Top-line defensemen rarely find their names on the trade block. Even when they do, it’s not often that the stars align in a way that it makes sense for your favorite team to actively pursue them. So when THW’s own Peter Baracchini fanned the flames of a potential Morgan Rielly move, it definitely caught some eyes. And wouldn’t you know it, the first team he mentioned as a potential trading partner was the Detroit Red Wings.
It is clear that there is an appetite for change in Toronto. The Maple Leafs were bounced out of the first round for the fifth-straight year (assuming you count the qualifying round from last year’s playoff bubble as the first round) despite a collection of talent that includes Rielly, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and many others. A move like trading Rielly, who has been with the Maple Leafs organization since he was drafted fifth overall in the 2012 draft, would certainly constitute the kind of foundational change that teams sometimes need before they can take that next step.
If this rumor is true, then the Detroit Red Wings would be doing themselves a disservice by not at least making a phone call. General manager Steve Yzerman has said on multiple occasions that his goal right now is to add and accumulate good players as the Red Wings continue to rebuild. While Rielly isn’t a top prospect, he is the kind of young, talented player that Detroit should be targeting in their quest to add good players.
Red Wings Need Left-Handed Defensemen
While the Red Wings do have some exciting defensive prospects coming up, they currently sit with one proven left-handed defenseman signed for 2021-22: Danny DeKeyser. If they sign and keep Dennis Cholowski past the Seattle Expansion Draft, that will give them two, though Cholowski is far from a proven commodity at this point in his young career. And while DeKeyser is proven at the NHL level, the 31-year-old is not the same player he was five years ago – relying on him for more than 20 minutes a night is probably not in the Red Wings’ best interest.
At 27 years old, Rielly is in his prime as a top-line, albeit No. 2 defenseman. His average time on ice (TOI) this season with the Maple Leafs was 23:37, and his career average TOI is 21:51. Not only can you rely on him to play big minutes for the team, but you can safely assume that he’ll perform well when he is on the ice. He finished fifth in the voting for the Norris Trophy (awarded to the league’s top defenseman) during the 2018-19 season. his career points per-game rate is .53 (305 points in 572 games) and he has posted positive possession numbers in all but two of his eight NHL seasons. Quite frankly, outside of Filip Hronek – who only just finished his second full season in the NHL – the Red Wings don’t have anyone on their roster whose performance matches up with Rielly’s.
Adding a quality left-handed defenseman like Rielly would do a few things for Detroit. With him, DeKeyser and Cholowski on the left, and Hronek, top prospect Moritz Seider and Troy Stecher/Gustav Lindstrom on the right side, the Red Wings would be able to deploy the standard left/right defensive pairings that coaches love to have. Adding Rielly would also push both DeKeyser and Cholowski down the lineup and into more favorable matchups. Depending on how you feel about Hronek, it would also be nice to add a tried and true top line defender.
Rielly is A Young Veteran
Plenty of Red Wings fans likely roll their eyes when they hear the phrase “veteran presence” to describe what an (usually) older player can bring to Detroit’s lineup. A common argument against bringing in players like that is that they block the team’s younger players from seizing roster spots in the NHL. In Rielly, however, you’re getting that same “veteran presence” but in a player that still has plenty of tread left on his tires.
Having played eight seasons and over 500 regular season games in the NHL, Rielly’s experience somewhat surpasses what is expected from a player of his age. Additionally, he brings 32 games of playoff experience to the table (and plenty of experience with playoff heartbreaks) and that is something that the Red Wings suddenly lack in their lineup. Among Detroit’s defenders signed for next season, DeKeyser leads the way in terms of playoff games with just 19. While the Red Wings may not be close to the playoffs quite yet, Rielly is a player that knows how to get there, and he knows what playoff intensity looks like. That is something that the Red Wings’ youngest players can learn from.
Furthermore, Rielly has experience with going through a rebuild. While he was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2012, Toronto really didn’t emerge as the team they are today until the 2016-17 season. His first three seasons with the team were tough and filled with more losses than wins. To have come out on the other side of Toronto’s rebuild is an experience that would be invaluable for the Red Wings as they aim to start winding down their own rebuild efforts.
Fit with the Red Wings
As already mentioned, Rielly would bring some credibility to the Red Wings’ blue line that they don’t necessarily have right now. While he’s not a No. 1 defenseman in my books, he is a very solid No. 2 guy whose game can be elevated depending on his role and defensive partner. Having a player that has averaged over 20 minutes of ice time in all but his rookie season in the NHL would give Detroit a steady hand on the blue line and somebody that head coach Jeff Blashill could lean on in all situations.
Not only could Rielly be deployed in all situations, but his experience wearing an ‘A’ for the Maple Leafs suggests that he could quickly become a leader not just for Detroit’s defensemen, but for the whole team. His impacts on and off the ice could endear him to his teammates and to all of Hockeytown. He is somebody that the team could send out to face the media when things are going wrong, giving captain Dylan Larkin a break from having to answer those questions again and again.
As for his on-ice fit, Blashill could pair him with Hronek, giving the Red Wings a top pairing that, while flawed, could get the job done on most nights. Rielly could also find himself alongside Seider, giving the young German defender a young veteran to play with and learn from as he finds his way in the NHL. A Rielly-Seider pairing has the potential to blossom into a true top pairing depending on the latter’s development. The kicker to all of this? Rielly can easily become a long-term fit with the Red Wings instead of a just a stop-gap solution.
The Cost to Acquire Rielly
It’s easy to say that Team X should acquire Player Y. What’s hard is finding a fit in terms of the price to acquire Player Y from their original team. Luckily, Baracchini offered an idea of what GM Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs could be looking for from Yzerman and the Red Wings.
The Maple Leafs could receive the 22nd overall pick (from the Washington Capitals) and Tyler Bertuzzi or go for picks with the 22nd overall pick and 47th overall pick (from the New York Rangers). If Dubas was able to get a first for a third line player in Kasperi Kapanen, then he is definitely able to get one for a puck moving defenseman. The Maple Leafs could look to try and acquire one and help the Red Wings out with their depth in the process.
For the Maple Leafs, it makes a lot of sense to target both the 22nd pick and Tyler Bertuzzi. Dubas traded his first round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline, so finding a way to replace that first rounder would be big for their prospect pool. As for Bertuzzi, the middle six winger fits into their age demographic and provides a blend of skill and tenacity that their lineup has lacked over the last few seasons.
Looking at this from the Red Wings’ side of things, the package including just draft picks is highly likely to be the more attractive option. If that is seriously a package Toronto would take, I’m jumping all over that. In regards to the first offer, there is little appetite among fans to move on from Bertuzzi, and I think even Yzerman would prefer to hold on to the popular winger. Add in the first round pick acquired in the Anthony Mantha trade, and I think you’re in “Detroit says no” territory.
How would I amend the deal? I would talk the draft pick down – would Bertuzzi and pick 37 get it done? I am not opposed to moving a middle six winger for a top line defender, even if that middle six winger is a player that I happen to like a lot. You have to give to get, and you can find players of Bertuzzi’s caliber a lot easier than you can find players of Rielly’s. Furthermore, Detroit has a number of winger prospects coming up; trading “Bert” opens up a spot for them. As I’ve already mentioned, the Red Wings cannot say the same about left-handed defensemen, though the results of the 2021 draft could change that.
Build for the Present AND the Future
Everybody wants to know when Yzerman is going to make a “big splash” to shake up this Red Wings roster. To this point in his tenure as Detroit’s GM, the biggest move he has made is trading away Mantha at this season’s deadline. If Rielly can be had at a reasonable price, this may be the best opportunity for Yzerman to address a major area of need for the Red Wings now and into the future, and doing so would add a jolt of excitement not just for the fans, but for the team as well.
If you’re going to potentially trade a fan-favorite like Bertuzzi, a quality piece has to come back in the return. Rielly may not be an elite defender in the NHL, but he certainly qualifies as a quality piece. He is a player in his prime that would instantly be an upgrade to Detroit’s blue line. If you can stomach the cost to acquire him, there may not be a better candidate to address the Red Wings’ needs on the blue line.
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