Why Leafs fans are pushing for Rielly to move to forward

Mar 6 2023, 10:08 pm

In many ways, there are few players who embody what it means to be a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs more than Morgan Rielly.

While 10 players on the roster have him beat in the age department, no player has been with the organization continuously longer than Rielly, who was taken fourth overall by the team in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, before joining the team as a regular in the 2013-14 season.

As far as top-five picks go in the NHL, Rielly’s had about as solid a career as you would’ve hoped, tracking over 700 games in Toronto while being a consistent member of the team’s top defensive pair year in, year out.

When the team needed a captain in the 2019-20 season (after going three seasons without one), Rielly was floated as one of the team’s top candidates before the role ultimately went to John Tavares.

But Rielly’s time in Toronto hasn’t been all good, of course; as everyone knows, playoff failures have been the norm for the Leafs, with Rielly suffering through six first-round losses while part of the active roster.

And with the Leafs some 19 games from the regular season being over, it’s time to give Rielly a shot playing forward.

No, seriously.

Here’s why it makes sense, and why Leafs fans have been making the push for Rielly to get moved up to the wing.

He’s got the offensive skillset

Everything went well for Rielly in the 2018-19 season, where he finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting for the NHL’s best defenceman. Scoring a career-high 20 goals and 72 points, he was in the midst of the kind of season where it wasn’t too rare to hear about a new baby or pet dog named after his performance.

Last year, in 2021-22, Rielly even picked up 68 points (10 goals, 58 assists), which sat him fifth on the team in scoring.

This year, it’s been a bit more trying for him, as he’s picked up just two goals in 48 games, but he does have 30 assists to go along with it.

Rielly’s offensive talent and ability to create offence for his peers are clear. Since 2018-19, he sits sixth in league points among defenceman, and 75th overall. There’s little doubt he’d be able to translate his strong vision and passing talent alongside the Leafs’ wing.

The Leafs have a glutton of defenders — who might be better

While Rielly has backed up his expectations offensively throughout his career, his defensive track record is less formidable.

This season, the Leafs are outscoring their opponents 103-72 without Morgan Rielly on the ice at 5v5, a remarkable +31 mark. When Rielly is on the ice, they’re up just 36-35, a total of +1, per Natural Stat Trick.

But it isn’t just the raw numbers that jump out with the on-off divide. Toronto’s expected goals percentage jumped from 52.5% with Rielly on the ice to 54.5% with him off, while their shots against rates per hour are also noticeably lower (53.5%, two full percentage points lower than with Rielly at 55.7%).

It isn’t like the gaps in the underlying numbers are that massive, but it does also showcase that Toronto has a pretty decent defensive core even without their highest-paid defenceman.

Moving him to wing, Rielly would be tasked with less of what he’s struggled with historically, and more of what he’s good at — creating offence.

After a trade deadline where the Leafs added Luke Schenn, Erik Gustafsson, and Jake McCabe, Toronto now seems to have almost too many NHL-ready defencemen.

Meanwhile, Rielly’s in year one of an eight-year, $60 million contract extension that includes a full no-movement clause for the first six years. In an NHL where every dollar matters, it only makes sense to give Rielly an experiment on the wing and see if it’s actually a more natural fit for him.

Players in plenty of sports switch up their positions all the time: Alphonso Davies plays up front for Canada but as a left back for Bayern Munich, Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam regularly sub in as the Raptors’ point guard here and there when Fred VanVleet is on the floor, and there’s a large history of both position players converting to pitchers and vice versa.

There’s nothing much else for the Leafs to play for

Due to what appears to be an inevitable playoff matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, fans are yearning for some excitement. Sure, there’s the odd highlight reel goal, and the team is racking up wins as they sit fourth in the league, but really, truly, it’s hard to find a Leafs fan who cares about much else than playoff success.

Auston Matthews has already picked up an MVP and a pair of Rocket Richard Trophies, with no other Leafs really playing to the level to earn an individual award this season.

But Rielly playing wing? Well, that’s something juicy to keep an eye on.

And it’s not like there’s been any shortage of asking for it.

Maybe it’s a goofy idea and something best reserved for video games. But for at least a few games, it might be just wacky enough to give Rielly a shot on the Leafs’ wing. If it backfires, at least we won’t be left wondering what could’ve been.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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