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Are Leaf fans banking our future too much on Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner?

Some VLM followers may have been away and only just now coming back to see if there is anything "new" here.  With hockey back and training camps officially getting underway, here are some recent posts that you may not have seen:
  • 10 things the Leafs could do for the Leafs with the lockout finally over

For those who may have been anticipating a lengthy post about the Burke press conference on the weekend, I just don’t have the enthusiasm for that.  I saw it, heard it, heard it again.  That era is history, though his imprint will be seen for some time.  I will only say a couple of things.  If you love Burke and feel he can do little wrong (and love his bombastic manner), I’m sure you liked his press conference.

Those who are less inclined to want to have to listen to more of the same old, same old, likely are happy it is the last time we will have to hear well-worn and highly over-used phrases like “no complaints, no excuses”.  (Then going on to say yes, ownership can do what it wants, but that he wasn’t given a satisfactory answer for the timing of the decision.)

Some will see taking a shot at an individual reporter, for example, (when the organization was gracious enough to let him have his day in the sun after he had already been terminated) as gratuitous and unnecessary.  Nor will they applaud Burke’s twice, in answering a question, saying, “That’s not my problem anymore”.

His supporters will say he left with class and grace.  Others will view the departure quite differently.  (That his contract will be as a special advisor to Anselmi and the Board, not hockey operations, speaks volumes.)

With that, for the purposes of VLM, I will aim to leave this chapter in Leaf history behind as best one can when you post as often as I do here about the organization.    I’ll simply say that, having followed this team closely since the late 1950s,  I was much more disappointed when Jim Gregory and Pat Quinn were relieved of their duties as GM in 1979 and 2003, respectively.  They had both built teams that were ultra-competitive every season, and could play consistently with the best teams in hockey.  That wasn’t good enough for ownership at the time.  So I’m not shocked that, after the last four years of non-playoff hockey under Burke, this decision was made by new owners.)

This is, as Burke always said, a results-oriented business, after all.


Before you stop reading this piece and think, “what the heck has Michael got against our two best young defense prospects?”, the answer: is absolutely nothing.  But I just wanted to raise this point today for discussion at VLM.

There is no question both of these young men are fabulous talents.  A lot of us who aren’t on top of the prospect pool rankings knew about Gardiner vaguely but had no idea he could—or would—have the kind of impact he did with the Leafs last season, after the bold move Burke made the season prior to make a deal with Anaheim for Beauchemin.  I don’t need to list all of Gardiner’s attributes.  Those who have seen him play know what I’m talking about.  Suffice to say he has remarkable ‘presence’ on the ice for a young player.  He never (and I don't use words like ”never” very often) seems to get rattled.  In addition to all his skills, he is simply a very poised young player.

Rielly, too, comes with promise galore. While, as I’ve posted here previously, I have zero interest in him being on the big club in a shortened season with a middlish roster that is not a serious contender, I can see the writing on the wall.  The organization wants last summer’s 5th overall pick here sooner than later. I don’t like it, but I get it.  He, too, has all the offensive talent in the world and should be an impact player for years to come.

So who wouldn’t want two (potentially) premier, young defensemen patrolling their blueline for the next decade (or, as that timeline is now conveniently known, the next lockout)?  I sure would.  All things being equal, I’m guessing the Leafs should have both of those guys for the foreseeable future.  And that’s a good thing, for sure.

But there are some sobering considerations when it comes to putting so many of our hopeful eggs into the baskets of these precocious talents.  One is the reality of injuries.  Rielly, as well all know, is still coming off a serious knee injury, if I’m not mistaken.  He has rebounded remarkably well, and looks for all the world like an absolute keeper.  But when you’re 18 and already have a major injury behind you, I can’t help but wonder about challenges he will face at the next level, especially as a rushing defenseman.  Even the best hockey player I’ve ever seen, Bobby Orr—who started his NHL career at 18 after major knee issues in junior hockey in Oshawa—got belted around enough that his knees took a pounding.  His career was over in his 20s.  And Orr was the fastest things on skates in his day, and the best skater, ever.

Of course, we have superb medical technology now, and Rielly may be injury-free for years.  But I raise the point simply as a cautionary note.

For his part, Gardiner is now in the midst of fighting back from what appears to be some kind of neck/head/concussion issue.  That hardly makes him damaged goods, but the reality of NHL hockey nowadays is that every player—given the speed of the game, size of the players and the massive equipment they use—is one hit away from being on the disabled list for long, long time.  And every time you incur another concussion, it seems that players have to stay away from the game longer each time.  Again, every player faces that risk.  It is certainly not unique to Gardiner.  But he already is overcoming one apparently serious injury, too- like Rielly. 

Again, I am saying that we can be enthused, but also wary of assuming they will both be here and healthy for years to come.

But beyond that, which is perhaps of no concern for some Leaf fans, there is another question.  Do we, or will we, have the roster  support necessary to allow these guys to do what they do so well?  Neither Gardiner or Rielly are tiny tots, but then again, neither is exactly a behemoth as a defenseman in the modern-day NHL.  Both are offensively gifted, and both are naturally inclined to do what they are so good at: skating, moving the puck, making plays and being an all-around offensive threat.

That’s important.  But neither player is, or seems destined to be, a shutdown-type defenseman, right?   I mean, if they turn out to be anything like, say, Paul Coffey or Ray Bourque (I realize I’m shooting pretty high here), I think we’d all take that in a second.  We wouldn’t even have to be asked.

But in today’s NHL, you generally also need your top guys to be able to master their own zone.  That means not only making smart plays, chipping the puck out as required, all those little things, but also being strong on the puck, tough in the corners and someone that opposing forwards should fear (a la Pronger) in front of your own net.  I don’t see either Rielly or Gardiner fitting that bill, and that may be just fine.  But then someone, somewhere, has to be  able to eat up huge minutes and play that role some day alongside these guy, right?  Is that player already on the roster, in the system—or available to us? If not, when will they be?

Hey, most of us would be satisfied (who wouldn't be?) if Gardiner was a mini Scott Niedermayer and Rielly was, say, anywhere near Coffey or Bourque.  Niedermayer may have been the most complete defenseman, along with Lidstrom, of the modern (recent) era.  Bourque and Coffee, in those free-wheeling ‘80s (though both their careers stretched like 20 years, into a more defensively-oriented NHL) had their defensive frailties, shall we say.  But those shortcoming were usually masked by their brilliant offensive forays.  Fans accepted their not always being the best or toughest one-on-one defensive defenseman in the world, or not being like Pronger or Scott Stevens, because they were stunningly good in just about every other way.

Bringing it back to the Leafs, that we have these two guys is fantastic.  There is nothing to moan about.  It’s all good, as people like to say.

I’m just trying to remind myself that as promising as these young players are, there are holes in their game that I’ve discussed here before.  I hope we don't rush their progress (as I've posted before, need I invoke the names of other highly talented young Leafs from years gone by-  Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate, Luke Schenn...).  And there needs to be someone to complement Rielly and Gardiner when the time comes—to help them be what they really can be, and to make the Leafs as competitive as we want them to be with the best teams in the NHL.

When a team becomes really good, truly competitive, an actual Cup contender, they need this kind of talent, yes.  The Habs of the ‘70s had three superstar defensemen and a Hall-of-Fame goalie, and still needed solid fourth, fifth and sixth defensemen to win along with exceptionally talented forwards.  No one has that kind of roster talent nowadays, but along with the elite players, you need your role players to be standout role players.  It's a must.

And come playoff time, you need to be ten-deep on defence, because chances are, if you go four rounds, attrition will mean you will be well past your top six. 

So yes, the Leafs have lots of “numbers” at camp - and with the Marlies and in the “system”.  Gardiner and Rielly are certainly blue-chip.  But let’s not stop there.  We have a ways to go before we are one of the big boys in the East.


  1. While I disagree with you about players being sent back to junior (I'm from the camp of if they are good enough then they are good enough) in the case of Rielly I agree he shouldn't even be at camp period. I say you go case by case in these situations and this particular case is screaming keep him away from the Leafs for at least the rest of this year. Coming off a missed year due to a major injury, to a team which is not going to be competitive this year and probably next means he should stay in Junior for at least this year.

    I believe that Rielly in particular has a very good chance of being a very good NHL defenseman. I'm not completely sold on Gardiner. I think he is and will be a good player but for the right deal I would include him in a trade. By right deal I don't mean expensive over thirty goalies. I mean a top center under 24, like a Matt Duschene from Colarado.

    Gardiner is going to be good but I'm not sure about how good. Rielly is a lock to be a superstar for me.

  2. I recall your perspective on 18 year olds in the NHL, Willbur, but I hear what you're saying. And I see your point in this case. As I mentioned in the post, I'd much prefer we have this discussion at training camp in September, at the earliest.

    Gardiner if a very talented guy, too, but I do see areas in his game that need addressing, as I've suggested in this space in the past. I need to see him play tough games against good, physical teams at crunch time.

    Thanks Willbur.

  3. "Are Leaf fans banking our future too much on Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner?"

    Yep, the Leafs lack that blue chip, almost franchise-level young forward prospect. I am talking about a level above Kadri and Colborne. I am thinking about a guy like Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk, who was among point leaders in the OHL and then looked fantastic on the gold winning team USA for the World Juniors. If the Leafs can get a guy like that in this years draft or trade for a true first line center, then the pressure on Gardiner and Riley will be less.

    That being said I am a little bit worried about what I saw from Nonis and Carlyle today. David Broll was not in camp even though they had previously invited him...and he had another 2 points the night before. I really wanted to see him against the veterans. However, Colton Orr was in camp.

    I think Nonis and Carlyle are going to gravitate towards veterans, meaning Conolly, Lombardi and Orr. That might mean they send Kadri back down to the AHL which could be crushing. In my mind, once a young player is at a point a game in the AHL, he's probably ready to make the jump for good.

  4. I certainly understand your concerns, DP. We need experience, yes, but what kind of experience would Orr, Connolly and Lombardi bring? I'm not sure it's the kind of proven, winning leadership we really need or should be looking for.

    As for Kadri, you may remember that I have written often on that subject. If he's not ready by now, after all the yo-yo-ing and fits and starts, then I'm really confused...

  5. Michael,

    I don't see either Rielly or Gardiner for that matter, being ready for prime time minutes against the best players in the league. Not now, not yet. There is nothing wrong with limiting their exposure to those guys. Time will sort this out. They need to get protected minutes in favorable situations. I don't think that taking two gifted offensive players and sticking them on a team learning how to play for a defensive minded coach. One who has a reputation as a hard ass about this, is the best idea. The Leafs have plenty of Left side guys with experience who are in a better position to handle the minutes. Their ceiling for development will be just as high next year. I don't see any reason to continue the tradition of rushing youngsters into the Maple Leafs lineup.

  6. I'm with you Jim- next season will be plenty early for Rielly to get this chance. And Gardiner is here for the long term. Best to utilize those assets wisely! Well said.

  7. Micheal, any good team needs balance on it's lines, as it does on it's defence pairings. Each team needs one or two puck-moving defencemen with some offensive skills. Similarly they need some stay-at-home defencemen who can handle the tougher jobs like clearing people from in front of the neat, and muscling in the corners with the power forwards.

    Gardiner is young but has tremendous skills and a maturity beyond his age. He may not make the best decisions ALL the time, but he still qualifies as a top-4 defenseman on most any NHL team. He will get better and better as time goes on. He's not small at 6'2" but could easily put on some more weight or muscle. Even at his current size he doesn't get over-powered by the opposition. To be honest, he makes Coffey and Orr look rather weak defensively.

    But as I implied earlier, it is all about defense pairings. If you have a swift talented puck-moving defenseman, he can be even more effective if you pair him with a quality stay-at-home defenseman who has size and muscle. In turn, when you have a young talented defenseman, often you need to pair him with an experienced defenseman to learn from (or to cover him when he makes the odd mistake).

    Reilly as you have correctly noted, needs to go back to juniors, and needs some maturing. His offensive talent and speed probably surpasses Gardiner, but he is still learning to play sound defense, and especially against the size and talent in the NHL or AHL. I'm not really sure I want to see him in a Leaf uniform next year either, but his talent may just be too much to hold back.

    When the Leafs first acquired Liles, they desperately needed a puck-moving defenseman, especially with Kaberle's skills declining. In came John-Michael Liles. Most would agree that Liles has lots of offensive talent, and can move the puck well, but lacks size and has troubles moving bodies in the defensive zone. Once Gardiner appeared on the scene, the need for Liles has diminished. For that reason I question Burke signing Liles to a 4-year deal when a 1 or 2 year deal would have sufficed. Now with Reilly's stock on the rise, Liles' value to the team may be more in the form of a trading piece.

    With Reilly being a bit smaller, he too needs a quality stay-at-home defenseman to play alongside.

  8. Balance on the lines/pairings is huge, I agree, Don (TML_fan).

    I like both players a lot. Nothing not to like, as they say. At the same time, I hope they don't rush Rielly unnecessarily and that Gardiner continues to develop his all-around game. I'm maybe not quite as high as you are on Gardiner's defensive prowess, but I'm happy to wait and see how he plays against tough forwards in big match-ups in the months (and years) ahead. He's a cool customer, so he should be fine.

  9. I'm all for being deliberate and patient with both of these young defensemen. As we have discussed before, keeping Rielly in juniors this year would be best for him. I don't have a problem with him being in Leafs training camp, only because I think the experience will be good for him, getting a little exposure and a sense of what he needs to do to make the team when the time is right.

    Gardiner is already here, and has in fact proven he belongs in my opinion. I think that is what was most surprising about him last year. Not that he played at a high level, but that he kept good composure after being thrown unexpectedly to the wolves. That has helped in proving his rare talent.

    I for one am also comfortable with Gardiner's defensive play. No he will never be an Orr or Coffey offensively, but I do believe his puck moving skills and offensive prowess is enough to overcome an average defensive game. On a comparison level, I see him as having stronger potential than Kaberle, and he had quite a few positive years here before the whole team drifted south.

  10. Like you, Pete, I don't see Gardiner as a "prospect". He is already a Leaf. He was only with the Marlies because of the lockout.

    No one will be Orr, for sure, at either end of the ice, but Gardiner can be a new and improved Kabby, who I liked in his hey-day (but was riddled, as we all know, with defensive issues in his own zone, including in front of his own net...)

    Composure is indeed the word with Gardiner.

    Solid stuff, thanks as always, Pete.

  11. Hey Michael, Anonymous from Scarborough is back.

    I can honestly say I have no detailed idea about the big shutdown guys in this system but i have heard these names being tossed around - what do u think? Give ur opinion on them.

    Holzer? Blacker? Finn?

    Aulie could have been one - lol - just from that epic #hartnelldown in philly in 10-11.

    Perhaps there is a great unknown in the future of the leafs through the draft or trade.

    Seth Jones?

    And on a slight diversion - what do u make of Percy?

    And a bigger diversion - wouldn't we all like to draft McDavid in 2-3 yrs time - whenever he is eligible or a Lucic like player (probably a center) that we could grow in our own system.

    I really envie Anahiem in that aspect they got some of the best forwards in the league through the draft but couldn't really bring a growing team together for them to become a yearly threat like the wings.

  12. It strikes me, Scarborough Anon, that it's a stretch to hope that Holzer can be a shutdown guy. Good defenseman but I don't know what his ceiling is at the NHL level.

    I liked Aulie and hated to see him go, though we'll see if Ashton tips the scales in our favour, eh?
    theough we'll see if Ashton tips the scales in our favour, eh?

    I'm not knowledgeable enough on the kids in the system to comment thoughtfully on Percy or Finn. I have seen Blacker but for a really good assessment, the recent Leaf Matters podcast with Curt from Blue Chip Prospects gives a very solid breakdown of those young defensemen in our system.

  13. Well Michael, all i can think now is definetely ship-out the ending contracts out of toronto for picks - If the leafs stink this year.

    I hope the leafs draft smart and find those gems in the later rounds and pick the right prospects in the first two - no more tyler biggs plz.

    Any chance any of those toronto area young guys currently around the NHL or soon to be - would wanna play here.

    Or are we the loser and not desireable - as in - no leaf fans in the league.

    I think we need more passionate players, who embrase this city and team, feel it is theirs, i want a team fan to be a future star, but doubt that will ever happen.

  14. Both are good observations, Anon. Every team strives to find those hidden gems in the lower rounds. The Leafs did with Tomas Kaberle way back when. It happens, but not always often enough.

    And yes, it would be great if we could attract young, elite-level UFA's to play here. You'd think guys would want to play in Toronto, but we can't seem to attract those kinds of UFA's. Maybe next summer- we can keep hoping!

  15. That is true Kaberle in his hay days was a real find.

    You the last real leaf fan that played on the team - Mats Sundin. I think i need not say more about that.

    Anon from Scarborough