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The Morgan Rielly conundrum…

I don’t know why it is that so many NHL teams, including the Leafs, are constantly tempted to force-feed 18 and 19 year old players into their lineup.  Those who visit VLM regularly know I have, in Leaf terms, talked about this phenomenon ad nauseum over the years.  Many of you know the names I’ve talked about here in this regard.  Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate are just a few examples. More recently, the much-maligned Luke Schenn fell into this category.

In every instance, the outcome was, if not an unmitigated disaster, pretty much a disaster nonetheless.

So here we are now, and the latest youngster to turn the brass' heads is 19 year-old Morgan Rielly, the number-five overall pick by Toronto in the 2012 entry draft.

Some of you will recall that I was concerned the Leafs would actually include Rielly on the roster this past shortened season—especially given that he had been playing in Moose Jaw all year and most of the team’s veterans, because of the lockout, had but a one-week camp to get ready for NHL play this past January.  The Leafs even said at the time  (Burke, before his ouster) that it was up to Carlyle whether Rielly made the team.  In other words, the door was open—if Reilly was “ready” and good enough, he’d join the Leafs.

I found that shocking—and quite stupid.  But that’s the thinking in the hockey world, and has been for decades.  The heck with any potential long-term consequences to the young player; if a kid shows he’s “ready” today, why not put him on the roster right now?

How so many “smart” hockey executives could be so impatient is baffling, but it is what it is.

There have always been the rare precocious teenagers who were about as ready as they could possibly be to make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL at the age of 18.  In my hockey lifetime dating back to the late 1950s, those names have included Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr (right) and in more recent times Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and of course Sydney Crosby. (There have been many young players, of course, who also made the jump over the years, “ready” or not. Some were successful, others less so.)

Those that I named above were indeed the best of the best.  Despite being young men perhaps not quite fully physically or emotionally “ready”, they were so talented and so driven they could not be overlooked. They made it and never looked back. Unfortunately there are others whose careers have not necessarily benefitted from the quick call-up. (Schenn may be a prime present-day example, in Leaf terms.)

I’m not going to try to say that Reilly isn’t talented enough to play in the NHL.  I've seen him play.  He's really, really good.  For me, though, this is not a talent debate.  And he may be the most mature 19 year-old kid around, I have no idea.  He may even be really strong physically for someone his age, with good lower-body strength and all that (one of the gifts that Orr also had as a young man, which made his transition to the pro game all the more seamless back in 1966…)

But I will say this:  I almost never buy the argument (especially when we are talking about a defenseman) that a young player is “too good” for junior hockey; that he has nothing left  to learn.

Has Reilly led his team to a Division championship?  A Western League title?  The Memorial Cup?   Has he led Canada to a World Junior championship?

I’m not all over his junior career, so maybe he has “done it all” and I’ve missed it.  But unless he has been a captain, mentored younger players, “won” everything there is to win, played injury-free for an extended period of time, etc., can we really say he has “nothing to learn”, nothing more to experience or gain from playing junior hockey?

I know some of you have heard me use this example before, but I remember watching Dennis Potvin (a lot) play junior hockey in the early 1970s.  Now there was a young man who was physically about as ready as you could be to play with men.  But the way the NHL was run in those days, young players were not drafted until; they were 20 years of age.  Could Potvin (who had started, if I’m not mistaken, playing junior hockey at the age of 14) have played in the NHL earlier?  Absolutely. But I’ve never thought for a moment his career was harmed, even in a small way, by his “delayed” arrival to the NHL.  He became a Hall-of Famer, and helped lead the Islanders at one point to four Stanley Cups.

I know, I know, it’s a different time, a different era and we’re talking about the Leafs and their needs right now.  But is Rielly more advanced than Denis Potvin? Larry Robinson?  Zdeno Chara or Nicklas Lidstrom? None of those guys played in the NHL until they were in their 20s.

Hey, I have little doubt Rielly benefited immeasurably from playing with the AHL Marlies in the playoffs this past spring.  And I had no problem with him doing that at the end of his junior season. But does that mean he now needs to play with the Leafs, especially when we have plenty of guys with reasonably impressive NHL experience on their resume in our lineup already?

For my money, Jake Gardiner still has a lot to learn about playing in his own zone at the NHL level.  A year ago he was the Leaf “boy wonder” who could do no wrong.  But injuries and something I can’t quite put my finger on saw him not in Carlyle’s “mix” a lot of the time this past season. Gardiner is a gifted young player, but I will not say he is a surefire superstar, for all his talent.  Not yet.

And Rielly is even younger. And has even more to learn, as well as he sees the game and all that.

I realize—and respect the fact—that many Leaf supporters are dying to see Rielly in uniform with the blue and white.  They don’t see the point of an immensely talented kid wasting his time in junior hockey when he is supposedly “ready” (there’s that word again) to play in the big time.  But I struggle to understand why he would need to be here now, why it’s even a temptation for Nonis and Carlyle to play him in October.  (Yes, Carlyle did it with Fowler years ago in Anaheim, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing at the time, or the right thing now for Rielly…)

Are the Leafs that desperate that we have to rely on a 19 year-old (who needs to play a lot and develop, not play minimum minutes) to save our defence?

Maybe I’m just hung up on history and the fact that I’ve seen this movie with this franchise so many timed before (and it always ended badly) that I just don’t see the point of even considering it.  Even setting aside the financial benefit of not wasting a year of his entry-level contract before the organization really needs to, is it necessary to expose this young man to the physical demands of the NHL just yet?

Could he handle it? Probably.  Sure.

But I’d just much rather we be in a situation that, once Rielly makes the big club, he never has to look back.  No nine-game trials, no yo-yo back and forth stuff like Kadri experienced for three seasons.  I’d like my young defensemen to be fully “cooked” by the time they actually wear a Leaf sweater, so that by the time they arrive, they never have to go backwards—not to junior hockey, not to the Marlies.  No side steps, no back steps.  I would just prefer that, in this case, Rielly be absolutely, one hundred per cent ready to play here.

I can see lots of benefits to ‘waiting”.  I don't see any to rushing him into the lineup this fall.  But you may disagree. 

I’m all ears.


  1. I'm not sure that the "rush" really detracts from what the player is able to accomplish in the end. Maybe with guys like Schenn all we are seeing is that he never really was quite as good as we thought he was, and more time in junior or the minors would never have changed the final product to any significant degree. Just by virtue of the meaning of the word "average", the vast majority of NHL players will ultimately be judged as either average or below average.

    However, everything I said above is just speculation. Although I may not be completely convinced of the harms in an accelerated schedule, I am just about certain another year or two at a lower level will not hurt. For that reason, I'm in complete agreement with your conclusion. Anyway, if the Leafs surprise us all and take a serious run at the Cup next year, Rielly's season will be finished by then and he will be available if needed.

    1. I do believe that rushing kids can be detrimental, Oliver, in part because it impacts confidence so much if things go poorly early on, and confidence can be very difficult to recapture.

    2. I hear what you're saying, but I think it could work the other way as well. A player could receive a huge confidence boost from not feeling out of place in the pros. As a goalie, I probably understand the confidence concerns as well as anyone and I would never dismiss them. But the flip side of that is the typical NHL player's access to sports psychologists and other mentors, as well as the fact that any truly gifted player will experience some degree of success within a couple of seasons and would be able to build some confidence on the strength of those successes.

      As I said though, I'm pretty much with you on the issue. I just thought I would be a bit contrarian to try to help get the conversation started! Also, excellent point by mrj below regarding the amount of ice time he will get in junior. That should be a very important consideration.

    3. Always happy to hear a well-stated contrarian point of view, Oliver! Yes, some young players make it early and prosper. I'm just very leery especially when it comes to goaltenders and defensemen. I've seen too many young players over the years rushed into the NHL unnecessarily, including those former Leaf defensemen I cited above.

      As for Schenn, he may well prove to be an "average" NHL player, but I think more time in junior, and some time in the AHL, could have helped him immensely. We'll never know, but maybe the Leaf brass will be more cautious on this one....thanks Oliver.

  2. I think Rielly needs to play junior one more year. He would benefit mentally and physically playing for his junior team. It is very likely that he would be called upon to play a lot of minutes for the Canadian junior team and this would do wonders for his game.

    The NHL is a league for men, and, despite his talent, Reilly is still just a boy.

    1. Yes, Rielly would likely be a key guy on the blueline for Canada at the World Juniors, mrj...

  3. Interesting that you included a picture of a young Bobby Orr. He played junior for Oshawa (in the MTHL if I remember correctly) beginning at age 14 and did not look out of place at that young age. I saw him play numerous times and it became obvious that at 16 he was NHL ready.

    Morgan Rielly just spent a productive season in junior with some valuable learning time with the Marlies tacked on. This was really a rehab year as he was injured most of the 2111-12 season. I believe another year in junior could be of great benefit to him especially if he could lead Canada in the world junior tournament and lead Moose Jaw deep into the playoffs.

    Young defenseman develop more slowly than forwards. The learning curve is steeper and the opportunities for confidence draining setbacks much greater especially with the scrutiny he would receive in Toronto.

    Nonis has said that he will let players develop at their own pace. I hope he remains true to his word for if he is developed properly I think we will have a very special player in Morgan Reilly; not a once in a lifetime player like Bobby Orr but a top-pairing defenseman for years to come.

    1. Thanks Pete Cam. Orr was one-of-a-kind, for sure.

      For me, it's about giving Rielly all the time he needs to be one hundred per cent ready when he becomes a Leaf. He should be a top defenseman for years to come. I'm prepared to wait another year. I wonder if Nonis and Carlyle are, too?

  4. I'm amazed how quickly we've jumped from Gardiner is God to Morgan is the Messiah. I have not had the opportunity to see Reilly play but I cannot see how he can be that much better than Gardiner. If Reilly is going to be a star defenceman in this league then we have two of them in the system - GARDS IS FOR REAL. He's not Pronger but he could very well be another Coffey or Housley.

    I believe Gardiner not being a big part of Carlyle's plans is a more damning indictment of the coach than it is of the player. Grabovski's handling another example. Caveman hockey. Fire Randy!

    I think a big difference from times past (Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate) is that the league has gotten younger - there's lots of kids playing in the NHL. It's more the miserable work environment in TO I think. Would Luke Schenn's career be Luke Richardson-esque (still not a bad career) if he came into the league in Florida? Without the constant reminders of every mistake?

    "For my money, Jake Gardiner still has a lot to learn about playing in his own zone at the NHL level. A year ago he was the Leaf “boy wonder” who could do no wrong. But injuries and something I can’t quite put my finger on saw him not in Carlyle’s “mix” a lot of the time this past season. Gardiner is a gifted young player, but I will not say he is a surefire superstar, for all his talent. Not yet."

    There's a confidence builder for the young man.

    Hockey is actually a lot harder than it looks. We, the Toronto fans, have to be willing to overlook a "Jake made a mistake" or two in order to get to the good stuff down the road. If we don't we'll kill him off, then decide Reilly doesn't quite have it then we start in on Percy, oh wait, we still haven't killed off Phaneuf yet...

    Yes, I think Reilly should return to junior, one year with Eakins in Edmonton, sorry, a year in the A with the Marlies and then join the Leafs. Maybe a call up halfway through the A year if things go well.

    1. Thanks buddha hat.

      Just to defend myself a bit, I believe my comments on Gardiner are quite fair. He's a gifted kid, but we tend to canonize everyone in this market too soon.

      If I provided no "opinions" on this site, or only offered up the usual "he's so good, he's gonna be a superstar...", no one would visit.

      I also doubt that Gardiner would worry one iota what I (or any "blogger") think/thinks. That won't impact his confidence one bit.

      I don't view Carlyle quite the same way you do, buddha hat, but I do agree that how he works with Gardiner going forward will obviously be key. I'm no coach, but it strikes me that you have to let the Coffeys of the world do what they do well, while still nudging them to pay attention to the things that are needed in their own zone. (As you mentioned with Coffey and Housley and your overall point about the league being younger, it's also much more defensive oriented than in the era I spoke of, and when guys like Coffey played. Defensemen are expected to be really good in their own zone and around their own net. Coffey was not "physical" but through most of his career more than made up for that hole in his game.)

      And your last point is on the money, too. As with Schenn, if we only focus on "mistakes", none of these guys will ever measure up, and we'll forever keep looking for that next "saviour". Thanks buddha hat.

  5. Reilly's situation truly is a Catch-22, or like being "between a rock and a hard place". He was sent back to juniors last year and he again dominated at his position, playing a ton of minutes and a lot of PK and PP time. Some players reach a point in juniors where they are significantly superior to their peers. At this point they tend to stop growing as players and can get away with some bad habits simply because their skill can get them out of trouble.

    Reilly stepped up and played with the Marlies when his junior season was over. It didn't take him long to adapt, and he played quite well, and in all situations. The AHL game is more physical and demanding, and Morgan proved he was up to the task. Most would agree that this is where Reilly should start his 2013-14 season, but we know that is not possible. So should he make the jump to the NHL? I'd like to say no, BUT going back to junior is not going to help his development. Boston was faced with a similar situation last season with Dougie Hamilton, and elected to keep him on the NHL roster. The Bruins had the luxury of having Hamilton play a lot of minutes with Chara, so they were able to shelter him somewhat.

    Here are the conditions in which I might consider keeping Reilly up with the Leafs.
    1) He has a great rookie tourney in September, followed by a strong training camp with the Leafs. (if yes, continue to #2, otherwise back to junior).
    2) See how Reilly handles game situations in the pre-season. (If he does well, move on to #3, otherwise back to junior).
    3) Allow Reilly to start the season with the Leafs and play some consistent minutes to see if he can handle the workload and NHL play. (If he plays well, move to #4, otherwise back to junior).
    4)) Leafs already have two puck movers in Gardiner and Liles, and having a third makes little sense. Leafs would need to consider moving Liles if they felt Reilly was ready for the NHL. (if moving Liles is feasible, Reilly can stay with the Leafs, otherwise back to junior before his junior eligibility ends).

    1. I like your common-sense approach, Don (TML_fan). The only concern I have is that I see no one on the Leaf blueline who can play the role Chara did at times for Hamilton this past season. Would Rielly really be sheltered? And are 9 early-season NHL games really enough to know if a young player is ready, especially a defenseman?

      I know it's different, but the Sabres did that with Grigorenko (a talented forward) this past year, and it backfired. He was quickly in over his dead, they wasted a year of his contract while he was ultimately back playing junior hockey. But I like your thinking, we'll see how this unfolds. I'm just afraid that, regardless of what the Leafs say publicly, they are pencilling him in to play...thanks Don.

    2. On #4, I somewhat have to disagree. I think the trend in the NHL is moving towards the sort of mobile defencemen like Rielly and Gardiner. Looking at the series against Boston, and also Chicago's success, teams can beat the good hard forechecking teams like Boston and L.A with very mobile defencemen who have multiple options for getting the puck out of the zone. There was a very noticeable difference in the Leafs play after Gardiner entered the line-up and gave the Leafs a way to beat the Bruins forecheck. Ideally, I'd like to see a guy that can skate the puck out of the zone on each pairing to give the Leafs more options.

    3. Good puck-moving defensemen are always sought-after, maopleleafmjt. That's part of the reason why I'm in no rush to feel the Leafs don't need both Gardiner and Rielly. I think we need them both, even if they have "similar" skill sets.

      As for whether we need someone with that skill set (maybe not as good as Gardiner or Rielly, obviously) on the third defense pairing, I see TML_fan's point, and yours as well. I don't think it's essential, but it would not necessarily be a luxury, either. If you have the right tandems in place, and each pairing has a guy that can move the puck, all the better.

  6. There is always a lot of rhetoric about the development of the player being the prime consideration about whether to allow a teenager to join the big club, the decision hinging on whether he will become a better player in the NHL or elsewhere given the options. I recall Wilson arguing that Luke Schenn would get superior coaching at the NHL level and therefore evolve into a better player in the Toronto context. Jim Hughes constructs a nuanced debate of junior versus NHL that is presumably sincere, especially given that he is responsible for player development. Rielly, or any player in the development “grid” that succeeds is a successful project, another feather in his department’s cap.

    When it comes to the ultimate arbiters, the coaches, I assume that the motivations are self-interested and short-term as opposed to the long-term well being of the individual player. The reason that so many bad long-term decisions are made to keep the teenager with the big club has more to do with a coach’s perception of having the best available players to win in the here and now, not whether the player will land in the Hall of Fame or the garbage heap of wasted potential. As we have all seen, for a head coach not winning now usually means a pink slip and uncertain future. With that reality in mind they will almost certainly chose what they believe to be the most talented players available to achieve the entwined ends of winning and job security.

    What would a player to do in training camp, dumb it down? Not likely. In Toronto, the pressure to produce now is enormous, which is why an effective long-term strategy rarely seems to come into play with the Leafs. Brian Burke appeared to try to address the long-term strategy and win now pressures simultaneously. In the fullness of time, it is looking like he had more success with the former, as he was never able to do enough in the short-term with what JFJ handed him. Many of us feel that Luke Schenn may have been a victim of this context. On the other hand, Burke gathered a lot of middling draft picks as well as college and euro free agents, many of which are developing nicely.

    If I understand correctly the depth of player in the defensive system, Carlyle should not feel undue pressure to play Rielly this year. Then again, if Rielly wows them in training camp all bets are off and the temptation to cash in now rather than let the investment accrue could be too great. Most of us will still be here long after Carlyle is gone. It is little wonder then, that we want what is best for the player in the long run, not the immediate payoff in the here and now.

    1. There's no doubt coaches (not only Carlyle) face the constant pressure to win now, Bobby C. and that obviously can impact their judgement when it comes to developing players. It worked miserably in the end for Schenn, and you have to think the Leafs don't want to rush another young player who should be very, very good.

      As you note, fans will be here long past Carlyle's time behind the bench. Hopefully he can make a decision that works not just for the here and now, but for Rielly and the franchise down the road. Thanks Bobby.

  7. Its true they don't have a Chara to shelter Rielly like the Bruins did for Hamilton, and that concerns me a bit. Ideally you want to pair him up with a veteran defensemen, and someone who plays a physical game. Phaneuf is the only one who fits that category, but I doubt anyone wants to see Rielly play those kind of minutes in his first year.

    Rielly is a bit different than other rookies. They've already seen him with the Marlies, and know he can play quite comfortably at the AHL level. Although not ideal, they could keep him in the NHL as a 6 or 7D, and add some PP time to that too. He wouldn't develop as fast, but that may still be better than going back to junior.

    I'm not sure Leafs' management have penciled him into their lineup as yet. They realize going back to junior doesn't help Reilly, but they also don't want to carry him on their NHL roster if he's not ready or can't succeed. I think the ways they handled Kadri and Gardiner prove they can be patient when needed. There's no need to rush Rielly. Going back to Luke Schenn's situation, the team was far more desperate for help on defense then & Schenn was a year younger than Morgan. I don't think the Leafs will rush Rielly into something he is not ready for, but we'll be able to judge better for ourselves in September.

  8. Temptations rarely work out well in the long run and it is a temptation for the coach and management staff to consider the short run, so (on principle) I share your concern pertaining to bringing Rielly into the NHL this coming season.

    During Morgan's stint with the Marlies, I kept anticipating an offensive explosion from the young man that didn't materialize. It got me thinking that the organization might have learned something after Jake (and even Luke, to some extent)... that being the time to appropriate the defensive expectations that would be upon them at the NHL level (without the opportunity to evolve with those skills under a microscope).

    I had the distinct impression that Gardiner was returned to the "A" (with some post-concussion symptoms in tow) in order to round out his defensive game. Upon his departure/call-up, Morgan entered the picture with the Marlies. It seemed to me that Rielly was submitting to instruction and expectations that 'reigned in' the thoroughbred, in order to round out his overall performance.

    Will Morgan demonstrate that such teaching has been infused so quickly that there seems no chance of regression?


    Will there be some hint that a little more time to work on the defensive side of his game (off-Off-Broadway - in Junior) where the lights aren't so bright and the opportunity to gain confidence in areas that can be so much better for our mutual enjoyment and success?

    I sense this would be the main reason to send him back to Moose Jaw, with opportunity to perform in the World Junior's and possibly finish the season in the "A" - demonstrating his appropriation of the lessons that the organization needs to see in their protégé.

    It would be at the conclusion of next year that I would be happy to take TML-fan's pragmatic flowchart approach to deciding between the NHL and the "A" (rather than Junior). But don't get me wrong... I'd be thrilled if he went all 'Bobby Orr' over the summer and blew us away at camp, but I hope we err to the side of caution if mORRgan is not 'fully baked'...

    1. Thanks for chiming in, InTimeFor62. From what I saw of Rielly in the playoffs with the Marlies, his contribution (and game approach under Eakins) very much fell in line with what you wrote.

      I likely sound like a narrow-minded old guy on this one, out of touch with the modern game. I just would like to see some long-term thinking enter the picture here. The scenario os his playing a lead role for Canada at the World Juniors seems like a healthy approach...

  9. hi michael, you discuss rushing the player's development quite often (i remember posts about schenn and kadri for instance). another layer or level to the problem of having a player join the nhl immediately is the mental/psychological maturity factor... the player popping into my head could have been a maple leaf under other circumstances... tyler seguin! maybe i'm really stretching things here, but between his immature twitter posts, and his parents exonerating his party-lifestyle by passing the buck to the boring older family-men... seguin seems like the lindsay lohan of the nhl... 21 years old... straight from the draft to the nhl (and into the spotlight/lime-lite). i'd rather the player develop not only the on-ice talents, but the maturity and ability to handle media pressure of the minor leagues first before hitting the nhl. cheers michael!

    1. Hi Alex- The Lohan reference made me smile and I hear what you're saying about Seguin. Whatever extreme points of view (the Bruin organization going overboard publicly, or his parents naturally sounding very protective) may be out there, the young man clearly had some issues that led to the Bruins being willing to move someone they saw as a potential problem, despite his tremendous talent and potential.

      By all accounts Rielly is a mature kid. But I recall the same thing being said about Schenn, about Seguin, etc.

      I'm with you, Alex- I'd much prefer a young player (especially a defenseman) go through the "steps" before reaching the NHL. Once here ("fully baked" as InTimeFor62 said above), they are then here to stay.

  10. I think you and I are in the same camp on this one, Michael. There's too much to lose in rushing any young prospect to the majors. Not only the confidence and skill issues, but also the injury issue. Another year of allowing the body to physically develop before the punishment of an NHL season is not a bad thing. As we were discussing the other day, many feel Bobby Orr's career was cut short because his knees never strengthened to their fullest before he started playing in the big league.
    From my POV, the reason Gardiner didn't get significant ice time this year is because he didn't play all that well. He made a number of gaffes that cost us goals and scoring chances. He was bodied off the puck too easily. He didn't seem to be seeing the ice all that well. His speed was definitely an advantage against Boston, and he seemed to have found his game again. We'll see how he does this year. One thing's for sure - it's Carlyle's way or a press box stay.
    I hope we'll let Rielly develop further, and when he seems ready I expect we'll see Liles shipped out to make way for him. But, echoing the comment above and Brian Burke, pro sports is a "results now" business. If Rielly is deemed a defensive upgrade, I'm sure he'll be playing this year - and let the bone chips fall where they may.

    1. It's true, Gerund O', the lure of "win now" rings through the halls of every professional sports organization, the future be damned. I sometimes wish it weren't so, but it is, despite all the proclamations about "development" coming from the teams.

      I think Gardiner struggled, too, last season. When he was supposedly back and healthy and playing for the Leafs, he was as you described, a young defenseman who was guilty of nightly giveaways that cost (or could have) the team. When Carlyle gave him his chance against the Bruins in the playoffs, despite having sat around for a while he was pretty darn good, though there were still occasional issues in his own zone.

      That's not to say veteran defensemen don't make mistakes, too. Of course they do, but usually they are "forgiven" because they have a lengthy, proven track record.

      As buddha hat stressed above, we can't just highlight mistakes, or young players will forever be under too much scrutiny here. I like Gardiner a lot, and I have no doubt about Rielly's ability to play here. I'd just like to see a thoughtful approach to development. And my fear is, if Rielly, as you say, shows well at camp, he'll be here, full stop. Thanks Gerund.

  11. Hi Michael:
    Seems like deja vu all over again (Yogi Berra). Some interesting comments by all.

    I find your comments a little arbitrary. If you are 18 or 19 years old, and especially a defenseman you would be better to stay in Junior!!! Saying that 'forcing' Dennis Potvin to play Junior 'didn't harm him' is not exactly a positive. The real question is, did it help him? If anyone was ready to play in the NHL, it was this man playing a boy's game. I wonder what Dennis thought, because he looked bored to me and toyed with and intimidated the opposition.

    Based on lawsuits, Indianapolis Racers drafting a 17 year old Gretzky I believe, these 18 year olds are eligible. We are in a new world, where 14 year olds from China play in the Masters, a 19 year old won on the PGA this weekend (youngest in 70+ years). Through many advancements, Younger players have the required skill sets in most sports that allow the 'exceptional' to compete. We cannot legislate intelligence on NHL management and rightly so. Many of the better players while admitting they have something to learn, still think they are ready. Their parents have probably over-rated them forever.

    There are probably six young players, perhaps even Reilly (I honestly don't know), who can make a contribution first year. The type of player who is in this exceptional category has probably been playing 'up' in age category for his career to date and still excelled. These players have usually excelled at skating and puckhandling/passing (Schenn lacked? Coffey had?) - not likely muckulence. I remember reading newspaper articles about Gretzky starting from about 6 years old and against much older competition.

    So the problem is, can MLSE management choose that exceptional talent and not screw up development? Something tells me that Carlyle will find something wanting and will prefer to use a veteran, which might eliminate your worry. I am more concerned that our mathematically challenged GM will run into cap problems and perhaps force a solution that requires a low salary.

    This selection process is not a cinch. A good baseball analogy is Brian McCann and Jeff Francour here in Braves country. These hometown friends were drafted out of high school, played a minimal time at Class A and were put into the starting lineup. Now a few years later, McCann is an All Star and Francour who was more highly touted is hanging on my his toenails in AAA. The curve ball and strike zone have been his downfall. Not sure more time in minors would have solved problem.

    Assuming he is an exception what does Reilly need.

    My buddy, Whitey Youngberg, an excellent playmaker, who passed away a few years ago, played Junior A for Kitchener left me one comment that sticks with me. Howie Young (one of all-time tough guys) said, "Whitey, they are going to try to run you out of the league". "You can't let that happen, so get your stick up in front of you and I will be right there." Gretzky had McSorley and Leafs are well stocked with face punchers.

    My concerns are more the extracurricular activities that some young players get themselves involved in. Perhaps Tyler Sequin should have gone to the number 1 party school instead of joining the Bruins. However, I am not sure that University of Florida Gators have a hockey team - sic. Oops, it doesn't seem to have helped New England Patriots lineman.

    Someone said a long time ago - If you want to get better, play against better players. For exceptional players, the learning process can be fast. For others, it may be never.

    1. I do agree Ralph (RLMcC) that generally speaking to get better, you eventually have to play against better (and often older) players.

      My lingering concern rests with the word you used- development. I don't know if the Leafs have a very successful track record when it comes to properly developing players. Even the current administration (Nonis has been around long enough, and was Burke's top aide before he became GM) has made errors, and as good as Eakins was, that's only one aspect of development.

      It's true that young athletes are excelling in various sports, and many 18 year-olds have done just fine in the NHL. But time in the AHL has also helped a lot of young players. Carlyle will ultimately make the decision. Thanks Ralph.

  12. [Part 1 of 2]
    Another great article Michael. Although my general 'gut feeling' is agreeing that Morgan should stay down as much as possible (I'm with you, I've seen too many young blueliners thrown to the wolves here over the years for my liking), a few factors come to mind as important when making this decision, which do not seem to be getting a lot of consideration.

    1 - Admittedly, I don't know a whole lot about the style and coaching Rielly is receiving in Moose Jaw, but very I'm curious about how well that style fits with what will be expected of him when he gets to Toronto. The stronger the fit, the more comfortable I am that he is learning the things he'll need to be successful when he does make the big team. If he spends the next year learning habits that Carlyle is going to immediately try to break him out of, then maybe he wont be so well served with an extra year in junior. That being said, this is not a completely binary situation, and if it is not a good fit with his existing WHL team, perhaps the Leafs could 'encourage' a trade to another CHL team or system which could give him a chance to develop in a similar way to what he needs to learn during his next stage. We saw what a positive impact Eakins had on developing our younger players. To me, its an easy situation if the choice is between Reilly being an early addition to the Leaf roster, or being able to spend time in junior if he can benefit from working with a really great coach.

    2 - Rielly does not exist in a vacuum. I have concerns about where Jake Gardiner (and other young blueliners on the team) fit into this equation and agree with you completely that Gardiner could stand some improvement in his own zone to become a more complete player. Assuming that there is zero benefit in Rielly joining the Leafs and sitting in the pressbox, he'd probably be best served by playing sheltered minutes with a strong veteran partner. Yet, there are only so many sheltered minutes - and shouldnt Gardiner (and maybe even Franson) be getting some of those as well? I am a big fan of Gardiner, but even though he played very well these playoffs (as did Franson), Jake has not magically transitioned into a 'seasoned veteran' overnight in the sense that the Leafs brass can stop making any effort to support his development. If Franson and Gardiner are going to maximize their potential - there should be a focus on helping them get whatever they need to succeed (be it attention, extra coaching, a solid veteran to play with etc). Adding Reilly to the mix complicates this. And this is a scenario that ignores Gunnarsson completely, assumes that none of our other promising young blueliners are added, such as Percy, Granberg etc.

  13. [part 2 of 2]
    3 - Asset management - the Leafs are absolutely stacked with respect to blueline prospects. Beyond Reilly in junior, Percy, Blacker, Granberg and Finn all have potential to be decent players - but this also creates a major logjam where any of them could have a great 15 year career in a Leaf uniform, but its not going to be possible for all of them to do this. Being an optimist, lets assume that its not a matter of some make it and others dont - but one of some make it here, and others can be moved to obtain assets at other positions of need (Centre comes to mind). If that is the case - it would help to showcase some of the 'forgotten' (i.e. non Reilly) prospects first to maximize their trade value (say what you will about Luke Schenn - but we got a fantastic return for him when we did deal him). If Reilly comes up this year, we'll hear more of all trades requiring 'one of Reilly or Gardiner' back in return. In one sense, it might be best to leave Reilly 'out of sight' for a while until one or two moves can be made (eg - Percy makes the team, plays a strong season, then we can possibly deal him in another Schenn for JvR style deal, and get someone like Mika Zibanejad in a package deal).

    You made a great comparison with Dennis Potvin, but even if none of these guys develop to that level, there are ways to make a decision which can make this team better off, in the short and long run.

    Keep up the great work Michael - and, to anybody who has made it this far, thanks for taking the time to read through my comment.


    1. I was nodding in agreement with what you wrote, Slider.

      Whether Reilly is in the best environment in Moose Jaw I can't say. Someone closer to the scene there could let us know. At that level, my sense is the coaching staff wants him (needs him) to do what he does best, which is to control the game and make plays and log big minutes. How much defensive awareness is preached, I don't know. Whether he would ever be traded, it's hard to imagine the Leafs could influence that.

      It's true, the Leafs have a number of promising young defensemen in the fold. They can't all play here, unless they went with a total kiddie-corps defense and that won't happen. Carlyle needs some big, tough defenders to play the style he wants to play. That's partly why we saw Fraser as much as we did last season, though other defensemen have more pure skill.

      I'm not looking to stymie Rielly's progress. He should be very good. I'd just rather wait a little longer to make sure we don't look back with regret...

  14. If Reilly can compete in the NHL, and if the guys who are suppose to know him well enough decide he's mentally tough enough to handle a possible setback, he should definitely stay up.

    If he's got a head on his shoulders then his confidence shouldn't get shattered by not being as expert as more veteran players.

    There's no reason to assume baking him longer is better. Other cases were other people.

    1. I hear what you're saying, Rob, and you may well be right.

      My concern is that I have seen too many Leaf executives over the years that, as you say, were supposed to know players well but who nonetheless made poor decisions and rushed players when it was just not necessary. Rielly will be an interesting decision.