A closer look into Morgan Rielly vs. Jake Gardiner

Any time you talk to a hockey fan about the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Morgan Rielly is deservedly one of the first names brought up.

Many Leafs fans see Rielly as the only hope the Leafs have for a star “number one” defenceman. Rielly is a beautiful and explosive skater who is a treat to watch when he has the puck on his stick. Rielly already has three NHL seasons under his belt at just 22 years old and leads Leafs defensemen in P/60 in that time, scoring at a rate of .78 points per hour at 5v5. During the 2015/16 season, Rielly scored at a rate of .76 P/60. Using the “Similarity Calculator,” on corsica.hockey, I found some defencemen who scored at a similar pace last season. Some notable names include:

  • Brooks Orpik – .76 P/60
  • Ryan Suter – .76 P/60
  • Brian Campbell – .76 P/60
  • Dion Phaneuf – .77 P/60
  • Seth Jones – .78 P/60

Basically, while Rielly is no Erik Karlsson (1.52 P/60!), he also is no Carl Gunnarsson (.39P/60). He scores at a respectable rate for a 22-year-old defenceman, but I would expect that number to grow over the coming years. The first reason being that he will have a lot more talented teammates as soon as this season. Instead of springing Michael Grabner on a quick break, which ended in failure virtually every time, he will be moving the puck up to guys like Auston Matthews and William Nylander. The second reason is that when you look at his iCorsiFor/60, which is simply individual shot attempts per hour, he compares more favourably to elite offensive defencemen in the NHL. Rielly posted an iCF/60 of 12.9 last season. Again, using corsica’s “Similarity Calculator,” I found some defencemen who directed shots toward the net at a similar rate to Rielly in 2015/16:

  • Kris Letang – 13 iCF/60 (1.11 P/60)
  • Oliver Ekman-Larsson – 12.69 iCF/60 (.91 P/60)
  • Colton Parayko – 13.24 iCF/60 (1.14 P/60)
  • Mark Giordano – 12.48 iCF/60 (1.14 P/60)

I think it would be reasonable to expect Rielly’s offensive production to increase this season, but it’s not his offence that concerns me. Of the 124 NHL defencemen who played 1000+ minutes in ’15/16, Morgan Rielly ranks 114th in shot attempts against/60 (CA/60). While you can definitely pin some of that on the quality of his teammates (playing with a third pairing defenceman against the opposition’s top lines is far from ideal circumstances), it is still something he has to improve. If you look at CA/60RelTm he still comes in at 114th out of 124. Compare this with Jake Gardiner ranking 48th in CA/60 and 36th in CA/60RelTm and you can come to two relatively simple conclusions. The first being that Gardiner is very good defensively despite what your Uncle Keith says about his giveaway in October of 2014. The second being that Rielly has a lot of room to improve on the defensive side of the puck. One simple thing guys like Gardiner and Marincin, who are very good at shot suppression, seem to do better than Rielly is keeping a close gap at the blue line.


See how he keeps his stick in the shooting lane as he pivots with Shaw? Komarov obviously helps out on this play a lot with a solid back check, but this is something Gardiner routinely does well. Compare that to a play a couple minutes later in the game where Rielly is the defender, it looks much different.


The first thing you’ll notice is the offensive player passes the puck away before anything happens, but he had room to do more with it. Another thing to consider here, Panarin is obviously a highly skilled player coming down on Rielly compared to Shaw on Gardiner. Rielly also doesn’t have a forward helping out with good back pressure like Komarov helped out Gardiner. Rielly sees Seabrook jumping in on the play and is worried about it becoming a 2-on-1 so he cheats to the middle, giving Panarin a lot of room in which he doesn’t use on this particular play. Hunwick catches Seabrook easily and nothing comes of it, but that isn’t always the result. Rielly has already backed up to the top of the circle when Panarin passes the puck away.

The next screenshot is a very similar play to the Shaw/Gardiner play, only it’s Panarin/Rielly. This time Rielly gets the help from his back checker, but he still gives Panarin too much room.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 4.32.43 PM

Winnik provides the back pressure on Panarin, forcing him to the outside where Rielly should step up and end the threat easily. Instead, he keeps backing up and gives a highly skilled player a tonne of room.

This is a situation Gardiner doesn’t find himself in very often because he steps up on the opposition as they cross the blue line. By “stepping up,” I don’t necessarily mean to make a hit, I just mean he puts pressure on the opponent and limits his options by directing him to the outside using body and stick positioning, like this.

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Once again, the back pressure from Komarov is a huge help here, but Gardiner pivots with Shaw and gives him only one place to go. Shaw ends up blindly throwing the puck across the ice and into the far corner, where Polak picks the puck up (shudder) and the threat is over. Until Polak gives it right back to the Blackhawks, probably.

This is another play from the same shift as the first Panarin/Rielly play, only this time it’s Kane coming down on Rielly.

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Once again, it is a bit of a different situation as Panarin slipped in alone due to a bad change, but look how much room Rielly gives Kane. He doesn’t trust his teammates to get back and cover Panarin so he backs right up to the hash marks, leading to him covering neither Panarin or Kane.

I’m obviously nitpicking here, but this is one thing Rielly can definitely work on in order to get better defensively. I would also like to see Babcock deploy Gardiner against the oppositions top lines and Rielly in a second pairing role while he works on little things like this, but I digress.

Another thing that helps Gardiner keep the puck away from his net is his ability to evade forecheckers with his pivoting. Once he pivots away from the forechecker he has a lot more room to make a good first pass. We’ve all seen him do this one million times, where he goes back for the puck, turns his feet sideways and spins away with the puck. Gardiner is a very agile and elusive skater, whereas Rielly is faster in a straight line and more explosive. Rielly is very capable of eluding forecheckers himself, just not to the extent that Gardiner is. He needs to use his speed getting back to the puck earlier which in turn doesn’t give him as much time to weigh his options before he gets there. You will notice Gardiner taking his time getting to the puck while looking over his shoulder to look for his potential options before he gets it.

I didn’t set out to directly compare Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner like I did in this post, but it kept coming back to “see what Gardiner did? Do that.” In saying that, Gardiner is 26 years old and in his prime, while Rielly is only 22 and just stepping into his best years. Rielly has a lot of time to fix some little things to make him better at suppressing shots and getting a quality right hand shot defence partner should also help him. I think pairing him with one of Connor Carrick or Nikita Zaitsev this year could do wonders for him.

What I’m saying here is that Rielly is no doubt a quality second-pairing offensive defenceman, but he needs to patch up some warts in his defensive game if he wants to be a top ten defenceman in the league like many hope he can be.

*all stats courtesy of corsica.hockey and stats.hockeyanalysis.com






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