and Hagelin as the 64th, but coincidentally Pearson had taken the smallest percentage of his shots from the slot (31.8 per cent) on the Kings this season. Hagelin? 56.6 per cent.

• Mike Hoffman is ripping it up and is on the longest point scoring streak in the league at 14 games, but looking at his performance over that time, he hasn’t been uniquely great. He’s been the same Mike Hoffman we’re used to, which is just a really good player. Things are going right for him that weren’t last year.

• Only two players in the NHL this season have produced more scoring chances at even strength than Timo Meier: teammate Antti Suomela and Brendan Gallagher. A 50-goal pace might be a bit lofty for Meier, but don’t be surprised if he is one of the NHL’s goal leaders in April.

• The Red Wings have won six of their past seven games, and throughout those games they’ve been out-chanced from the high and low slot by a significant margin. Sounds like a lucky streak to me.

• Braden Holtby is struggling again this year, though his even strength play has been fine. He’s just been Swiss cheese when the Capitals are killing penalties, stopping only 70.5 per cent of the shots he faces. The Capitals have been good at limiting chances while shorthanded, but they can’t block passes — they allow the third-most passes to the slot in the league, so Holtby is always forced to move.


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