Thanks to the lockout and the fact that there was no NHL action to talk about for almost four months, Toronto Maple Leafs prospects have been analyzed in just about every way possible. Now that hockey will be returning very quickly, players are rushing back to their respective cities to get ready for the start of an abbreviated training camp. One such player is 18-year-old defenseman Morgan Rielly.
Rielly basically came straight from the World Junior Hockey Championship to Toronto and will now hope to earn a roster spot with the Leafs. If not, Rielly will head back to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League and complete his season. Rielly had 28 points in 33 games with the Warriors before heading off to the WJHC, but what is the likelihood of the puck-moving defenseman actually cracking the squad?
Well here are some factors that may determine his fate.
What’s working in his favor
The fear of many NHL general managers and coaches is that an 82-game season can be too tough of a grind for an 18-year-old. This campaign, however, figures to be 48 games, and the possibility of a young player wearing down or hitting a wall is slim. As mentioned earlier, Rielly has already played 33 games in the WHL and a WJHC this year, but that hardly compares to a challenging NHL schedule.
The Leafs thin blueline
As of now Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles, and Carl Gunnarsson are the only returning defenseman from 2011-12. Jake Gardiner would also certainly have a spot if not for his lingering concussion issues. Other than that, Rielly would just have to beat out a couple of Marlies that figure to get a good look. Mike Kostka, Paul Ranger, and Mark Fraser should be in the mix, but unseating someone from this group to make the top seven wouldn’t exactly be a daunting task.
Although Carlyle seems like an old school guy, he isn’t afraid to play young players if they’ve earned it. Look no further than 2010 with the Anaheim Ducks when he kept 18-year-old Cam Fowler on the roster. I’m sure Carlyle would like to have a more experienced option at the moment, but he’s not adverse to giving someone like Rielly a chance.
What’s working against him
Short training camp
With no exhibition games and only a few practices before the start of the season, it’s going to be challenging for Rielly to make an impact so quickly. If in doubt, the Leafs would probably fall back to more stable options that they have at least seen in the AHL or have some NHL experience. With such a short window to prove himself, it’s going to be tough for Rielly to turn enough heads to make the team.
It’s hard not to compare Schenn and Rielly. Both were fifth overall picks and like Schenn, Rielly appears to be ready to play in the NHL. The keyword there being “appears”. Schenn didn’t exactly develop into the dominant player the Leafs had hoped for and it’s hard to say if rushing him to the NHL played a factor. With that being said, it’s not like the Leafs have the best track record of learning from there mistakes.
It probably would make the most sense for the Leafs to take the cautious approach. They finally seem like they have a nice pool of prospects to make them a competitive organization a few years down the line, so risking his development at this point seems foolhardy. However, there is always a chance Rielly could prove everyone wrong and step into the NHL and not miss a beat. There’s always a chance.