Can the Maple Leafs Play the Same Kind of Defense Now That Rielly Is Back?

Morgan Reilly Return Looming
Morgan Reilly Return Looming / Chris Tanouye/GettyImages

Once the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced they were going to suspend Morgan Reilly for five games for his crosscheck on Reily Greig, a panic set in among Toronto Maple Leafs fans who worried that the team's blue-line was already paper-thin.

Not only have the Toronto Maple Leafs coped without Morgan Reilly, but they have put forth some of their best defensive efforts we have seen all year, which resulted in five straight wins.

The only question was would they be able to keep it going after he came back?

For one night at least, the answer was a resounding yes.

Can the Maple Leafs Play the Same Kind of Defense Now That Rielly Is Back?

First off, this is not an indictment on Morgan Reilly, although at times his defensive play can be lacklustre, it just isn’t feasible to think that the Maple Leafs are better off without the guy who has logged 50+ more minutes on the ice than any other Maple Leaf this season and was one of four defensemen selected to the NHL All-Star game.

But there is no denying that the Leafs have had one of their best defensive stretches of the year in his absence. Just to illustrate how good the Maple Leafs have been defensively over the last four games, I have put this table together to compare these last four games to their season-long averages…







Last 4














- FA/60 - Fenwick Against (Unblocked Shot Attempts Allowed)
- SA/60 - Shots Against
- SCA/60 - Scoring Chances Against
- HDCA/60 - High Danger Chances Against
- GA/60 - Goals Against
-xGA - Expected Goals Against
Data From: NaturalStatTrick

Although it is a very small sample against weaker competition having two games against the St Louis Blues, one against the Anaheim Ducks and one against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Maple Leafs have managed to outperform their season-long averages in all of the defensive categories by a wide margin without their best defenseman. 

Even though on the surface it appears that their numbers are better without Reilly, I think his play has nothing to do with it but rather a psychological shift and a philosophical shift across the coaches and players has greatly improved this team's game defensively in his absence. 

Reilly’s Suspension Gave Psychological Boost

I do think Reilly sparked something in this team after retaliating to Greig’s empty net antics, and much like when a team fires their head coach, there is usually a short honeymoon period and a similar thing is probably happening here after one of the locker room leaders got suspended. I do think these guys want to Win for Reilly, but I equally think that they want to support these rookies they have stepping in.

I think a lot of the Maple Leafs locker room knew that without Reilly, they didn’t have the depth at the position to compete if they kept playing the same style of hockey they have been in the past, and since the suspension, you can tell the coaches and players have been way more conscious of creating and executing a defensive-minded gameplan to support these guys. 

More Defensive Structure = More Success, Who Knew?

For years, the Maple Leafs have been a high-flying, high-risk, high-reward team and the defensive side of the puck has felt like an afterthought, but in these last four games, we’ve seen every single player make a positive impact on the defensive end and that is largely because they have been worried about helping out William Lagesson and Maxime Lajoie who were given more playing time. As well as Marshall Rifai a 25-year-old undrafted rookie who made his NHL debut against the St Louis Blues.

It feels as though in these games the Maple Leafs forwards are doing a much better job supporting their defenseman. This can be seen when they are adding support on the back check allowing the Maple Leafs defenseman to step up on attacking players not allowing clean zone entries and forcing players to dump the puck in.

Alsom their wingers being deeper in the defensive zone to help break up the opposition’s cycle or simply just being in a better spot receive an outlet pass from their defenseman, which has limited defensive zone turnovers, which is an area the Maple Leafs have struggled all year. 

For months now, this has been something I have been begging Sheldon Keefe to address and it finally looks like he has…

It is a shame that it has taken this long to address, but at least now the Maple Leafs have demonstrated that they can be a defensively responsible team, and this cannot change when Reilly returns to the lineup. Last night's game against the Golden Knights was a very good omen for the future, as the Leafs once again played with much more defensive acuity than we've been used to.

If you look at past Stanley Cup winners, five of the last six have finished inside the top 5 in expected goals allowed per game, which the Maple Leafs have never done under Sheldon Keefe.

But over these last four games, they have the second lowest expected goals against in the NHL with a depleted group. It just goes to show how easy it is to improve defensively when you put emphasis on it and get the entire group to buy into playing as a unit and supporting one another. 

With the trade deadline looming, there is still potential to improve the personnel on the back end, but whether they make a deal or not, the Maple Leafs need to continue working on playing team defense game in and game out.


That is where the Stanley Cup run starts, finding ways to be competitive in games where their offence is firing on all cylinders. If they can continue to find a way to commit to this defensive structure, the possibilities are endless. If they can't, it will be the same old story in the playoffs again this year.