Cage Match: Cam Fowler vs Morgan Rielly

by Rick Roos on October 18, 2017 | (0 Comments)


Our first defenseman battle of 2017-18 features two who, despite their young ages, are arguably the most important rearguards on their respective teams – Cam Fowler and Morgan Rielly. What poolies want to know is whether one, both, or neither will eventually post fantasy stats rivaling their real-world skill and value. Cage Match is here to find out! 

Career Path and Contract Status 

Fowler, 25, was the tenth overall selection in 2010 and jumped directly to the NHL. He proceeded to post 40 points in 76 games, joining Tyler Myers as just the second teenaged defender since 1996-97 to post 40+ points as an NHL rookie. Unfortunately, like Myers, Fowler has since failed to even equal, let alone best, his rookie output. Yet Fowler has tallied 34-plus points in each of the three subsequent campaigns in which he played 70-plus contests. Additionally, in 2016-17, he posted 39 points, igniting hopes he might be poised for a mid-career breakout. 

Rielly, 23, was selected fifth overall in 2012, and the lockout gave him a chance to hone his game in juniors (54 points in 60 games) and the AHL (three points in 14 contests). Since then, he’s been an NHL staple, and saw his scoring rise from 27, to 29, then to 36 in his third season. Amid the excitement surrounding the 2016-17 Leafs, expectations were sky high for Rielly to easily surpass his career best. When the dust settled, he’instead taken a major step in reverse, to the same mere 27 points he posted as a rookie. He then caught fire during the playoffs, with five points in six games, giving poolies optimism that his momentum will carry into 2017-18. 

This season marks Fowler’s last on a contract with a $4M cap hit, after which he’ll embark on an eight-year deal dinging the cap at $6.5M per season. Rielly will earn $5M per campaign through 2021-22, after which he becomes a UFA. 

Ice Time 






Total Ice Time per game 



(rank among team’s forwards) 





PP Ice Time per game 



(rank among team’s forwards) 





SH Ice Time per game 



(rank among team’s forwards) 










24:50 (C.F.) – 1st 



22:10 (M.R.) – 1st 





3:06 (C.F.) – 1st 



0:58 (M.R.) – 3rd 





2:45 (C.F.) – 1st 



2:22 (M.R.) – 4th 










22:46 (C.F.) – 1st 



23:13 (M.R.) – 1st 





2:59 (C.F.) – 1st 



1:49 (M.R.) – 3rd 





2:10 (C.F.) – 3rd 



2:21 (M.R.) – 3rd (tied) 










21:08 (C.F.) – 4th 



20:20 (M.R.) – 5th 





2:24 (C.F.) – 2nd 



2:26 (M.R.) – 5th 





1:48 (C.F.) – 4th 



0:44 (M.R.) – 9th 










23:51 (C.F.) – 1st 



17:38 (M.R.) – 5th 





3:23 (C.F.) – 1st 



1:55 (M.R.) – 4th 





2:41 (C.F.) - 2nd 



0:08 (M.R.) – 8th 






It’s not difficult to see why Rielly’s production cratered in 2016-17, what with his one minute less of TOI being almost entirely lost PP Time. That led to Total and PP Ice Times which put him in select company, as since 2010-11 there’ve only been six other instances of a rearguard averaging 22:00+ per game with between 0:45 and 1:00 on the PP. Unfortunately, it’s not good company to be in, as none have ever scored 35+ points a season, with the closest being recent Cage Match combatant Jaccob Slavin at 34. 


The good news, as evidenced by his 2015-16 data, is apparently Rielly can produce when given PP timeeven if he gets a lower overall TOI. Moreover, his 36 points in 2015-16 is extra impressive in view of Toronto only having 192 goals as a team that season. Yet by the same token, his mere 27 points this past season is more concerning in view of Toronto having upped its production to 250 goals as a team. In fact, it meant his points per 60 minutes in 2016-17 was 0.96, tying for 50th among 88 d-men who played 75+ games last season, with only one (Jake Muzzin) who’d ever scored 40+ points having a lower P/60 rate despite more total TOI than Rielly. We’ll have to see whether Rielly was unsustainably unlucky this past season, unsustainably lucky in 2015-16, or perhaps a little bit of both. 


Fowler’s totals suggest he’s become less productive over the years, as is confirmed when looking at his falling P/60 rates (1.29 in 2013-14; 1.21 in 2014-15; 1.07 in 2015-16; only back to 1.18 last season). It’s also difficult to envision Fowler getting a boost via both more TOI overall and on the PP, as last season only Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson – neither of whom he’d be confused with - averaged 25:00+ TOI per game with 3:19-plus on the PP. Between that and the aging Ducks forward corps, a return to 40 points might be a tall order unless he was unsustainably unlucky last season. 


Secondary Categories  









(per game) 








(per game) 





Blocked Shots (per game) 








(per game) 





PP Points 



(per game) 










0.25 (C.F.) 



0.27 (M.R.) 





0.36 (C.F.) 



0.60 (M.R.) 





1.67 (C.F.) 



1.58 (M.R.) 





2.32 (C.F.) 



2.25 (M.R.) 





0.18 (C.F.) 



0.06 (M.R.) 










0.39 (C.F.) 



0.34 (M.R.) 





0.62 (C.F.) 



0.70 (M.R.) 





1.62 (C.F.) 



1.49 (M.R.) 





1.92 (C.F.) 



2.03 (M.R.) 





0.24 (C.F.) 



0.09 (M.R.) 










0.17 (C.F.) 



0.17 (M.R.) 





0.58 (C.F.) 



1.21 (M.R.) 





1.33 (C.F.) 



1.27 (M.R.) 





1.08 (C.F.) 



1.82 (M.R.) 





0.11 (C.F.) 



0.12 (M.R.) 










0.20 (C.F.) 



0.16 (M.R.) 





0.65 (C.F.) 



1.31 (M.R.) 





1.74 (C.F.) 



1.26 (M.R.) 





1.42 (C.F.) 



1.31 (M.R.) 





0.21 (C.F.) 



0.16 (M.R.) 






Neither is a stat stuffer in physical categories, although both should produce about two Hits+Blocks per game. Rielly’s Hits have fallen off a cliff, and considering he’s gone two seasons with a much lower Hits output, that’s likely his new normal. 


When you think of Fowler, you probably don’t envision a player whose scoring is heavily skewed toward PPPts; yet that’s indeed the case. In fact, in three of these four campaigns he posted under 40 points despite 15-plus PPPts in the same season. That puts him in limited company, as going back to 2005-06, only seven other d-men met the same criteria in three separate seasons, with three (Marc-Andre Bergeron, Sami Salo, Ron Hainsey) never having a 40+ point seasonthree (Roman Hamrlik, Kimmo Timonen, Dion Phaneuf) doing so after their best years, and only one (John-Michael Liles) who went on to best 40 points – albeit only once – after meeting the criteria. One can debate whether Fowler can be rightfully likened to these players; but either way, it’s not good to see data indicating that meeting these criteria seems to point away from a player being likely to hit 40-plus points in the future. 


Rielly has some player comparables of his own. Since 2005-06 there’ve been six d-men who, like Rielly in 2016-17, played 70+ games averaging 2.25+ SOG per game yet only scoring 27 or fewer points that same season. All but one (Johnny Boychukultimately scored more than Rielly’s current best of 36 points, and half topped 40 at least once. But of the half, one (Kurtis Foster) retired with a career high of only 42 points and another (Jake Muzzin) is unlikely to surpass his high of 41 points. The last of the six had 27 points and 173 SOG in 73 games in his age 22 season – in other words, very similar numbers to what Rielly posted in 2016-17, which was also his age 22 season. That player is Kris Letang. Am I suggesting Rielly is cut from a similar cloth as Letang? Almost assuredly not; but overall the outlook for Rielly based on thesplayer comparables is more optimistic than that of Fowler in view of his. 


Luck-Based Metrics 






Team Shooting % (5x5) 





Individual Points % (IPP) 





Offensive Zone Starting % (5x5) 





Secondary Assists % 










8.41% (C.F.) 








37.5% (C.F.) 



38.0% (M.R.) 





46.7% (C.F.) 



46.9% (M.R.) 





57% (C.F.) 



33% (M.R.) 










7.26% (C.F.) 



6.52% (M.R.) 





33.3% (C.F.) 



42.9% (M.R.) 





45.2% (C.F.) 



46.6% (M.R.) 





52% (C.F.) 



70% (M.R.) 










8.05% (C.F.) 



6.8% (M.R.) 





40.0% (C.F.) 



46.2% (M.R.) 





47.5% (C.F.) 



45.0% (M.R.) 





59% (C.F.) 



47% (M.R.) 










8.54% (C.F.) 



9.35% (M.R.) 





42.4% (C.F.) 



39.7% (M.R.) 





49.5% (C.F.) 



47.9% (M.R.) 





60% (C.F.) 



68% (M.R.) 






At best this news is mixed for Rielly. He had an incredibly low secondary assist rate in 2016-17, which in turn suggests he could easily get more assists in the normal course, yet his rate was also unsustainably high in 2015-16. Does this mean Rielly is a 31 or 32 point player, representing the midpoint between his output in those two seasons? No, since we must give added weight to the fact that the Leafs are a vastly improved team since 2015-16, with still with realistic room to grow. Thus, Rielly should see a scoring benefit by just coming along for the ride. 


Also, Rielly’s team shooting percentage has been severely low; and although some of that might be Reilly not having a positive effect on the offense, it’s balanced by his normally high IPP, which last season was its lowest among these past four. Long story short, based on luck metrics Rielly should be able to bounce back to be a roughly 35-plus point player based on his metrics and the improving team around him, with a chance at significantly higher totals should he get more PP Time. 


Fowler’s numbers are flatter, with nearly no season-to-season variation, except his IPP being below 40% for the last two seasons after being above that threshold the previous two. And looking back, it was below 40 percent in two of his first three NHL seasons as well. Thus, we can’t bank on that metric rebounding. Also, his 8.41 percent team shooting percent was the second highest of his career, with it being below 8.0 percent in more career seasons than not. Overall, his metrics suggest his 39 points from last season were, if anything, a bit unsustainably high. 


2017-18 Early Returns 

As I write this, Toronto has played five games, and the Ducks six. The biggest news is Rielly has seen his PP usage percentage more than double, and he already has three PPPts to show for it (or just two less than he had all last season). Also, the team’s PP is number one in the league at 30.8 percent, so one would think his uptick in PP Time would at least continue, if not increase further. Rielly is also shooting the puck a lot more – 17 SOG so far. Between these factors and the Leafs offense looking unstoppable, Rielly should be counted on for 40+ points, with a chance at a good bit more if things continue how they are now. 


Meanwhile, Fowler’s overall and PP TOI numbers are both up, although the former is due largely to the injury-decimated Ducks blueline and the latter because of added PP opportunities since he’s still taking the ice for the roughly the same percentage of man advantage time. If somehow his Ice Time remains above 27:00 per game for the entire season even after injured Ducks d-men are back, then he could perhaps get to 40 points just due to simple P/60 math; however, fatigue could also be more of an issue, particularly as the season wear on, so be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing this as a huge benefit. 


Who Wins? 

Riellyby a wider margin than I’d have figured. Rielly is younger and the team around him should be one of the NHL’s best scoring clubs in years to come. But perhaps even more importantly, we’re already seeing signs of Rielly progressing toward the sweet spot of high TOI and PP Time. If that trend continues, with his talent he could ultimately become Toronto’s version of Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, or Duncan Keith. 


In contrast, Fowler’s metrics don’t give poolies much realistic hope of him being a 40-point defenseman again. Beyond that, if he loses his plum PP gig, his scoring could fall off a cliff. To make matters worse, the Ducks are an aging team which has seen its team goal scoring drop from 263 four seasons ago, to between 214 and 228 in each of the past three seasons. So unlike Rielly, Fowler won’t be able to count on a rising tide (i.e., many team goals scored) raising all boats, including his own. 


If you have Fowler in a keeper, look for an excuse to sell, or to find a way to package him as part of a multi-player deal. With Rielly, it might be wise to buy ASAP from aowner who is still frustrated from last season and might not fully realize that Rielly has seemingly started to turn a fantasy corner.