That said, every once in a while there is a surprise. Did anyone expect Mike Kostka to emerge as a Maple Leaf last season? Mark Fraser?
I don’t even see where the promising Joe Colborne fits, given that Orr and MacLaren are back for fourth-line duty. This is especially true if the current un-signed players do finally sign on the dotted line before the new season gets underway.
On defense, we have plenty of guys on the roster. We have lots of depth. (Whether we are good enough there, talent-wise, to be an elite team is another question, but we can debate that some other time.) Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, of course, have guaranteed spots. We know Gardiner will see lots of ice this season. Fraser has a new, one-way contract, so he's in the mix. Carlyle likes him a lot. Liles is still around and of course if Cody Franson ever decides to sign his contract, we will have six veteran healthy veterans in the lineup, and that doesn't even include Paul Ranger, who spent last season with the Marlies after time away from the game, but has signed to play with the big club this season.
So where would anyone else fit on, say, the blueline?
Interestingly, some think Morgan Rielly will be there on opening night. And the young man seems to have that goal in mind himself.
Some of you know my stance: I don’t like pushing kids—even if they are uber-talented like Rielly—into a man’s league. There’s just no need and often, it’s not good for their development. (I won’t go through my usual list of Leaf defensemen over the years who had great promise but never fulfilled it here after playing for the Leafs too soon, in my opinion…) I hear the argument all the time that Rielly is “too good” for junior, but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s not like he has single-handedly led his Moose Jaw junior team to the Memorial Cup. Heck, I don’t think they’ve even made the playoffs the last couple of seasons. (I’m not suggesting that’s on Rielly. Simply that he hasn’t experienced the preferred scenario of coming from a winning program where he has been a leader on a team that has achieved success…) And there’s always the World Juniors this coming December/January to think about—an opportunity to play a major role at a high level on a big stage and use that as a stepping stone to a great career with the blue and white.
Could Rielly play in the NHL right now, at the age of 19? Sure. He has the talent. (Plenty of others have done it, though sometimes to their detriment.) And he has evidently bulked up over the summer, so he is “bigger and stronger” as we always hear about young players at this time of year. But does that mean we should use a year of his entry-level contract and plug him into the lineup right now?
I know that most Leaf fans want to move Liles, but that’s easier said than done. I don’t know who will take him at this point. His time with the Leafs has made him damaged goods, I sense, in the minds of a lot of NHL General Managers. That’s no knock on Liles, just an unfortunate outcome of the injury he suffered in his first year in Toronto. He has never quite recaptured his early-days jump with Toronto and is off the radar screen for a lot of NHL folk.
But even if Liles were to depart, we would still have six experienced defensemen (including Ranger) ostensibly ahead of someone like Rielly on the blueline depth chart. Under those circumstances, is he going to come up here and play enough minutes to help his long-term development? If he does get earn a spot and significant playing time, who sits upstairs?
As good as he looked with the Marlies in the AHL playoffs this past spring, that wasn’t the NHL. What Leaf defenseman will be able to teach him the ropes, will be able to help shelter him when we play physical clubs like the Bruins? We don’t exactly have a Nik Lidstrom on the roster to take Rielly under his wing.
Would I love to see an exciting, young player in the Leaf lineup? Of course. He’s the new toy in the playpen that everyone wants to watch at the next level. I get that. Who doesn’t want to see someone with dynamic skills, a player who will make Leaf faithful believe better times are not just around the corner, but right here, in front of us right now.
It’s just that I’m still hesitant. I’m still not sure that, even if he is one of the best Leaf defenseman at camp (which could happen; I suspect he will turn some heads, including Carlyle's), he should automatically be in the lineup when the puck drops in October.
A 9-game trial (or whatever is allowed) before he is sent back to junior? Sure, I guess, though I’m not exactly clear what the point of that would be. It would cause a distraction, a daily media countdown, and that strategy would see two veterans (with their noses predictably out of joint) sitting in the press box. That won’t make our “sitting” veteran d-men any more attractive on the trade market, will it? And if Rielly plays well enough in those “trial” games, the Leafs will want him to stay, and then we’re into another vortex of rushed development when there really isn’t a need.
Hey, I could obviously be wrong. Maybe the very best thing for this young man’s development is to play in the NHL right now. I was vehemently opposed to the idea of Reilly being on the squad last season when he was 18. Now, I'm just....opposed.
If you think the time is right for Rielly to make his debut, I’d like to hear the arguments as to why you really feel that would be the case because right now, I’m just not seeing it. But I’m trying to be open-minded. Give me a reason to change my mind…
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