On the latest MLHS podcast, Anthony Petrielli and Nick Ashbourne discussed the Maple Leafs’ four-game winning streak and 18-2-1 record without Morgan Rielly in the lineup over the past two seasons.

Nick Ashbourne: The Leafs are fortunate that the Morgan Rielly suspension coincided with a marshmallow part of the schedule. Going into it, I thought the Leafs should be expected to get seven points out of the five games (STL x2, Anaheim, Philadelphia, and Arizona) at the very least based on the schedule. Even with Rielly gone, I still didn’t think the floor was too low. I thought maybe they would get five in the worst case, but now, potentially, they can get all 10 points.

That has been the case in the past during Rielly’s absence as they keep pointing out on the broadcasts. They’re 18-2-1 without him.

Anthony Petrielli: There are a few important pieces to note.

One is playoff Morgan Rielly. I have been waiting for this type of conversation every year where people eventually turn on Rielly, which happens every season. If he stops playing well in the playoffs, I’ll have a different take on him, but if they were to play a big game tomorrow, he is the only Leaf I know will absolutely, unequivocally show up. He has been the only year-in, year-out gamer.

He gets a lot of rope from me because — chips down — I know he is there, present, and in the moment. Even if we look at the suspension, no one else was really going after Ridly Greig guns blazing. It was Morgan Rielly, and who else was it going to be?

John Tavares spoke about how Morgan Rielly stepped up and set the tone for the team, and half of me thought, “I think he is describing the captain of the team.” That part aside, Rielly is a gamer.

Now, getting to the four wins recently, those weren’t games where the team needed offense from the point. The games weren’t against opponents who played proper defense — namely, St. Louis or Anaheim — or in the case of Philly, they blocked a lot of shots, but they didn’t have the horses to match up with Auston Matthews, who scored a hat trick.

When you get into the playoffs, as we saw against Tampa, you need some level of ability to get shots through traffic and create offense from the defense. It is not the highest-shooting percentage way to create offense, but hockey is insanely tight in the playoffs. You need defensemen who can get shot through traffic, create rebound opportunities, create chaotic opportunities, and create opportunities to tip the puck. I don’t think they have a soul on their defense other than Rielly who is consistently capable of doing it.

Timothy Liljegren is skilled enough to do it — and he has looked pretty good without Rielly in the lineup — but he has to prove it at this point. He has been healthy scratched in every playoff. He regularly coughs up bad plays at inopportune times. The tools are there for him to succeed, but he still has to show that he can put it together. It was nice to see him step up in these four wins, but I don’t think you can sit there and say, “Timothy Liljegren has officially arrived as a true night-in, night-out top-four defenseman.”

Even the point about Rielly as a playoff performer aside, they need what he brings. No one else does it on the team.

Nick: It would be really foolish to take this winning streak and say, “This is evidence that Morgan Rielly is overrated or doesn’t mean as much to this team.” If anything, you could interpret it as something that galvanized the team and that they wanted to do it for him. Maybe it is his importance to the team that makes people step up when he is out.

Realistically, though, the bad competition is the driver of a lot of it.

Some people like to turn on Rielly because it is very easy to criticize Rielly for what he isn’t. They want him to be a prime Victor Hedman who is a dominant, number-one, do-everything defenseman. He is not quite at that level, and that is okay. He is not paid to be on this current contract ($7.5 million AAV).

On that contract, as long as his play doesn’t decline too seriously into his early 30s, it is going to be a very good contract for the Maple Leafs. It is right now as the cap rises.

He always steps up in the playoffs. He gives everything to this team. You could not ask for more from Rielly than what he brings.

Anthony: He is a great representative as a Maple Leaf.

Nick: 100%. Because some people have this idea in their head that he is a number-one defenseman and you cannot win a Cup without a certain type of number-one defenseman — which Rielly isn’t — they have difficulty with that.

If you look at Rielly’s underlying on-ice numbers this season, they are not great, but a lot of it is pretty easily tied to TJ Brodie. He has played most of his minutes with Brodie, who has struggled on the right side this year.  Brodie has been a lot better on the left recently, and it really puts into focus what the defense core could be if they go and acquire someone to play with Rielly. Everything suddenly falls into place.

Benoit – McCabe is working; maybe there will come a day when it doesn’t work, but it has been working for a quarter of a season or more now. Brodie-Liljegren also seems like a perfectly good pairing; not an elite pairing or a shutdown pairing necessarily, but it is a functional, all-service, any-situation pair. Now, pair Rielly with someone who doesn’t have to be a superstar but is a right shot who is tough, relatively conservative, and knows what they’re doing.

I am not saying the Leafs would be on the precipice of having an elite defense core, but the general public consensus of what this team is and can be defensively might be underrating them a little bit. That includes forward play, too, but since the beginning of 2024 (Jan. 1), they have allowed the second-fewest shots per 60 at five-on-five at 24.58. Only the Hurricanes have been better.

If you look at the scoring chances and expected goals, the quality chances against are sometimes there; we’ve seen the turnover tendencies, and it is not always totally clean. But there is always the perception that the Leafs — under this core five — are good at offense and terrible at defense. It is shifting.

Anthony: You almost have to look at it as five-man units. We talk about Colorado all the time, and they blitz opponents with their top players. MacKinnon and Rantanen are going to play with Makar and Toews.

The Leafs don’t have that, so they can play with it depending on who they match up against in the playoffs. They could feasibly play Brodie and Liljegren in the Matthews matchup, it would free up Rielly and whoever his partner is to play with Tavares and Nylander.

Further Listening

In this week’s MLHS Podcast, Nick Ashbourne and Anthony Petrielli discuss the Maple Leafs’ four-game winning streak, recent lineup developments, the team’s 18-2-1 record without Morgan Rielly, Gary Bettman upholding Rielly’s five-game suspension, and reflections on Brad Treliving’s first nine months as Leafs GM as we approach the trade deadline.