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Morgan Rielly at Maple Leaf camp? Why would we do that?

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Let’s face it; there is precious little “new” Maple Leaf talk these days.  Why would there be- given the protracted CBA dispute that seemingly has no end in sight.  (That said, I should mention something really positive that Leaf General Manager Brian Burke did last week.  As part of a Covenant House initiative, he slept outside one night to support and build greater awareness around a fund-raising effort to support the youth shelter.  How many business leaders would do that? That is to be applauded, for sure…)  

Hockey and Leaf-wise, the best we can do other than cheering on the very hot Marlies  is speculate on whether or not Roberto Luongo will drop in Toronto's lap the moment the lockout (if ever) ends.  Burke appeared on the Sportsnet radio network a few days ago and boldly claimed “no deal” for Luongo had been completed.  Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea, but I suppose it’s something he has to say at this point.  (I think the Leafs are still in the mix for Luongo, but they can’t have that discussion now publicly, I don’t believe…)

Now something Burke didn’t have to say, however, is that, if we do have a season, and there is a shortened Maple Leaf training camp, 2012 first-round Maple Leaf draft pick (and 5th overall) Morgan Rielly would be invited to the big team’s camp. But get this—if the coaches feel Rielly should make the team, he'll be here.

Can you imagine?  My first thought was (and remains):  as well as Rielly is playing by all accounts in the Western Canadian Junior League in Moose Jaw, why on earth would we even consider him playing with the Leafs this season?

After the recent Luke Schenn crash and burn show under Burke’s studious watch, (and I know people will immediately say, but Michael, Rielly is the real deal, he’s so much better than Luke Schenn…) I cannot conceive why we would do this to another young player.

We thought Schenn was a player.  Unlike some, I still do.  But the Leafs took his development (and his confidence- they go hand in hand) and shot it backwards over the four years he was here.

We’ve messed around with Kadri so often I’m not sure he knows what day it is most of the time, in hockey terms. (I know, I know, everyone is excited that he has 11 points in 5 games since being a healthy scratch a week or so ago...)  We set Schenn back by bringing him up way too soon and then killing his confidence as his development went backwards; we took a much-coveted goalie in Jonas Gustavsson, ate him up and made him a Red Wing.

Now we’re talking about Morgan Rielly being a Leaf at the age of 18—if he’s ready?

C’mon.  Does anybody really think he’s ready?  I mean, he is skilled enough, sure.  I'm not suggesting Rielly won't be an outstanding NHL player.  He has all the earmarks of a guy who will have big-time success at the next level.

But he’s 18.  If he were to make the Leafs, who will he look up to, here, on this Leaf team?  Who is the sound, experienced, confident, proven, elite NHL defenseman that we could pair him with to ease his unnecessarily-rushed development to the NHL?

Why would we even contemplate, for one second, yanking him out of an environment where he stands out, where he is a leader, where he can grow into his body and just play the game…and even consider giving him a shot at the Leaf lineup? (Burke says he and 19 year-old David Broll  “deserve” the chance.  Based on what, exactly? We already have a gazillion forwards and defensemen "in the system", all waiting for their shot...)

You’ll say, but what about Jake Gardiner?  He made it right away and looked great. Sure.  OK.  But Gardiner was older and more mature (presumably) when he came to the Leafs.  He had played U.S. college hockey against older players. 

When we go into Boston, and play Lucic and the Bruins, do we want Rielly out there to take on the biggest and toughest power forwards in the NHL?

Hey, I know Burke likes to talk.  He needs to keep selling snake oil to all of us because, if there is an NHL season, he will already be into “Year 5” of his original and now ever-changing “I have no patience for a 5-year re-build” plan.

Burke pushed the urgency button three years ago when he grabbed Phil Kessel at what turned out to be a huge cost (and Phil, as talented a player as he is, has led us to precisely zero playoff wins in his three years here, before—and here’s the kicker—he likely leaves soon in free-agency…).  Burke's mistake at the time was not in his desire to improve the team by adding a very young and gifted sniper.  Not at all.  It was that he so badly miscalculated how good a Leaf team he had at the time.  For someone with a reputation for being very good at assessing talent,  he was dead wrong.  (And since that time, Burke has not delivered an elite center that would make Kessel and even more dangerous player...)

Now comes another question of judgement.  Is he now seriously considering bringing a kid to Leaf camp?  And not just to observe the pros around him and skate with the big boys because he’s a really solid future prospect, but to be here as an actual contender to make the team?

I shudder at the thought.

I mean, if I thought for one minute that he would be the missing ingredient in the Leafs possibly winning a Stanley Cup this season, well, I guess that may change my view.  I would still be deeply concerned that we are rushing (and perhaps harming) his long-term development, but if he was nurtured properly, I guess I could hold my nose and say, OK, this is the wonder-kid that may help bring a Cup home to a starving Leafworld.  Go for it.

But having watched, oh, Jim Benning, Fred Boimustruck, Bob McGill, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate, Todd Gill, Drake Berehowsky, Luke Richardson—and others I won’t bother mentioning now— rushed into crappy Leaf line-ups (and this current Leaf team is not exactly the ’77 Habs), it just seems like a really bad idea, much less something the Leafs should do. (For the record, some of those young defensemen had nice NHL careers- just not in Toronto, for the most part. Iafrate (right) may have been the most talented kid I've seen as a young defenseman in Toronto in the last thirty years, but he was rushed into the Leaf line-up, was seriously injured, and was never as good as he could have been...)

Again, I get that Burke needs to promote his handiwork.  Rielly has become his number-one prospect on the arguably middlish Maple Lead prospect chart, the 'next big thing' that Leaf fans can really drool over because of his obvious skills.  But by Burke saying what he did a few days ago, this is a case (which happens a lot here) of creating a story where there need not be a story.

Let the young man play out his season, uninterrupted, in junior hockey.  If something happens over the summer and Rielly is somehow truly ready at the age of 19 to play in the NHL next season, I won’t like it, but again, I’ll hold my nose.

I’d much rather he play out his junior career, play with the Marlies for a while and once he is here, he stays here—for good.  No bouncing back and forth, hopefully no motivational ploys (a la Kadri) needed to keep him playing at the top of his game.  Just a young player who is fully baked and ready for the big time, never to look back.  That's what I would love to see.

Schenn should never have been here as soon as he was.  That's on Fletcher and then Burke.  I assume the Leafs were bowled over by his size.  But in the long run, being here at 18 made Luke rich, but not as good as he should/could have been.

Kadri has been yo-yo’d around.  Gustavsson was absolutely destroyed.  I was hoping that this time around, this supposedly wiser management team would handle an important prospect wisely and show patience.  Even talking publicly about bringing him up (and then creating disappointment for the kid if he doesn't "make it") makes zero sense to me.

Though I have referenced the Leaf "history" of rushing too many talented kids with legitimate potential too fast too soon, I realize that was then.  It's a different era, a new regime.  But I'm not thrilled with some of the decisions made by this regime, and that has nothing to do with history. So the point is relevant.  I say: let's be patient with a kid who may well be a franchise player some day.  What's the rush?  If he's really as good as many people think, then what we want is for him to be here for a long, long here. But we don't need him here now.

I'm guessing many of you feel differently.  Regardless, we'd all love to see the kid succeed.

I’m hoping the brass will come to their senses between now and whenever training camp begins.

18 comments:

  1. Michael,

    You know that I love your work here at VLM. But, expecting the management team of the Maple Leafs to do the right thing for a players career development, at the possible expense of their own aggrandizement, is foolhardy thinking. Burke needs Rielly on the big club sooner, not later. It is the evidence he needs to bolster his reputation as a builder of NHL teams. His drafting is so astute that he is able to get the only player in the world who is currently capable of being in the League as an 18 year old. He would not benefit in the least from another year of junior, and then at least 2 years of the AHL. He needs to be on the big club as soon as possible so that Burke can spend time next year rushing another kid in and out of the lineup. Meanwhile, telling everyone with a microphone and a camera that every game is a tryout. That is, until they find out that the player in questions development has stalled, and since they have already used up his entry level contract time, they need to trade him away. This cycle will continue in Toronto, until someone wakes the hell up. That, on my part is foolhardy thinking. No one associated with this team is ever going to wake the hell up. There is a quote I knew once, about history and repeating it. Burke has me too fed up with his shenanigans to bother to try and remember it.

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  2. I hear you loud and clear, Jim- but for now, I'll hope that common sense prevails!

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  3. I imagine that such a Burke-proclamation may be intended to keep Rielly encouraged and 'pump his tires' a bit, however, it seems to be more likely that this pronouncement has more to do with Burke's role in the 'entertainment industry' (that he mentioned in his business speech a while ago).

    It boggles the mind that with a ready-made 'excuse' to keep Rielly in the Junior ranks (namely, the late start, if at all, to the season), that we are even contemplating bringing Rielly to a shortened (no pre-season game?) camp.

    If Rielly really were to 'impress' I would still hope that the team preferred to make him available for the world junior championships no matter what. I would hope they might only consider the 9-game treatment at the end of the season! Let him put in a near full season in Juniors to develop and strengthen after a major injury, let his contract slide into a full season rookie campaign in 2013-14 and give him the 9-game taste at season end (if the situation makes sense for the TEAM more than the player).

    This may be the best we can hope for in dysfunctional leafland... I prefer your 2 years in Junior plus some games with the Marlies following that... even if Rielly's skills turn out to blow us away at a shortened camp, I want him to play in the World Jr's and stay down fo the rest of the year. If he's out of the playoff picture, then a call-up to the Marlies for the playoffs might be a good test to see how a 19 year old does playing against men!

    If Rielly is kept with the big club, he will probably do well, but I believe we will lower his ceiling unjustifiably!

    We've waited this long... I can wait for him a little longer!

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  4. Your point about the importance of the World Juniors is a very good one, InTimeFor62. All prospects should be brought along thoughtfully but the fact that Rielly is a premier talent is all the more reason to show patience.

    I just don't believe kids ever need to be rushed into the NHL, and you've well expressed some of the reasons why. Thanks InTimeFor62.

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  5. I hate that I feel as jaded as Jim on the above post, but yes I'm starting to lean that way. I really am getting tired of Burke trying to play to the media as much as he does. You'd think in Toronto of all places a GM would want to duck and run from the media on occasion. Whatever Burke is thinking, hoping, or planning, why can't he just let Rielly come to camp and enjoy the experience without the added pressure?

    We know the history with young defensemen with this franchise. It's always a rare talent that makes an NHL team at 18, usually no more than the top two or three overall draft picks, and its even more rare for a defenseman to succeed this young in the NHL. We also know the undue pressure the media and fans put on the prospects. Burke making these comments is throwing a lighted match on a pool of gasoline.

    I really do hope that they for once don't cave to media and fan pressure, and make the proper hockey decision to allow Rielly to develop before pushing him into the NHL.

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  6. We're on the same page, Pete. If they want to let him come to camp, great. But to make a point of telling the media he may actually make the team, well, that's just a recipe for disaster. Don't know why it's so hard to be - and show - patience with kids. Just let them develop. Thanks Pete.

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  7. "Morgan Rielly at Maple Leaf camp? Why would we do that?"

    I'm actually ok with it. He's played well. Bring him to camp and let him see how he stacks up against NHL players. Even let him play 6 or 7 games but not 10.

    My guess is that Burke will want him to have that experience of playing in the world juniors like Burke did with Getzlaf and Perry.

    Watching the Marlies improve in these past few weeks leads me to believe we will have lots of defencemen that could play for the Leafs. Fraser looks better and cheaper than Komisarek. He certainly fights better. Holzer looks ready to make the jump. Gardiner is improving and more willing to shoot. Ranger looks terrific. He has been top 4 in the NHL in the past. I hope there will be a way to sneak him up.

    Down in the OHL Biggs has 23 points in 25 games and our 235 lbs "goon' David Broll has 17 points in 23 games.

    I'm actually quite optimistic these days. I just wonder if Burke will survive long enough to see all these guys succeed as Leafs.

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  8. Thanks DP- always good to get your perspective....

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  9. All I have to comment on this post Michael is; Agreed!

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  10. Hey, sometimes short and sweet is just fine, Lukas. Thanks for taking the time to visit- and post.

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  11. No point telling the kid that he's being brought to camp but has no shot at the team. This is direct encouragement to him and a perfectly reasonable thing for Burke to say.

    If, and it's a big if, there's an NHL season I'm sure he'll be invited to camp but given the expectation that he would need to play well enough to garner a top 4 d slot, otherwise for his development he'd be better off in Junior. Morgan seems like a smart kid, he'll understand that 20-30 mins a night in Junior is better for his development than 8 mins a night/pressbox in the NHL. If he's somehow better then Phaneuf, Gunnar, Liles and Gardiner then he needs to play in the NHL. At this point I doubt he is which gives Leafs management a reasonable excuse to send him to the World Juniors and back to Moose Jaw.

    It doesn't sound like Moose Jaw has a great team, so there's a good chance if he continues to play like he is, that we'll see him for 9 games late in the season. If we have one.

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  12. Thanks Alex- we'll agree to disagree on this one!

    I see no point in encouraging an impressionable kid - no matter how mature we think he is - that he may make the big team. A one-week training camp would be enough to convince management he is "better" than what we already have?

    Let him star all year in junior, develop, be the best where he is and when the time is truly right, give him a Leaf jersey.

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  13. After seeing Rielly play live (albeit just once) I did not see an NHL-ready defenseman at all. Boatloads of potential? -- absolutely! The development path that Michael envisions for Reilly is, in my mind, the ideal one.

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  14. Thanks for chiming in on this one, Bobby C..

    You happen to live proximate enough to where Rielly plays that you have been able to follow his career somewhat "up close". I appreciate hearing your instincts on this one.

    To me, there is rarely, if ever, a need to "rush" a young player. Let them develop. Denis Potvin played junior hockey until he was turning 20, basically. He was "too good" for junior hockey, but that worked fine for him, eh?

    Unless we're talking Bobby Orr- who was physically ready at 18 and beyond ready in terms of skill - I'm happy to wait.

    Thanks Bobby C.

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  15. Funny you should mention Denis Potvin, who I also saw play live with the 67’s. My memory on this one is that Potvin was more rounded and complete in junior than Rielly currently is. Rielly is obviously a superior talent, however he needs more work on fundamentals, which should come along, probably relatively quickly, given his intelligence and competitive makeup. PS: Congrats on “Leaf Matters”. Excellent show and loved the Bester interview, a real spotlight on what ails us.

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  16. I, too, was fortunate enough to see Potvin (and future Leaf Ian Turnbull) play in their last year of junior with Ottawa. I agree with your assessment of Potvin, vis-a-vis what I have seen (though not in person) of Rielly. (It's not that I'm worried about Rielly- he'll be fine! I'd just like to see the organization do what's best for the player, long-term.)

    And thanks for the kind words regarding the podcast, and the Bester interview, Bobby C.. Glad we can talk hockey sometimes, and not just "lockouts" and CBA stuff.

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  17. Category 1.
    Best players ever 1. Orr 2. Howe 3. Gretzky played in NHL as teenagers. I have only seen one highlight goal by Reilly, but looked more like weak defense than superstar.

    Category 2.
    When I saw Potvin in Ottawa, he was a man amongst boys.

    Does Reilly fit either of these categories?

    In most sports, you learn best by playing against better players. However in hockey, unless you can play at a high level and can take toughness, you are best to be a star in junior for a while.
    Note: Howie Young told by buddy Whitey Youngberg at 15 in Kitchener Jr A that they were going to try to run him out of the league (and hang in there until he got there). Gretzky always had his protector, not sure Leafs have that person.

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  18. Rielly is certainly a very talented young player, RLMcC. Gifted skater, sees the ice well, etc.

    But in the games I have seen him play, while he is certainly better than the players around him by and large, he has a number of chinks in his game that are a long way from NHL-caliber as best I can tell as a "non-expert".

    He may be an outstanding NHL'er some day. But I'm all for waiting and letting him go through the different steps most good players go through.

    It didn't hurt Potvin (as you cite above) to play with "boys" until he was 20. I prefer that defensemen mature slowly. Thanks Ralph (RLMcC).

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