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Morgan Rielly: after a Leaf win against Tampa, the ceiling looks awfully high…

If you just looked at the stat sheet from the Leaf win over the visiting Lightning on Tuesday night, it would be easy to conclude the freshman rearguard Morgan Rielly had a bad game.  I say that because the soon-to-be 20 year-old former first round draft choice was a minus 2 on the night, in a game where the Leafs only gave up two goals.

But something I noted (and I’m sure you all did as well) was a simple but eye-popping play that Rielly made with the score tied 2-2, maybe mid-way through the final stanza. The play? Reilly coolly went down to block and intercept a Tampa centering pass headed to the front of the Leaf net.  That was good work in itself, but in a split second, he also somehow managed to not only stop the pass (and a potentially dangerous play) but seemingly was on his feet in a flash, heading up ice at full tilt, leading a Leaf rush going in the other direction.

VLM followers well know my concerns about the whole “rushing” of young defensemen in Leafland.  It’s happened too often in the past.  And I’ve expressed that same reservation about Reilly for the past several months.

The question is not whether he is talented enough to play in the league. He clearly is.  But we’ve all seen moments when Rielly has indeed struggled at times defensively this season, notably in his own end. (In terms of surface statistics, I think he is now a minus 13 on the season.)

But in that one moment, Rielly reinforced for me that he has the potential (there’s that word again) to be a high-end NHL defenseman. 

To be clear, I’m not allowing one stellar play to undo my previous reservations.  Nor am I now suddenly suggesting Rielly will be an All-Star in this league, though he may well be some day.  But I will say this:  not many guys can make that kind of play as effortlessly as he did.  

So when you consider his obvious instincts for the game, and that he clearly is working hard on the defensive side of his game (e.g. trying to eliminate his man more effectively and also win some one-on-one battles), I’m not saying the sky is the limit but the sky may not be that far off, in terms of how good this kid can be.


The game itself?  The Leafs were outshot yet again so they naturally turned to Bernier (also again) and he came up with another big game.  His save on St. Louis in the dying moments was a standout play, obviously, though it was one of those saves where the goalie puts his glove there and if the player shoots into it, he’s a hero.  If the player picks the top corner, it’s a nice goal.  But Bernier deserved star honours in this one.

Leaf supporters are always happy when someone other than the big line scores, and Kadri showed those magic hands on his two second period goals to give the Leafs a 2-0 lead.  Then Bozak showed some tenacity in staying with his forecheck on the winning goal with just four minutes re maining in regulation.  He created the turnover that allowed Kessel to find van Riemsdyk, and the ex-Flyer didn’t miss.

Maybe, just maybe, the comeback in Winnipeg (and a couple of days off) gave the Leafs some jump when they needed it in the third.  In any event, that's two more big points.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Big win, and you have already acknowledged that they were out chanced and out shot. So I won't go into any more detail on it. Stellar goaltending can win you a lot of hockey games. So can some elite goal scoring talent, the Leafs have both of these things.

    On to your assessment of Rielly, I think it is spot on. The big difference that I see in the way that he is being brought along is this. In the past, and a not so distant one with respect to Schenn. Rielly isn't being rushed into a role that he is incapable of playing at this time. He is getting third pair minutes, little to no PK time, and opportunities on the PP. Early in the season he was sitting out his fair share of games as well. This was fine with me as I thought, as you did, that he could go back to Junior with a no harm, no foul kind of attitude. The huge difference to me is, that unlike Schenn and others before him, Morgan isn't expected to play big minutes on the number one or two pairing, kill penalties and shut down the oppositions best players. He is being protected somewhat by the staff, and I give them credit for doing that. Wilson kept shoving minutes and assignments at Luke, after he showed some regression. There was really nowhere to go from there but down. I hope the organization continues to develop Rielly's talent this way. I think we can be very hopeful that this time, it might just work out after all.

    1. Yes, I can live with the approach the Leafs are utilizing with Rielly, Jim. I don't think either of us has an issue with young players who have the ability playing with the big club. It's a question of expectations and proper development. If they work effectively with Reilly, he should be a wonderful player in the years ahead. Thanks Jim.

  2. I feel Rielly is also more likely to make a safe, simple play than Gardiner. He's going to be a good one.
    Tim Gleason has made a difference and I hated to see him down. The way he was holding his arm skating off the ice, it looked like a shoulder injury to me. Hope not C.N.

    1. I'm with you on Reilly, C.N.- the future looks pretty good.

  3. I noticed the Rielly scenario you noted and was thankful for such positives because I didn't feel he was overly responsible for either of the (minus) 2 goals against... I don't recall thinking he was out of place when the pucks went in, just felt badly that he was where he belonged at the time the pucks went in. He seems to be a very level-headed young man who demonstrates a willingness to learn and do whatever is asked of him... good qualities, to be sure!

    I thought it was interesting to see Clara Hughes on the ice wearing the (Ace Bailey) retired number 6 (gold medal count) Leaf Jersey. It was a nice touch but got me to thinking about it 'opening a discussion' about the use of that number. The reason I thought about it was impacted by the recent mention (by Leiweke to his laughing audience) that the Leafs were paying the salaries of Phoenix and Nashville. Of course, Shea Weber wears the number 6, has a salary that has got to be a major pain for the Predators AND would 'fill the bill' of a high profile player to be 'brought in' to much fanfare (like the soccer team just did).

    Another article mentioned that some Olympic-break-cap-hit trade possibilities might bring some cost conscious teams into the mix before the Olympics. The upshot of the article is that a $5M player traded before the break would save just over $400,000 off the bottom line for a team making such a trade for picks/prospects not on the NHL roster.

    I realized Shea Weber is not among players that would bring such a benefit THIS season, because he has a $13 M signing bonus that was already paid out, so there's no savings letting him go now... However, I realized the Leafs could do something interesting in the off season if Weber was acquired BEFORE the next signing bonus was to be paid (probably July 1-ish) with a player like Franson sent back to the team that, reportedly, never wanted to lose him and "future considerations" sent the other way.

    Theoretically, let's say that Clarkson doesn't measure up expectations and welcomes a move (where the cap hit would only be about 500K less than the Weber hit - since Franson's 2M is in the mix). Clarkson has a signing bonus of 3.5M of the 4.5 he's due to earn next season. The Leafs could ostensibly pay the 13 M for Weber AND the 3.5 M for Clarkson. Something like that could be quite attractive to Nashville.

    Of course, there could be other players in the mix, but it just got me thinking about using our financial clout effectively. Sure couldn't hurt to replace Franson with Weber.

    Whether it's the Leafs who pursue such an idea (or not), I'm really curious what will happen with Weber going forward... if it does happen, do you think the Leafs would allow him to wear #6 (a la Ronnie Ellis)?

    Maybe TSN should start hyping a double deadline trade special... I wonder if they need an "Outsider Trading" segment :)

    I think that Nashville would be willing to 're-tool' and unburden themselves

    1. While it may seem difficult to think in terms of Nashville moving Weber, given how much they paid to retain him rather than accept a ton of first round picks from the Flyers (if I remember the scenario that played out), maybe things have changed for the Preds. If Poile thinks they will not make a serious playoff run, would he move their best player for futures? He would seemingly get a very healthy return from any club that was interested, Detroit included, I would guess. Would the Leafs fit that picture? Always interesting speculation, thanks, InTimeFor62.

  4. Rielly is looking more and more to be the real deal we had hoped for. I have been watching and tolerating the occasional turnovers that he and Gardiner have made, reminding myself all along that they are still learning, and they are making progress. To think that Gardiner wasn't even a defenseman until a few years ago and Rielly is only 19 years old. Give them a couple years to solidify their game and hopefully become cornerstones for the future. Okay, maybe I'm waking up this morning full of optimism after a victory, but I think this is a good reminder not to get too hasty and start up the trade rumour mill after a short slump.

    Kessel to me was the best player on the ice last night. In my own observation, he played a great two-way game (for him at least), even looked to get a little physical along the boards. As I watched I was remembering how he was voted the most easily intimidated player in the league a few years ago, and that seemed to fuel opponents into rubbing him out of the play. It doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Anyway, a lot of props to go around I think, Kadri and Bernier of course, but I really liked the team's neutral zone play and ability to create turnovers on the forecheck.

    Let's hope the momentum continues tomorrow. Hopefully Gleason will be back. Carlyle said he doesn't think he'll miss any time.

    1. Kessel did seem to have a bit more of an edge to his game earlier this year at times, and that can only be a good thing. No one is expecting him to be Brendan Shanahan or Gary Roberts, but if he adds even a bit of that dimension, opponents may not be so quick to dismiss him in terms of puck battles, etc.

      And yes, lots of kudos to pass around after the win, including the individuals you cite. Thanks Pete.

  5. Excellent points on Reilly. We have to take the good (wonderful puck moving skills) with the bad (inevitable rookie mistakes) at this point and recognize that he is still very much a work in progress. I commend Carlyle and the coaching staff for their handling of Reilly and Gardiner. I believe that this approach will pay enormous dividends down the road.

    Nonis is to be commended for his trade with Carolina. As much as I liked John-Michael Liles, he was a superfluous piece on this roster. Gleason has provided the grit and shot blocking that we saw from Fraser last season and have sorely missed this season. Gleason has allowed Franson to reassume his more offensive role and also has stabilized the defense pairings. The addition of Gleason has also allowed Gardiner and Rielly to settle into the third pairing role.

    It is gratifying to see Kadri and Lupul start to regain some of the chemistry they exhibited last season. I hope Carlyle keeps the Kadri-Lupul_Kulemin line together and allows them to further gel. They have all the ingredients to be a goal scoring, defensively responsible compliment to the big line.

    It will be interesting and revealing to see how Carlyle handles personnel when Trevor Smith, Clarkson and later Bolland come back. He is going to have to make some hard decisions on whether to keep Holland and Ashton or continue to trot out Orr and McLaren. He has the ingredients for a pretty solid bottom six but at this point I have little confidence that he will utilize all of them.

    1. The one thing we know, Pete Cam, is that Carlyle wants to win very badly. So hopefully that will equal us seeing a game night lineup that includes some youth, speed and sandpaper as needed. Thanks for visiting, Pete.

  6. Jim nailed it for me. I am not big on rushing kids into the NHL and dmen and goalies even moreso than forwards. Most teams overplay the kids because they look good early. Then they start to get ground down from the tough schedules/travel/newnews/better players etc of the NHl. They lose some confidence and they start to struggle almost at the mid point by rule and for sure later in the season. Does that set back their progression or do the learnings over weigh the bad?? I would suggest every player is different.

    In the case of Luke Schenn it can be argued it hurt the player long term badly. Chris Pronger struggled badly as an 18 year old. He was strong enough mentally to overcome. Another example is Seth Jones in Nasvhille this year. He was the best thing since BBQ in Nasvhille for the first 30 games but lately his play has fallen off dramatically.

    I am not the biggest Carlyle fan around but the way he has handled Rielly has been perfect. I wanted Morgan sent down at the start of the year. I was not happy he stayed up. But the more he sheltered him and let him use his strengths (skating, passing, hockey sense offensively) while learning the hard side of the game against other teams 3rd and 4th lines the more I came to think RC has some good sides to his coaching too. Morgan still makes some rookie mistakes of course but being 19 years old you expect that. But you can see how his confidence has grown over the year as opposed to being shattered. He looks better now than the first half of the season. But I fully expect RC will have to sit him for a few games now and again yet this season as a break and for learning and I am ok with that.

    Morgan Rielly has the opportunity to be a Drew Doughty type outstanding dman in this league and I like the path the coaching staff has him on to get there.

    1. Well said, Pep. Those who have followed the commentary at VLM over the years know my views on the Leaf "history" in this regard, and also as it relates to Schenn's poorly handled time here.

      We can all hope Rielly, despite his obvious promise, will not be pushed too far too soon. To this point, I agree that the coaching staff has sheltered his growth nicely. Thanks Pep.

  7. Its great to see the chemistry developing between Lupul and Kadri. It seems like they are starting to just know where the other person will be. Hopefully this continues. I wonder if Kulemin makes it past the trade deadline...If not then perhaps Holland can play on that line.
    I am also really interested in seeing a Bolland/Clarkson/Raymond combo on the 3rd line. In the playoffs especially, I can see this line being very difficult to play against with its nice mix of grit and veteran savvy.

    As for Rielly and Gardiner I think we will just have to be patient and hope that Carlyle can continue to shelter our youngsters. I have been impressed with Rielly this year and I was also blown away by Gardiner's play in that series against Boston.
    Hedman has finally put everything together in this his 5th year. I think he is a great example of the rewards of being patient and slowly developing your defensemen.

  8. The Hedman example is a very fair one, apollo678. We can also look at Tyler Myers in Buffalo. He jumped off the charts so early, it seemed inevitable he would struggle later and he did. I don't follow the Sabres closely enough to know if he has rebounded to his earlier form.

    It takes time for most young defensemen. It just does, which brings us to your word: patience.

  9. JVR-Bozak-Kessel

    * Carlyle has to abandon his commitment to Orr/McLaren....the above 4th line can contribute much more!
    * What a dream it would be to get Shea Weber somehow?? Franson, Gunnerson, prospect for Weber?