Toronto Maple Leafs: Is Defence a strength now?

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Justin Abdelkader
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Justin Abdelkader /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are having a good start to the season, and that couldn’t have happened without a few surprises.

The Toronto Maple Leafs sit second in the Atlantic Division, and this wouldn’t have been true without a few surprises on the back end.  Coming into the campaign the Leafs had numerous question marks in their line up. Most notably the blue-line, one that consists of Morgan Rielly, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner as their top four.

However, the defense has been a strength for the Leafs this season, something not many expected.

The Key?

The key to the defense? Morgan Rielly.

Rielly sits in the top five in the NHL for points by a defenseman with 3 goals and 13 assists in 19 contests. Not only is it his point production that has been outstanding, but his defensive work as well. He’s a 53% possession player and what seemed like a weakness a year ago, looks like a strength so far this season.

Another surprise has been Nikita Zaitsev.

Zaitsev got into the swing of things early. Playing on both the powerplay and penalty kill, logging huge minutes and looking like arguably the best Leafs defenseman. That was soon taken over by Rielly, but that doesn’t hide the fact that he has been key to this Leafs team thus far.

Not taking anything away from Zaitsev’s season a year ago, but he has been much better at both ends.

What Helped?

Ron Hainsey signed a two year, six million dollar contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs this off-season. A move that was surprising, given that he is 36 years-old and no one’s idea of a top-four defenseman. He was slated to play with Morgan Rielly the day he was brought in.

More from Editor In Leaf

At this point it’s easy to credit Hainsey with Rielly’s ascension, but we should keep in mind that each of Hainsey’s previous three partners did better when they got away from Hainsey. Currently, Rielly goes from a 52.6 possession rating with Hainsey, to a 54.33 % rating when he’s away from him.  Hainsey drops to a 48% player when he has to play with Rielly.

This isn’t to say their games don’t compliment each other, or that the Hainsey hasn’t helped Rielly, but the stats just don’t fit the easy-narrative that Hainsey somehow made Rielly better.  More than likely, Rielly is just entering his prime and living up to his potential after four seasons in the NHL.

Coming Together

Coming into the 2017/18 NHL season, the possibility that the Toronto Maple Leafs coold do something special was real, but something had to happen for that to come true. The defense had to improve.

Has it improved enough?  Probably not.  The Leafs could really use another top-four defenseman, but either way, the elevation of Rielly to what has been, so far, an elite performance has allowed them to get by so far.  It will be interesting to see what moves they make to improve further.

Next: Top storylines thus far

For now, we will wait and see what comes of this team and see if any more surprises can come along the way.

stats from