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Should the Leafs keep Morgan Rielly with the big club?

Randy Carlyle wants you to stop asking him about Morgan Rielly. This quote by Coach Carlyle comes via Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star:

“Boy, you guys (media) are beating a dead horse,” Carlyle said about all the attention on Rielly. “Look, he skates well, and we’re looking for him to continue doing what he did in junior at the NHL level.”

Well, we might be beating a dead horse, but at least we’re not betting on one.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have 35 players remaining at training camp, and they’re competing for 23 spots. Morgan Rielly is one of those players. Rielly played both preseason games against the Philadelphia Flyers, and performed very well. To these eyes, he looks like an NHL-ready player. But the answer to the question posed in the headline is a little more complicated than simply saying he should be on the team because he looks ready after two preseason games.

As I’m sure you’ve heard close to a zillion times already, Rielly can’t spend this year with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies due to the NHL’s rules regarding 19-year-olds. He either has to play with the Leafs or the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. It probably would have been a perfect scenario for Rielly to get eased into professional hockey by cutting his teeth in the AHL, but unfortunately that won’t be happening this year.

Looking at the Leafs defense, it appears to be a little crowded on the blue line. Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger and John-Michael Liles look like the front-runners for the six main spots right now, and that’s without Cody Franson, who has a top-four spot waiting for him if he ever gets signed to a contract. There’s probably only one more spot available with Franson out of the mix, and we know Rielly won’t be brought in to be a seventh defenseman.

It seems like a battle between Liles and Rielly right now. I see them as very similar players. Liles obviously has much more experience, but I think Rielly can bring a physical game to the table that Liles can’t. It seems doubtful at this point that Dave Nonis will be able to trade Liles and his $3.875-million cap hit. If he gets moved, it’ll probably be in the form of a demotion, but that only saves the Leafs $925,000 in cap space according to the greatest website in existence. It seems Liles will be around for the beginning of the season unless Nonis feels he can get Franson signed with that extra $925,000 coming off the books.

At this point, it looks doubtful Rielly will be sticking around longer than a nine-game stint at the beginning of the season that won’t burn a year on his entry-level contract. If he sticks around longer than that, it probably means the Leafs want him to play a significant role with the team, and it probably means Franson has been traded.

But if that hypothetical scenario comes to fruition, does it still make sense for the Leafs to keep a 19-year-old with the team? What kind of effect will playing in the National Hockey League have on Rielly’s long-term development as a hockey player?

The crystal ball I bought online got lost in the mail, so unfortunately I can’t answer that question definitively. If you look at defensemen who have recently played big roles on their teams as 19-year-olds, you get names like Jonas Brodin, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk, Adam Larsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Cam Fowler, Nick Leddy, Zach Bogosian, Michael Del Zotto, Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Drew Doughty. Dig a little deeper and you get Luca Sbisa, Luke Schenn (oops!), Erik Johnson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jay Bouwmeester. Most of these guys were highly touted prospects who are either all-stars or look like they’ll be all-stars in the future.

That isn’t particularly helpful when trying to figure out if Rielly will have similar success. Rielly fits the bill as a high draft pick and is largely considered one of the best defensive prospects in the game, so at least we know a lot of players who were in his situation and played a lot of games as 19-year-olds ended up being pretty darn good. But each team has different needs and every young player is different. If the Leafs believe Rielly’s positive impact on the team can be significant, they’ll find a way to keep him around. If that ends up happening, I have no reason to believe Rielly won’t end up as a fine NHL hockey player in the long run.

The other factor to consider is how sending Rielly back to Moose Jaw will impact his development. I think it’s pretty clear his talent level exceeds the play of the CHL. He’ll no doubt be expected to fill a leadership role with the Warriors as he would be the star player on a team that wasn’t very good last year. He’ll almost certainly make Team Canada’s entry at the World Junior tournament and be a focal point of that team. Then, if the Warriors continue to struggle, he’ll probably be traded at the deadline to a team making a run at the Memorial Cup. A spot on the Leafs’ blue line will be waiting for him in 2014.

Maybe I’m being biased and a little selfish, but I’d love to see Morgan Rielly in a Leafs uniform for the entire season. But this is a complicated issue with many factors in play. I still think if a young player is ready to play in the NHL and can have a positive impact on your team, you keep him around. Don’t put him back in a situation where he won’t be tested to give maximum effort every night, and I fear that’s what might happen if Rielly goes back to Moose Jaw.

 

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