Toronto Maple Leafs: Morgan Rielly’s Mistaken Identity

Feb 15, 2017; Columbus, OH, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Zach Hyman (11) and defenseman Morgan Rielly (44) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 15, 2017; Columbus, OH, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Zach Hyman (11) and defenseman Morgan Rielly (44) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

There is been constant criticism of the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive pairings.  

Jake Gardiner, Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin, and Connor Carrick have all been heavily criticized. One guy that constantly falls under the radar is Morgan Rielly. Why is he overlooked? And why is he often left unscathed by analysts? I would argue that it is a case of mistaken identity on the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line.

We have labeled Morgan Rielly as a top defenseman.  The best of the group and  therefore untouchable . Despite being the core of the Toronto Maple Leafs defense, any criticism of him seems to be sacrilegious and others like Gardiner become the poster boy for missed assignments and boneheaded pinches along the boards. I think we are mislabeling, or misidentifying, Morgan Rielly.

Who is Morgan Rielly?

He is a B.C. native that is the mainstay and heart of the core on the blue line for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and yet it is very difficult to say what his role really is.  Is he an offensive defenseman? No. Not when he has three goals this season and has a career average of 6.2 over an 82 game season. Is he a stay-at-home defenseman? No, what stay-at-home defenseman do you ever want jumping into the rush?

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Is he THE leader of the team? The documentary shown on Sportsnet leading up to the Winter Classic showed that he is. Is he a guy that comes thru at the end of games to score that winning goal? No. He doesn’t have a single game winning goal in his entire career.  Is he that guy that blocks that shot at the end saving a goal to force a game into overtime? Not any more so than anyone else on the team. He isn’t even always the go-to-guy for Babcock at the end of games.  Is he on the top power play unit as a power play specialist? Again no, as Jake Gardiner is their top power play defenseman.  So, who is Morgan Rielly and where does he really fit?

For too long has Leaf Nation just accepted that Morgan Reilly is untouchable and a mainstay and a top defender. I too thought this once, and it wasn’t long ago.

Finding His Identity

At the beginning of the season during the World Cup, I saw Morgan Rielly flourish playing with the likes of Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko. For the first time since his draft year did I think to myself, this kid could be our #1 and the heart of the Maple Leafs blue-line.

But as the season wore on, so did the question of his identity. Most will say he is the Maple Leafs top defender, and maybe that is true, but that is more out of default than anything. Leaf Nation has handed the reins over the Rielly without truly understanding what a top defenseman is.  Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, etc. These guys took the top spot on their respective teams instead of it falling to them. This is nothing personal to Morgan Rielly, but similar to how Dion Phaneuf was given the position of captain and top defenseman, Morgan Rielly fell into a similar type of position.

His Identity

If i were to tell you the type of player that I think Morgan Rielly is, as unpopular as it will be, he is a compliment-type defender.  He is the Nikita Zaitsev to Morgan Rielly. Yes, I just said Morgan Rielly is the Nikita Zaitsev to Morgan Rielly.

Let me very briefly explain. As mentioned, he is not an offensive defenseman, stay-at-home defenseman, power play specialist, or THE leader on the team. We really aren’t even sure if he is part of the veteran group or if he is more part of the younger core with the likes of Matthews, Marner, Nylander etc.

Each of these shirts that he has worn, at some point in his career, has fit a little too loosely.  But the shirt that fit best was when he was playing alongside of Colton Parayko and Aaron Ekblad at the World Cup earlier this season. At no time have I seen Reilly play so well.  Not before the World Cup of Hockey, and still not 64 games into this season. What made the World Cup any different for Morgan Rielly? He was able to be the compliment player to Ekblad and Parayko, even out shining them at times.

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Morgan Rielly doesn’t need another Nikita Zaitsev on his line for him to be the best that he can be. He needs to be the Nikita Zaitsev of the line. He needs a true #1 defenseman to pair up with to be able to bring out the best in him, and with Rielly priding himself on being able to play both sides of the blue-line this only bodes well for Toronto Maple Leafs management. Lou, if you are listening, find Rielly a top defenseman to play with, of either dexterity.  Let’s finally accept Rielly’s true identity because the sooner we do, the sooner we can get to fixing the real problems on the blue-line.

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