Why Morgan Rielly is so important to Maple Leafs' playoff hopes

Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s not great for the narrative's sake, but the reality is that there isn’t one clear blueprint we can pull from past Stanley Cup Champions besides “have lots of good players.”

For example, “defence wins championships” is an unshakeable truth in hockey, right? Here’s who played the most minutes for the 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs.

I think it’s fair to say they weren’t a defensive juggernaut, and that they found other ways to win.

Of course, I do believe that group was a pretty wild exception to one of the few rules I do generally believe: Cup-winning D-corps need at least one capital-g Guy to depend on in the post-season. Going back over the past 20 years or so it’s not hard to see the importance there, whether it’s Victor Hedman or Alex Pietrangelo or Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty or Kris Letang or Zdeno Chara or Nick Lidstrom, most teams have had one guy who can gobble major minutes and tough assignments and somehow come out on the right side of the ledger.

When they haven’t, like that Penguins team (or depending how you feel about John Carlson with the Capitals), it puts a lot of pressure on the forwards. Not an insurmountable volume, but a lot.

This has been a long way of getting to this point: how Morgan Rielly plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the post-season is going to dictate just how much pressure is put on the forwards to perform. We know the Leafs are one of the best offensive teams in hockey, but things tighten up in the post-season, and a good Rielly would go a long way to keeping down the opponent’s totals, which would keep things more manageable for the forwards, and likely result in wins.

I’m told those are good if you want the Cup.

Rielly plays the most out of any D-man on the Maple Leafs, having averaged 23:41 per night. With that kind of role, the expectations are explicit: he’s the number one guy, and they intend to lean on him. They have all year, as they have in every recent year, only there’s been something a little concerning this time -- he hasn’t looked great. Good, sure, but not “great,” which he’s offered in the past.

A quick statistical walk.

Sorted by roughly any category you like, Rielly is Toronto's best offensive creator from the back-end (excluding Rasmus Sandin’s small sample of games), though marginally. But he’s also one of the worst for allowing opponents to create offence, to a degree that outstrips his offensive value so far this season.

Here’s the Leafs D sorted by basic stuff (thanks to Natural Stat Trick for these tables). I’ve sorted by percentage, but it’s worth glancing at the “against” numbers, too.

Which direction do the 5-on-5 shot attempts go with each D-man on the ice (Corsi For Percentage)? We’ll talk matchups and usage later.

Expected goals:

High danger chances:

Scoring chances -- not just the high danger ones -- looks the same as this above list, too. You get the point. There’s a lot happening the wrong way when Rielly is on the ice.

The good news is, things are more favourable in terms of raw goals when he’s on the ice.

That point is a divide in the analytics community, where some think Rielly’s just getting saves and shooting luck for the results to be better than the the process, but I believe he’s got a good deal of impact here.

Still, those numbers are a little concerning for two reasons. One is that it’s not like he’s been handed the toughest assignment on the D-corps, so you’d expect his numbers to be good. He doesn’t play the toughest competition, and he gets generous offensive zone starts for a guy we look at as a No. 1.

As you can see, three defenders play marginally tougher competition and only Dermott sees O-zone draws like Rielly does (thanks to Dobber Hockey for the graph).

If this were just the type of player Rielly has always been it would barely be worth talking about. We’d have him pegged as a more offensive-minded D-man with some defensive shortcomings who may be a flawed top-pair guy, or a very good second pair guy. But he’s talked about in much higher regard than that because he’s been much better than this. He finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting just two years ago.

Below are Rielly's isolated impact on things in the offensive and defensive zones (thanks to HockeyViz for the heat maps) over the past five years of his career. You’d like to see big plus numbers in the offensive zone (top), and big minus numbers in the defensive zone (bottom). Spot the trends.

You’re essentially seeing a guy who’s become increasingly high event over the years at both ends of the rink. This year is concerning because while his defensive impact has gotten worse, his offensive impact has receded back closer to where it was five years ago. That doesn’t math out for an overall positive impact given the role he plays, and that’s concerning.

More than any of this stat mumbo-jumbo is that it’s been visible in Rielly's decision-making, which is maybe the strangest part. Strange, because it doesn’t seem like he’s suddenly slower or weaker or any different in any conceivable way. It seems mental. (In fairness if there were going to be a difficult season mentally, surely this would be the front-runner.)

Every player has a faux pas over the course of a season, so it’s mostly useless to highlight incidents in video, but I’ve mentioned it a few times on Sportsnet pre-game shows and I’ve tweeted about it too. My point there is, these aren’t one-off "oopsies", they’ve been regularly noticeable.

Some of the errors are too aggressive, as he is just inside the blue here.

Some are sleepy, as he loses his guy skating at a very moderate speed to the net here:

And some just kind of lack urgency:

Any way you slice it, the player considered by most to be Toronto's best defenceman is not in the midst of his best season.

You never want to lose track of what he does that’s so important for this team -- he’s 12th in scoring among all defencemen with 34 points -- it’s just about expectations with Rielly.

The Leafs finally have a solid D-corps, but it remains to be seen whether their No. 1 is going to be more like Duncan Keith or Brian Dumoulin. He’s nowhere near the top of the list when you say “as he goes this team goes,” but he’s up there in importance.

Because if Rielly's not going, it asks a lot more of everyone else.

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