Moving forward


Photo: QMI

“(We) keep the puck out of our end zone and play in their end zone, in laymen’s terms, that’s the best way we try to help him. We’re going to block shots, we’re going to defend the proper way, but that’s the best way we can help him.”

That was John Tortorella speaking about how the Rangers would attempt to help out goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was keeping them afloat, during the playoffs.

It wasn’t the first time he made a comment regarding puck possession and driving play in to the opposing team’s zone. I must have heard him talk about it a million times during the 24/7 television series leading up to the Winter Classic. His team wasn’t good enough to actually do it, but the idea is right on.

Of course, this is common sense – if you’re the team attacking, as opposed to being attacked, more often than not you should come out with a win. But is it that easy? A lot of folks will forgive a player who’s dominated in their own zone, or has a hard time turning the puck up ice, as long as they deliver a few decent hits and have an aggressive style.

Since the introduction of advanced statistics and the “new NHL” in recent years, the way people view team makeup is shifting. That isn’t to say you always need to dive in to a pile of numbers to see it, but it’s good to find out which players can drive play and keep the puck from the other club consistently over the long term. Because of this, a lot of hockey fans like to see their team draft a player who’s viewed as a potential elite talent as opposed to a safe pick . A safe pick being a player who does a lot of little things right but doesn’t necessarily excel at moving the puck toward the other team’s goal.

These days we’re more so looking for guys who specialize in a particular area. Let the coaches take care of the rest – match lines, give players the right opportunities, and plug the holes with cheap players who are good at shutting things down when needed.

The idea is that top draft picks should be used on top players. If I’m to believe everything I’ve read and the few minutes of play I’ve watched from Morgan Rielly, it seems the Leafs have done that. This isn’t a Luke Schenn-type pick, it’s the exact opposite. Some Leafs‘ fans were puzzled by the pick at first, but in a sense this is what we’ve been requesting for a few years now: Draft a player with a ton of raw talent and a high ceiling – a guy who can drive play, take the puck to the net, create offense.

Rielly’s scouting reports point out a lot of positives, the most prominent being his skating and ability to move the puck, as you’ve likely already read. And perhaps one of the traits that stands out the most to me is that he’s been touted as having “elite vision.”

The ability to read the ice and maintain composure with the puck (poise, anyone?) is crucial in the NHL. If you’re under the impression that any player at the pro level is able to steadily control the puck, you haven’t watched the Leafs over the past few seasons.

The Leafs want/need a player that can help them out-chance the other team regularly. Rielly seems like the type of player who can help in that regard. Whether the team can get him to a level where he can retrieve the puck often remains to be seen, but that will surely be their focus. You often hear that teaching the type of skill Rielly has (again, elite vision, puck movement) is nearly impossible. In my opinion, it’s true. It’s part of the reason I want the Leafs to keep Cody Franson, since it shouldn’t be out of the question for him to straighten out his defensive game a little under Carlyle.

There aren’t a lot of Leafs players who I feel comfortable with when they’re in possession of the puck. A lot of them are shaky as hell. It looks like Rielly won’t have a problem in this area. His purpose will be pretty clearly defined as an offensive guy who can control the game. He’ll likely play big minutes and take charge of situations in the offensive zone, should he develop properly. The Leafs can hopefully turn out Rielly and make up for how poorly they did with their last top five pick.

From Cam Charron at The Leafs Nation, prior to the Schenn trade:

Schenn was drafted fifth, so there is some NHL talent in that body. It needs to be properly harnessed. The Leafs should only trade him if they don’t think they can do that. Switching his role from game-to-game and season-to-season isn’t helping a guy who has been developing as an 18-year old in the NHL since 2008.

Should Morgan Rielly eventually break on to the Leafs’ roster in the next couple years, which we all believe he will, there will be little doubt as to what his role is. If the new game is built on speed and puck possession, by nabbing a player like Rielly and unloading the brick-footed Schenn, the Leafs have done quite well over the weekend.

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