Future Considerations: Scouting report on Maple Leafs call-up Marshall Rifai

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to the media about Marshall Rifai being recalled from the Toronto Marlies on an emergency basis after William Lagesson was forced to leave Saturday's game with an upper-body injury.

The Maple Leafs have recently been forced to dig deep into their depth chart on the blue line, with Marshall Rifai called up and put into Monday night’s lineup.

Between injuries, illness, suspensions, and other unforeseen circumstances Toronto has dressed 11 different defencemen so far this season.

So who is the latest call up? Here’s my quick hit analysis on the 25-year-old defenceman who played 11:33 in Monday’s 4-2 win against St. Louis.

Meet Marshall Rifai

When scouting potential NHL players, including recalls from the AHL, I always set a baseline that the player has to provide:

• The NHL is loaded with playmakers. Skaters, especially defencemen, have very little time to read and react properly. They have to be armed with sound hockey sense and the ability to make plays under duress.

• Just as important is their ability to get from point A to point B on time and preferably ahead of opponents. The game has turned into a track meet. It’s non-negotiable, the player has to be able to skate at NHL pace.

• Lastly, the player has to be a relentless competitor. I’m not so much interested in how they win battles all over the ice, just that they end up on the positive side of puck possession by winning back pucks, killing plays defensively, and pushing back physically when required.

Rifai ticks off these three boxes for me and he gives the Leafs an option as a depth defender.

Rifai’s already 25 and a left shot /two-way defenceman listed at 6-foot, 185 pounds who doesn’t provide a ton of offence. It’s curious to me why he doesn’t have better numbers offensively, though. He’s an excellent skater who’s quick to space, launches the attack and has the legs to join as an extra layer off the rush.

I especially appreciate how he kills plays below his goal line, isn’t shy about pushing back physically, and has sound spatial awareness with the puck on his stick. He sees the ice.

The NHL, of course, is an entirely different animal compared to the AHL. Rifai will have to be “in tune” with how plays are developing in his defensive zone. He can’t afford to take a pause at any time.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about when I say “take a pause”…

In this clip Rifai enters the play via a line change. He shoulder checks heading into his zone and puts himself in a strong support position defensively. As the play rotates to the boards, he’s engaged with his check momentarily, but “takes a pause” for a moment and ends up on the wrong side of the check. Small area plays like this will lead to scoring chances against at the NHL level when lanes to work off the cycle or drive to the net open up.

It’s an area of his game he can’t afford to expose at the NHL this level.

Conversely, here’s an example of what I appreciate about Rifai’s game. This sequence occurs at the tail end of the same shift. He identifies his man from behind the goal line, tracks his route to the puck, jumps to space ahead of his opponent, makes a small area outlet pass and joins the rush offensively.

At the NHL level Rifai would have received a more appropriate pass from his forward when he had the middle lane available on the offensive zone entry. It’s too bad the play broke down the way it did, but had nothing to do with Rifai’s overall execution.

First NHL game

Rifai’s first game Monday against St. Louis was a “safe” introduction to the NHL.

He was on the ice for only 11:33 and all of his ice time came at even strength. He was credited with one hit and one blocked shot.

Circling back to what I’m looking for with players (hockey sense/skating/compete), here’s an example of what Rifai can do well:

In this sequence he corals a puck on his strong side, takes the play to the weak side and when he recognizes he doesn’t have any options to move the puck he spins off the first forechecker, sets up behind the net, looks over his options as he settles the play, and makes an outlet to T.J. Brodie that leads to a zone exit.

If he keeps things simple, like the example in the play above, the coaches will gain more confidence in Rifai’s game.

Projection: NHL recall defenceman. Two-way defenceman with better than average physical pushback. No. 7 defenceman.

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