Earlier this season, the value of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly was being called into question by some observers. The theory, as it went, was that the 29-year-old Rielly was no longer an elite blueliner and that the Leafs were not going to win so long as Rielly was designated as their top D-man.
You don’t hear nearly as much from Rielly’s critics in the past week or so. He has answered them the best way an athlete can – by going out and being a difference-maker. Rielly has generated a ton of offense – a pair of goals and six points in four games – while averaging 23:44 of ice time. His all-around game may be the best on the Blue & White in this post-season, and he’s playing like he knows his legacy can be altered, for the better, with a few more performances like the ones he’s put forth against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sure, the Bolts have the best defenseman on either side in veteran star Victor Hedman, but Hedman clearly is still dealing with the wear-and-tear of so much playoff hockey over the past few years, and he’s not at his Norris Trophy-winning peak. The Bolts also have a star D-man in Mikhail Sergachev, who is playing a series-best 27:27 per game. However, because Tampa is playing with a limping Hedman and a sidelined veteran in Erik Cernak, Lightning coach Jon Cooper probably is leaning on Sergachev more than he would prefer to.
This is where the Leafs’ recent trade history has helped Rielly. In acquiring defensemen Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson, Toronto GM Kyle Dubas has given the Buds unprecedented depth, and that’s allowed head coach Sheldon Keefe to not have to use Rielly nearly as much as he’s been used in recent years. This is not to say Rielly isn’t capable of playing more minutes, but when Keefe can trot out T.J. Brodie, Schenn, McCabe, Mark Giordano and Justin Holl, he’d be foolish to not take his foot off the gas with Rielly and keep him a little bit fresher from game-to-game.
Ep 119: Patrick Mahomes' Top 5 List
by Full Press Coverage on May 27, 2023 at 7:49 pm
Is Rielly going to be the guy who single-handedly leads the Leafs to a Cup win? No. However, he’s a high-value asset – he’s in the first year of an eight-year, $60-million contract extension – who can make smart outlet passes and get pucks on the net. As we’ve seen in the past two games of Toronto’s series with Tampa Bay, just getting pucks on the net at struggling Lightning star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy can be the difference between winning and losing. Rielly is clearly being told to just get the puck in deep, and see if one of his teammates can deflect it past Vasilevskiy. The plan is working.
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Now, all this will be worth a hill of beans if the Leafs blow their 3-1 series lead and become the butt of all jokes for another hellish off-season. But something is different about this year’s Leafs. They’re going about their business, in a businesslike way, and they know eliminating Tampa Bay will not be easy, yet they have confidence with one another, and that is leading to comeback wins and success where they’ve rarely had it in recent years.
It doesn’t start with Rielly – really, it starts with star forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Maner, then it’s about Toronto goalie Ilya Samsonov – but Rielly is living up to his pay grade and doing a great job of pushing the Leafs to a position where they can knock out the Bolts with a win in Game 5 Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
He’s not the NHL’s best defenseman, but Rielly is still a well-above-average D-man, and his critics will continue to be quiet as long as he plays at his current level.
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