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Does/should Morgan Rielly make this Maple Leaf team?

With training camp just days away, on paper, there aren’t a lot of spots up for grabs in the Maple Leaf lineup.  In truth, are there any?  Oh, coaches almost always say there will be competition for jobs, but that’s not really true in a lot of cases.  And this year, there just aren’t roster spots available in the Leaf lineup.

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…


Please note we have updated the VLM site to include two ways to purchase my new eBook, “The Maple Leafs of My Youth: what being a Leaf fan means to me”.  It's available on Apple iPads (iBooks/iTunes) now, and we hope it will be out on other platforms later this month. We’ll keep you posted.  For now, iPad users can check out the top of VLM’s front page and click on “Michael’s new eBook”.  That will take you to the iTunes book preview page.  You can also go to the right-hand side of the front page and click on the book cover icon under “The Maple Leafs of My Youth”.  


  1. Well, hell, I'll chip in though I'm even more ignorant than in general hockey matters when it comes to the dark arts of NHL defensemen.

    I'm going to make some assumptions:
    1) Franson doesn't sign
    2) It doesn't matter which side they go (and anyway, lists them all as left shots)
    3) Neither Carlyle nor Nonis have a master plan for what to do with Liles

    With those in the bag, the "could he?" question looks pretty straightforward to me: absolutely. If Phaneuf and Gunnar pair up again, I could see Ranger being considered a great partner for Gardiner. That would leave Rielly to play alongside Fraser, a nice stay-at-home pairing to fill in the small minutes on game night. Liles sits dazedly on the sideline wondering where it all went wrong...

    You're right in asking the "should he?" question as well though, Michael. In some ways, you'd have to hope Carlyle would be a bit disappointed if one of the older prospects didn't present at least a compelling enough case for them to give Rielly more time (Blacker, Percy, Finn, Granberg I'm looking at you).

    The fulcrum upon which this decision sits however, might be the fact that another year in the WHL could be counter-productive to the kid.
    And that will be all the excuse they need if no one else shows up to camp.

  2. As you note, KiwiLeaf, Rielly is certainly not the only young defense prospect that is shooting for a chance to make the big club. It just feels as though he is the most likely to get the nod if they look to "go young" once the new season gets underway.

    A pairing with Fraser would be interesting, yes...

  3. Conventional thinking has always been to slowly develop a players by slow integration rather throwing them in the league at such a young age. We often hear of situations where the player's development has gone poorly when rushed and the Leafs' history is full of such incidences and in this situation, there really is no reason to put him in such high risk scenario. The argument is that he is already ready to play in the league. This is really speculation and even delusion Leafs fan have to admit he is no Crosbyesque type. With the Leafs D already in decent shape and not that Reilly can singlehandedly make them a championship caliber team, the risk of losing this blue chip to poor player management is really not worth the risk. We've all seen player regress and never hear from them again. I have yet heard of scenario that, "they over developed him in the farm"

    As much as people have dumped on Liles for his recent cap hit+play, he is by no mean a poor defencemen and more than anything warrant more games to get himself back into the level of performance he is capable of and we should at least let him attempt to do that. As much as he is on the out figuratively, he cannot be traded without the return that would not of a distinct advantage. His status really allow the leafs to be more flexible in terms of personnel decisions when injuries and poor play will ultimately creep in during the full season. All that saying is much better option when all considering.

    On to this 9 games option. In viewing the Inlanders' recent drafting history, I noticed that their draftees often have played at least a game or two in the NHL. Compares to other teams in the league, they have always exposed their players to some NHL experience. Their team performance year in and year out speaks for itself.

    All in all, I just don't see the upside of having Reilly joining the team so early and only see what can go wrong by doing so.

    1. Very fair comment, Lukas. On the Liles issue, I'm certainly with you, especially in the sense that he has zero trade value right now. The only way to enhance how other organizations see him is to play him and if he is solid, that only helps the Leafs' cause.

      I know others will disagree with us, but I wanted to put the Rielly issue out there for discussion purposes. Thanks Lukas, good stuff.

  4. No, give him a look, but give him the chance to see if he can dominate at the World Juniors and win a gold.

    Postphone the real decision until January. I highly doubt and extra 3 months in the juniors would hurt his development.

    If you have injuries and Liles has been traded to free up a spot...then maybe you put him in. But in terms of cap management it's better to wait longer and burn a year of contract when he is older and can play with more impact for a full year.

  5. Thanks DP- if the feeling is he is 'ready' now, he should really hit the ground running a year from now...

  6. Watching a few of the Leaf's rookie tournament games I would not have said Reilly stood out as the top D in camp, and therefore would not be at the top of my list players likely to crack the big league club.
    For that reason my answer is that he should not make the Leaf's team this year. It would have nothing to do with what is happening with Liles or Franson. It would be purely based not on having earned it.
    Then again, this could all change if Rielly has an awesome Leaf's camp - then he might stick around for the maximum no. of games before being returned to junior, but I'd hope he earns it rather than being given it because of his high draft position.

    1. If I had to guess, Rielly will be more motivated at the main camp than he would be by rookie tournament. You raise a good point about draft position; sometimes that seems to influence organizations. Guys with 'status' get a much longer look. But draft history aside, he's a young man that appears to be highly motivated, to say the least.

      If Franson does sign, I'm just not sure where Rielly fits. We'll see soon enough. Thanks Steve.

  7. If you keep him in the NHL, put him on the 2nd pairing with Gunnar, and move Gardiner to the 1st with Phaneuf.

    The idea of a checker and a passer on every d-pairing is nice, but why not have as much talent as possible and force the play. Skilled, speedy defencemen like Gardiner and Reilly don't need to take and deliver frequent hits because they are skilled and fast enough to rely on takeways, and agile enough to avoid taking hits, generally.

    This is all IF he stays, I think it is better if he doesn't.

    1. Thanks for chiming in today, Anon. I'm not of the view that it is overkill (because they are both offensive-minded) to have Rielly and Gardiner on the same team. Exactly how they would be deployed, I don't know. Your suggestion certainly makes sense. Gardiner can handle lots of ice time, as we know Phaneuf can. In theory, Gunner is a steady, defensive-minded veteran presence who could help Rielly.

      I'd still prefer Rielly bake a little longer at the junior level, but your pairings make sense if we get to that point.

  8. Even if Liles is serendipitously found on another team at the start of the season, I think it is still a good year for Morgan to 'consolidate' both his strengthening/physical maturation and establish his defensive play beyond all doubt.

    Time in the WHL, with a World Championship does not preclude a late spring (emergency?) call-up for 9 games (should we run into injury trouble and feel nobody from the farm is able to step in, either). Could provide excellent motivation for a young player, who could still head down to the Marlies for the end of the season (if the Warriors fall short of the playoffs again).

    He could get 30 pro games onto his resume in this manner and NOT blow off his entry level contract (spreading out the cap effectiveness for the following 3 years). This would position the team to have a real shot at the cup with an excellent young player on an entry level contract primed for a cup run over 3 seasons (following this one).

    We have far too many older players ready for a look (not the least of which is the Right-handed Blacker - especially if Franson isn't signed in time). The carrot for Rielly should be the end of WHL season call up (perhaps to the AHL first, then 9 games NHL, then back to the A for the playoffs, if not longer like my first suggestion).

    Respecting the serendipitous departure of Liles... I think Burke still likes what he brings, so Calgary is a possibility. However, the Hurricanes only have 6 D under contract. If we retained 500k, then I think we could still get a decent draft pick in return by the end of training camp, if Liles shows his pre-concussion form. By then, the trade list might grow with possible injuries to other D-men.

    Hope Morgan plays well and has a good series of motivational possibilities that bring us a well-seasoned young player who has grown into a man's game...

    1. I really don't have a clue how Carlyle is leaning on this one, InTimeFor62. Numbers suggest there's no room for the talented rookie, but if he has a strong camp, will they make room?

      I prefer the scenario that you outlined above, but if the brass wants him here, that changes everything.

    2. Good thinking in this post.

      I love the thought of Brian Burke being our saviour here in getting Liles off the books but...

      A) He knows better than anyone how removing Liles from the Leafs roster arguably strengthens our position to sign better players and improve ourselves so why would he? And...

      B) Surely if he asked the Leafs to retain some salary he's as good as saying he made a mistake in signing Liles for so much. Maybe his ego is too pronounced in his decision making for that.

  9. Like you, Michael, I've seen an awful lot of teenaged defencemen pulled straight onto the Leafs. Not sure I can remember a case where it worked out well for the player, or the team. Here's the list over the last 50 years or so, with Schenn being the last. After the fact, we tend to blame these young guys for the bad habits and maladaptations they develop, when the fact is, they're not fully grown into their bodies. Sure, he may be "big enough." But you start over-reaching, finding short-cuts, etc. when if they'd just wait a year or two, he'd add the muscle mass, get the coordination and full range down, and be much happier "playing within himself." When I think of the wreckage of Nylund and all the others, it still makes me cringe.

    1. Good to hear from you, not norm. Like you, I shudder at the memory of force-feeding Gary Nylund into our lineup back in the early '80s. Some will say that's irrelevant because the hockey world is different now. But as you cited, we did the very same thing with Luke Schenn (though at least he did not suffer near career-ending injuries, as Nylund did) just a few years ago in this more "enlightened" age. All that did was, ultimately, hammer a potentially good young player's confidence, and then fans crapped all over him.

      As you suggest, there are different aspects of being fully, including physically, ready. Rielly may be "ready', but not ready. Thanks not norm.

    2. Thanks for all the great posts over the years Michael. Your insights and ability to question and begin debate around our favourite team is appreciated!

      Shortened URL for not norm

  10. This is so refreshing after reading several very negative Leaf stories and (rather brutal) fan posts on TSN. Very well done, everyone!