Despite all the injuries the Toronto Maple Leafs have suffered this season, the team has done remarkably well. The team’s 48 points put them in a tie for second place in this season’s NHL. In short, they’ve played well.
The group hit hardest by the injuries has probably been the team’s defensive corps, For most of the season, the team has been missing three of its top-four defensemen. It’s looking more like Jake Muzzin might never return. TJ Brodie was out but has recently come back. And, Morgan Rielly – arguably the team’s best defenseman – has had the longest injury bout of his career.
For Some Maple Leafs Fans, the Jury Remains Out on Rielly’s Value
Rielly’s value to the team has been a topic of debate for quite a long time. There’s no doubt that he’s a solid citizen and even captain material. He’s also a great offensive defenseman. However, his level of defensive play has made him less than appreciated by a number of Maple Leafs’ fans.
These fans note that even a really good offensive defenseman must also be a good defensive defenseman if he’s going to be called the number one defenseman on the team.
On Rielly’s plus side of the ledger, he’s shown that he really wants to be a Maple Leafs’ player. He took a hometown discount to stay in Toronto. And he’s represented the team well in the community.
When Rielly Went Down, the Team Stayed Hot
Interestingly, Rielly’s injury came just prior to the team going on a hot streak when they picked up points in 16 straight games. At the same time, without Rielly, the team’s power play cooled off considerably. The team was only hitting 17.1 percent when Rielly was not there, which was ranked 26th in the NHL.
Over the past few games, the team’s power play has attempted to reinvigorate itself by deploying five forwards (with Mitch Marner) running the point. The result, is so-so.
So, Points For and Against Rielly’s Valuable to the Team
There have been even more questions since the team has done so well with Rielly gone about whether he’s that valuable. As in many debates, there are considerations on both sides of the issue.
First, on the negative side, Rielly – even with his hometown discount – does take up a chunk of the team’s salary cap. Although that point is moot because Rielly has a no-movement clause for now, which turns into a modified-no-movement clause on July 1, 2028. The point is, he’ll be around for a while.
Second, on the positive side, Rielly was a part of last year’s team that set a franchise record for wins and for points in a single season. Rielly was a big part of that team. You’d have to believe that, even if the organization could move Rielly, they would choose not to do so.
Third, on the negative side, the team hasn’t shown – except for the power play deficiencies – signs of missing Rielly’s on-ice play. Even with depth defensemen manning the pairings, the team has been playing well. The question comes up what will happen when Rielly returns? And, he’s skating now, so he might resume game action quite soon. A cynical question would be whether his return might disrupt the current chemistry of the team’s defence.
Fourth, on the positive side, although Rielly probably plays better with a strong defender than another offensive defenseman, that’s likely true about any defensive pairing in today’s NHL. In good pairings, jobs are symbiotic. Someone takes chances to offensively move up, while the other defenseman remains the stay-at-home partner.
Given that Brodie is back, Rielly’s return should only make the team’s defence stronger. Of the defensemen who’ve filled in, someone sits (or takes turns) until there’s another injury. That the depth defensemen have played so well has been a luxury for this team.
Now That Reilly Is Close to Returning, What Happens
It will be interesting (and from my perspective good) to have Rielly back in the lineup. I believe the team’s power play has suffered. I also believe that Rielly is a better defensive defenseman than many people believe.
That the team’s defence has held up this season when many fans (and hockey pundits) believed it would fail is a tribute to the team’s total commitment to defence.
They have been playing well all around. From my perspective, they’ll be stronger with Morgan Rielly back in the team’s lineup.