Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly undeserving of polarizing response to recent struggles

Rielly has been unfairly criticized for the Maple Leafs' recent defensive struggles since his return from injury.

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly has caught a lot of flak for his play since returning from a month-long injury absence. (Reuters)

Morgan Rielly often plays an unenviable role for the Maple Leafs. As an offensive-minded blueliner who is prone to some defensive lapses, Rielly is subject to brutal criticism from some factions of the national fan base, who view him as a liability. Rielly missed more than a month of action with a knee injury that he suffered on Nov. 21 and Toronto weathered his absence with real fluency, in large part due to the stewardship of Mark Giordano, and Rasmus Sandin’s steady ascension into a breakout star.

Rielly signed an eight-year, $60-million extension in October 2021 and the Maple Leafs haven’t expressed any signs of regret. The 28-year-old has been a lightning rod amid another stellar regular season of the Maple Leafs, so we’re here to give a fair breakdown of how he’s fared throughout the 2022-23 campaign.

One of the major critical points of emphasis is that Rielly’s defensive play at 5-on-5 has lapsed badly this season. We’re not entirely sold that he’s been as bad as advertised. Rielly has been hounded for the fact that he’s been on the ice for 18 goals in 26 games at 5-on-5, but his detractors will fail to point out that he’s also been on the ice for 19 goals scored. Goal differential — essentially, plus-minus — isn’t the best way to evaluate a defenseman in 2023, but it’s worth starting here, only for the fact that the main talking point weaponized against him is rooted only in conjecture.

Rielly has posted a 52.4 percent Corsi and the Maple Leafs hold a 53.7 percent share of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, via Natural Stat Trick. Although the Maple Leafs appear to be lightly shielding him — he’s still taking the second-most defensive zone faceoffs per 60 among Toronto’s blueliners — Rielly is starting out on offensive zone faceoffs at a 53.4 percent clip, which isn’t out of the ordinary from his career averages. Toronto holds a .912 on-ice save percentage when Rielly’s on the ice, so there hasn’t been a material drop-off in play when he takes the ice. If you want to poke holes in Rielly’s defensive game, you can point to his team-worst 2.54 expected goals against per 60, but in doing so, you would have to note that he’s generated 2.85 expected goals per 60.

When Rielly returned to the lineup on Dec. 29 against the Coyotes, it also paired coincidentally with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov both taking a precipitous dip in form, cooling off from their white-hot starts to the campaign. There are some things Rielly can be blamed for, but this would be wildly unfair and inaccurate.

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has taken the longview and expressed patience with Rielly getting his legs under him after a month-long absence.

“I don’t think he’s found his rhythm or groove yet,” Keefe said Jan. 4 via Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star. “I think it’s going to take some time, from what it looks like, until he gets really confident and comfortable, and back in game shape to take on the minutes he’s used to taking on. And some adjustments need to be made there in terms of managing his shifts and managing him in games, but I’ve liked his speed that he gives us coming out of our end.

“But there’s some things defensively that will take time, particularly late in your shift, they become a challenge for our guys, and not just for him, but for all of our guys … and coming off an injury, not having played for a number of days, those kind of things can snowball on you.”

Rielly’s progress upon returning to the lineup has been non-linear, which is perhaps one of the two major reasons why some Maple Leafs fans have been frustrated with him. And to be sure, Rielly has struggled in some games. He was Toronto’s worst player in a 5-1 loss to Seattle on Jan. 7, where he was caught napping on a breakaway and took a minor penalty that invigorated the Kraken’s four-goal second period. There have been some poor performances to be sure, but it hasn’t warranted the widespread concern from sectors of the media, who appear to be filling time on the airwaves by making Rielly’s return from injury into a larger concern.

We’ve discussed how Rielly has impacted the Maple Leafs at 5-on-5, but the real difference may be on the power play. Toronto has experimented with its five-forward formation in Rielly’s absence, and used this format through Thursday’s loss to the Kraken. Rielly is Toronto’s power play quarterback, he provides a steady presence in dictating angles for Auston Mathews and William Nylander to get optimal shooting lanes and continuity certainly matters. He returned to the power play against the Red Wings on Saturday and it provided immediate results — he picked up a secondary assist on Mitch Marner’s game-tying goal and the unit looked a lot more fluid with him patrolling the blue line.

“I felt pretty good the last couple of nights - it takes time to get back into the rhythm but it also feels good to be back with the team and traveling and playing,” Rielly said Saturday night via TSN’s Claire Hanna.

There’s a secondary component to the Rielly criticism, which always is unfair to the player and extraneous to the on-ice results: will Rielly’s contract age well? Rielly turns 29 in March and is in the middle of his prime, leading some to believe the surplus value he provides offensively will soon dry up, while his defensive lapses will compound as the years go on.

We’ll wage that there’s a good chance this contract may prove to be burdensome for the Maple Leafs toward the latter years, but for now, Rielly is certainly playing up to his contract and the idea that it could be a bad signing is again immaterial to Toronto’s chances of contending for a Cup. That’s all that matters for this group and Rielly’s not only contributing positively, he’s eating up the regular season minutes that Giordano was taking on, allowing the 39-year-old to be in prime shape for a deep playoff run.

People are often looking for a scapegoat, even when things are going well. That’s the territory Rielly and the Maple Leafs find themselves in after six consecutive first-round exits — unfair, prone to hyperbole and selective memories. Rielly has largely been an asset to the Maple Leafs and we’ll take the optimistic view that he should be back to normal after taking a few games to get his conditioning back.

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